OPINION: Why hard conversations are important & necessary
"We've become a society of trending topics. Diversity is not a trending topic, it's just not", Viola Davis said at the Screen Actors Guild Awards (SAG awards) earlier this year. "All of the actors of colour I know don't place any limitations on themselves either so regardless what is going on with the Academy, what is going on with Hollywood, they will find a way to be excellent. We always have and we always will".
That 'we' that has 'always' had to find ways to succeed is incredibly telling, as Davis points out that actors of colour have had successful careers in spite of the way the film industry is set up, not because of it. This phenomenon is ongoing, and replicated in so many other spaces.
Davis could easily have been speaking about race posts that have swept through social media in South Africa, or about sexism in office spaces. Her words are amplified in every space where people have had to carve out room for themselves, in spaces crowded by people who don't look like them. These conversations, as she points out, are not trending topics, they have always have been here - whether taking the form of subtle undertones and subtexts, or overt bigotry. This is about the way people have lived for centuries. About the way they live right now.
As we continue to have uncomfortable conversations that pull at the very core of our beliefs, it is important for us to think about how we speak about things, and the kinds of change that we advocate for. Often the solution is framed as just adding more unrepresented groups into spaces where they have previously been systematically excluded.
In a masterful essay for Buzzfeed, cultural editor and award-winning poet Saeed Jones writes about the experience of being one of the exceptions in the literary world: let into spaces where black people have been excluded for centuries. It is a brave, searing indictment on how literary societies operate, that echoes beyond it. He writes: "Racism doesn't vanish the moment we set foot into the ivory towers and glittering soirees of the literati.' Or anywhere else.
What Jones points out is both that we have to do more than pointing out the exceptions - people who are able to find ways to succeed in spite of everything that they are up against, as Davis points out. Additionally, we can't simply think that adding a sprinkling of diverse people is simply going to solve the problem or do enough to change centuries of exclusion. If the structures remain the same, it is business as usual - while the class photo simply looks a little different.
Women's magazines in South Africa are continuing to get more 'diverse', with more models of colour used and stories about our lives populate the pages. While this is an important step, it is equally important for it not to be about mining people of colour for content and trends, while the mastheads and publication houses remain unchanged. It is incredibly telling that the local versions of international women's magazines are not headed up by a single black women, in a country where they make up the primary consumer audience.
As Jones points out, it's no longer about being 'grateful to just be' a part of these spaces - an experience that is often punctuated by 'grateful and angry, proud and humiliated' at the same time. It is not enough while it is visible how differently you are treated, and you remain aware of the many people who can't get through the gates - because there are just a few spots open against a lily-white backdrop.
Conversations about diversity and oppression in all its forms are shaking the foundations of the world we live in. They are getting louder as people demand to be both seen and heard in environments that make them feel like the protagonist in Ralph Ellison's novel The Invisible Man. The things we have been taught to be 'true' and ways that we think and speak are being critiqued and prodded. It can sometimes feel as if our very insides are being pulled apart. This discomfort is necessary, even as it remains disconcerting. There is no blueprint for building this society, we are learning and unlearning ways to realise it as we attempt to achieve it.
As Jones told _ The Advocate_, his words echoed by Davis's statements at the SAG Awards: "I think when I talk to some people, they do seem to act as if concerns about race and diversity are some kind of trend that just has to be weathered and eventually it will go away and things will go back to normal," he says. "I don't want them to go back to normal. These conversations are difficult and nuanced and thorny, and my hope is that we keep having it and it leads to substantive changes."
Our 'normal' is not perfect or unproblematic, and it will continue to be destabilised by difficult conversations. It must be.
Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She is currently an assistant researcher at Mistra and a member of Feminist Stokvel. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which often includes making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler
Images courtesy of Tarryn Hatchett.