Diversity initiatives don’t work, they just make things worse: the ideological function of diversity in the cultural industries

by Anamik Saha  edited by Yasmin Gunaratnam

Dev Patel might have won the award for Best Supporting Actor (that’s Dev Patel and not Riz Ahmed, Burberry), but when the nominees for the 2017 BAFTA Awards were announced, the lack of racial (and class) diversity amongst the nominees felt wearingly inevitable. What is more troubling is how this happened yet again despite organisations across the cultural industries in the US and UK recognising that they are failing those racialised as ‘minorities’. There is marginalisation in terms of their portrayal in the media – when not rendered invisible, people of colour are demonised, mocked, exoticised and dehumanised – but also in terms of labour, with minorities struggling to get access to the media in the first instance, and then leaving at a faster rate than they join. As such, many media organisations, large and small, have implemented a range of diversity initiatives, including setting targets for recruitment, access schemes, training opportunities and even ring-fenced money for minority productions.

screen-shot-2017-02-16-at-12-00-10Diversity initiatives in various forms have been established for decades now, yet very little changes in terms of the representation either onscreen or offscreen. Why is this the case? Is it because such initiatives are not being properly implemented? Do they represent nothing more than a form of lip service, a tokenistic gesture? Is it the case that diversity has become a money-making industry in itself, with diversity practitioners facing a strange paradox where the purpose of their job is make their role redundant? Or is it, as I argue here, because diversity initiatives in fact serve an ideological function. They are a way of managing the demands for equality while keeping racial hierarchies intact.


Diversity initiatives in the cultural industries rest on two (problematic) assumptions. The first is that increasing the number of minorities in the cultural industries will automatically improve the quality and range of representations. The second is what Herman Gray (2016) calls the ‘representation and demography’ approach, and the assumption that representation in both the workplace and media content is fixed upon attaining demographic parity: if the population of ethnic minorities nationally is 12.5% then this should be reflected in the number of minorities in the creative workforce as well as media output.

Both these assumptions fail to recognise the issue of the complexity of representational politics and the entrenched nature of racial ideologies in the media. It is all very well if 12.5% of all media content features minorities but what if those representations are incidental parts and/or reduce minorities to the usual racial and ethnic tropes? Rejecting the parity argument, Herman Gray (2016: 246) calls for us to focus less on numbers and more on ‘the assumptions, micropractices, social relations, and power dynamics that define our collective cultural common sense about the nature of social difference and the practices of inequality’. What Gray is arguing, as I do, is that diversity management in the media industries is a process of race-making. Rather than diversity referring to an objective measure, it needs to be understood as a practice that manages race in a way that sustains existing power relations. It is in this regard that the narrative around diversity in the cultural industries serves an ideological function. It does this in two ways.

Firstly, diversity initiatives in the media reproduce the whiteness of media institutions, in terms of personnel, and how this shapes media output, not least the representation of minorities. Critical race studies of the news media in particular have shown how the industry is hegemonically white, producing news through a Eurocentric frame that preserves whiteness. In the context of the newsroom, whiteness operates by having the power to set the terms of access and equality. It has the power to frame the issue of race (for instance through using the term ‘BAME’ for those of colour), and the discretion to admit these journalists to the profession through diversity initiatives. As Gwenyth Mellinger (2003) puts it, this allows white identity to continually, if silently, reinscribe itself and its media even as the diversity initiative pursues an explicitly inclusive end. Mellinger believes that recruitment and retention discourses, which purport to promote inclusion are in fact technologies of exclusion. Once journalists of colour are inside an institution, rather than being encouraged to provide their own viewpoints or develop their own work practices, they are instead required to conform to existing work cultures, to not rock the boat or be a disruptive presence. So while there might be more minorities in the workforce, they have little impact upon, in this case, the nature of the news produced. As a black journalist in one study puts it, ‘If you get writing for a white newspaper for long enough, you start to write and even think in a white voice’ (Drew, 2011: 363).

Mellinger suggests that diversity initiatives effectively advance the commodification of those who are “othered” by whiteness; minority journalists are objectified as a commodity to be pursued. In other words, diversity initiatives transform race into a commodity. This is also an argument made by critical legal theorist Nancy Leong (2013) who sees the commodification of Otherness as a characteristic of ‘racial capitalism’. Leong (2013: 2190) coins the term ‘racial capital’ as ‘the economic and social value derived from an individual’s racial identity, whether by that individual, by other individuals, or by institutions’. Racial capitalism then involves the process of deriving social and economic value from the racial identity of another. So within diversity discourse, race holds value, though one that is extracted mostly by white institutions. This is clearly illustrated when businesses or education institutions use people of colour in promotional material as a recruiting tool. (On a personal note, when I was a student three separate images of myself once featured in a single university prospectus – needless to say, I was much thinner back then.)

Bare Lit 2016 by Wasi Daniju

Bare Lit festival 2016 by Wasi Daniju

One of the most troubling outcomes of the commodification of diversity, as Leong outlines, is that it pressures individuals into performing their otherness in a way that meets with the approval of the dominant culture. As an example, in my research on British Asian theatre practitioners, my respondents would describe how they have to present their ‘diversity’ in a somewhat exaggerated, or at least assertive way in order to qualify for the money the Arts Council have ring-fenced specifically for ‘culturally diverse’ theatre companies. This is how diversity initiatives make race. It is despite, or indeed, because of diversity initiatives that representations of racialised minorities continue to be reduced to a handful of recognisable tropes, with little variation. As Gray puts it, ‘diversity is a technology of power, a means of managing the very difference it expresses’ (Gray, 2016: 242).

So this being the case, how to engage with diversity in a more radical fashion? Mellinger suggests that in order to challenge the reproduction of whiteness that diversity initiatives produce, efforts should be focused on supporting alternative media made by and for minorities – what Nancy Fraser (1990) calls ‘subaltern counterpublics’. I agree with this to an extent, but I am also fearful that such a strategy will not solve the problem of ghettoisation that blights alternative ‘ethnic media’. As I argue in my new book, the power of corporate media is not just wielded through its ability to dominate markets through sheer clout, but also by setting the standards – whether aesthetic or bureaucratic – that alternative media then find themselves adopting. Minority-owned media do not always produce the radical depictions of race and ethnicity that we might expect or hope for.

Instead, building on Mellinger’s argument, I draw from Georgina Born’s (2012: 137-9) model for a reformed public service media. Born outlines a media system consisting of multiple overlapping publics, that includes subaltern counterpublics but also a transformed core that is more inclusive towards minorities. To do this we need to reject the idea that the problem of diversity in the media is solved by gaining demographic parity. The goal should not just be hitting that magic number of minorities in an organisation, but striving for a more diverse range of representation (while recognising the ambivalent, complex and contradictory nature of representation itself). As such policy should be focusing on removing blockages to access, and opening up representational practices and creativity. We need to couple a politics of representation with a politics of production.

Media Diversified Experts Directory launch by Wasi Daniju

Media Diversified Experts Directory launch by Wasi Daniju

This entails structural strategies, such us breaking up media concentration and facilitating independent production that (in theory at least) provides more autonomous spaces for people of colour, and supporting public service media that (in theory at least) provides a buffer from market forces. It also entails strategies focused on the creative process, based on exposing the points in production where people of colour are hindered. While granting cultural producers a relative amount of autonomy to produce their art, dealing with a highly unpredictable market means that media organisations tend to use tight forms of control at the promotion and distribution stages of production — packaging and marketing cultural commodities in a highly regulated way according to set formats that have been known to work in the past. This is where minority producers suffer. Seen as a riskier investment in the first place, minorities feel this tight control more acutely than their white counterparts. As such radical diversity strategies would focus on loosening control at key parts of the production process. This would entail creating an environment where we are allowed to fail, and understanding that when we do, it is not because of race, or because (white) audiences are alienated by our work, but because of the fundamental unpredictability of the market.

Rather than see diversity as an object that can be measured and quantified, diversity in the cultural industries needs to be understood as a practice that makes and shapes race, in terms of the management of racialised bodies and with regard to representation. Diversity in other words, acts a discourse that structures the understanding and the experience of race in the cultural industries. To counter this, we need to reconceptualise and reformulate diversity initiatives in a way that is less focused on numbers. We need to concentrate on opening up representational practices that ease the constraints of production and the tight control that inhibits creative practice and storytelling. A radical diversity is not just about hitting the jackpot of demographic parity, but instead demands attention to how inequalities are produced and need to be challenged at both the structural and symbolic levels.

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Dr Anamik Saha is a lecturer and co-convenor of the MA in Race, Media and Social Justice in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. His new book Race and the Cultural Industries (Polity Press) is due to be published in late 2017. Follow him on Twitter at @Anamik1977.


6 replies

  1. Using race as a commodity is true and happens a lot. Diversity can be just an ideology to some. It happens a lot and there isn’t enough control and production from an ethnic perspective.


  2. Great article and on point. Not sure I totally agree with the ‘subaltern counterpublics ‘ solution as the root of the problems such as institutional racism still need to be tackled


  3. Great piece. The main problem with diversity is the person of colour stopping/Hindering the opportunity of other people of colour. Why do we need a diversity Officer in CH4? That job should be 6 months max, I can show you how to increase diversity in less then 6 months.


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