Diversity is not skin-deep

Reading this story on Quartz, I almost thought the writer, Pooja Makhijani, was talking about real issues. Issues like the greying population, the government’s ongoing attempts to leverage Big Data for its ends, the future of political expression in Singapore, a vulnerable economy dependent on maritime entrepôt trade and imports. Instead, the author spoke about lack of racial diversity in local literature, leading into Chinese privilege.

I would recommend Ms Makhijani hie herself to different libraries and bookstores and look more closely. If she cares for South Asian protagonists, she can look for  A Candle or the Sun and Moonrise, Sunset by Gopal Baratham, as well as the Inspector Singh series by Shamini Flint. Alfian Sa’at’s Malay Sketches and Isa Kamari’s One Earth capture stories from the Malay community, and Rex Shelley won fame for writing about Eurasians. Michael Chiang’s Army Daze has a multiracial cast of characters, while The Steampowered Globe has characters from different races and nationalities, and Stella Kon’s Star Sapphire posits a future in which humanity becomes so racially intermingled that from a human perspective the only races of note are humans and other extraterrestrials. If Makhijani insists on children’s stories, she will find bountiful material in Singapore Children’s Favorite StoriesThere was a Peranakan Woman Who Lived In a Shoe, and tales of the Singapore Bookworm Gang. And these are just the stories written in English.

Talking about ‘Chinese privilege’ in Singapore literature is clearly a non-starter. But let’s go deeper and explore racial representation — or, indeed, anything that falls under the popular liberal progressive use of ‘diversity’.

Take a society where people are judged by their deeds, not their skin colour. The content of their hearts, not the cultural baggage ascribed to their race. The willingness to work with other people in the present, not however much their long-dead ancestors have been oppressed or have oppressed others. In this hypothetical society, the good will rise and the mediocre will sink. In such a society, race is merely an accident of birth — mostly irrelevant to day-to-day matters.

Now take another society where the worthiness of institutions, works of art, organisations and causes are judged by their commitment to racial diversity. One where the important thing is that alleged minorities are properly represented. Such a society would naturally prioritise ‘diversity’ over character. Such a society would, by nature, be racist.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary says racism is:

Any action, practice, or belief that reflects the racial worldview—the ideology that humans are divided into separate and exclusive biological entities called “races,” that there is a causal link between inherited physical traits and traits of personality, intellect, morality, and other cultural behavioral features, and that some “races” are innately superior to others.

The focus on Chinese privilege reflects the belief that there are separate and exclusive biological entities called ‘races’, of which ‘Chinese’ is one such race, that the Chinese race possesses inherent traits that elevate them above other races, and that this is undesirable. By tacking on the undesirability of ‘privilege’, it becomes socially acceptable to be racist.

By focusing on Chinese privilege, Makhijani is displaying her racism. By lamenting the lack of ‘brown faces’, she implies a believe that there is a race defined by brown skin coloration with innate traits distinct from other people, which means she is a racist. By judging a country by its racial makeup, and its body of literature by the skin colour of protagonists, she has demonstrated herself as a racist.

As shown above, racism is not simply about treating a race better than or equal to other races. It is about believing that race itself has a kind of value and judging people and organisations on that basis. That Makhijani’s racism happens to fall under the subcategory of reverse racism — one that is aimed against an allegedly superior race — makes her no less a racist than someone who sings the praises of or criticises people of a specific race. Instead of talking of specific achievements, actions, standards, anything that can be held up to standards, Makhijani is choosing the easy approach, judging people by the colour of their skin and not their actions.

As a writer, the word ‘diversity’ has always stuck in my craw. ‘Diversity’, in my experience, is simply reverse racism or reverse bigotry. It means elevating works solely because their characters happen to be the oppressed minority of the day, that stories are predominantly about hammering home the politically correct message du jour, and that everything else from craft to plot to characterisation to world-building mean little to nothing at all. To celebrate the ‘diversity’ of innate unchangeable traits — gender, race, sexuality — is to praise superficiality and treat people as little more than products of their genes and history instead of living, breathing, people. What matters is diversity of experience. Of character. Of the choices and divergences that spin into seven billion life paths, that things that truly make every person an individual.

If you take a collection of straight Chinese male physicists and insert a transgender Malay female physicist, you’re still getting a bunch of physicists, with no indication that any one of them is able to think outside the standard model and uncover the data that will reconcile classical and quantum mechanics. Chances are good that all you are getting are people who think in similar ways, and indeed the liberals and progressives I have seen talk a good game about ‘diversity’ and seemingly march in lockstep, and descend on nonconformists and critics like harpies.  True diversity is to insert a home-schooled savant, a Catholic priest, a New Age philosopher, someone whose choices and experiences lead them to view the world in a different light.  It is this, the cross-fertilisation of fields and the ability to bring multiple seeming disparate areas of expertise together, that lead to creativity, industry and the progress of humanity. Diversity of experience, not diversity of race or gender or anything but that which is relevant.

In closing, as a writer, it would be remiss of me to mention my own stories. First, let me describe them by Ms Makhijani’s metrics:

In November, an independent publishing house will be publishing a short story I wrote, which features a female Caucasian and a male of indeterminate racial origin. American Sons stars a white-Hispanic protagonist. My upcoming novel Keepers of the Flame has another white-Hispanic protagonist, and other main characters include a Hispanic, a Japanese female, a black man, two Chinese males, a white man, and a non-human being. I have recently completed another short story, featuring a protagonist of Sanskrit descent, and if this works out other characters will include a representative range of human and non-human entities. Yet another story features a gender-indeterminate/currently-female protagonist collaborating with a Brazilian, a Caucasian, and an Arab. My Singaporean stories include two Chinese males, a Chinese woman, an Indian woman, and divine and infernal creatures from Abrahamic, Norse, Hindu and Buddhist traditions. After I complete the American Heirs series, the next flagship series will star humans, a svartalf, werewolves, a dragon and other creatures.

By these descriptions alone, I have hit just about every diversity marker of the day. But I have also told you absolutely nothing about the stories themselves — often, not even the titles. So let’s try again:

In November, an independent publishing house will be publishing a short story I wrote about a dogged journalist interviewing a shell-shocked soldier accused of war crimes in the middle of an undeclared conflict zone. American Sons tells the story of Master Sergeant Christopher Miller’s race to stop a terrorist organisation from destroying the Republic of Cascadia, the last bastion of civilisation in North America. Keepers of the Flame shows the conflict expanding across the continent, with the Republic of Cascadia trying to fight an emergent terrorist threat, a new American Empire marching to the west, and a nascent artificial intelligence rising from the chaos. Another short story features a rookie secret policeman who must choose between the laws he serves and his personal ethics, which will come to define his series, tentatively titled Apes and Angels. The other short story has a team of paramilitary agents/terrorists raiding a top-secret corporate lab to uncover an illegal neural and physiological modification experiment — only to find that things aren’t what they seem to be. If this works out, this will introduce a hard space opera series. My (abortive) Michael Chang series follows a young magician’s journey as he is called by the gods to do battle for humanity, and if I ever pick up the series again I have a template for future stories. And the next flagship series, working title Cybermancer, follows a small group of unlikely allies — a former magician-turned-cyborg private peace officer, a full-cyborg deputy marshal, a gifted craftswoman, former Special Operations personnel human and otherwise — as they try to hold back and reverse a collapse of civilisation wrought by the collision of globalisation, technology and magic.

Looking over the two portfolios would tell you which is more interesting, and why. And this is why I cannot subscribe to notions of diversity that goes no deeper than the skin.

Diversity is not skin-deep
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