Shonda Rhimes Just Came Up with a New Word for "Diversity" — Let's Start Using It


Once a term to describe the laudable aim of ensuring equal representation, "diversity" has devolved into a trite talking point.

It's an issue that Shonda Rhimes, the mastermind behind television hits such as Scandal, Grey's Anatomy and How To Get Away With Murder, touched on while accepting an award at the Human Rights Campaign's gala event in Los Angeles last weekend. In her speech, Rhimes said she's tired of the way "diversity" is understood by most people. 

"I get asked a lot by reporters and tweeters why I am so invested in 'diversity' on television,"  Rhimes said, according to Medium's text of her speech. "'Why is it so important to have diversity on TV?' they say. I really hate the word 'diversity.' It suggests something other. ... As if there is something unusual about telling stories involving women and people of color and LGBTQ characters on TV."

Rhimes offered an alternative to the term "diversity," saying she'd rather describe what she's doing as "normalizing."

"I am making TV look like the world looks. Women, people of color, LGBTQ people equal way more than 50% of the population. Which means it ain't out of the ordinary. I am making the world of television look normal," she said.

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Rhimes makes a great point

"Diversity" in itself has limits. In the past few decades, the word has become wildly popular, appearing everywhere from corporate websites to college recruitment brochures. In many cases, however, the concept is reduced to simply ensuring that a collection of people who look different from each other occupy the same space. That's why many diversity fliers for companies and schools paint a picture of wide representation, but the actual demographics of those same institutions remain monochromatic. 

Indeed, it's an issue that's still a problem in Hollywood. The Sony hack last December all but affirmed a recent UCLA study's conclusion that, from top to bottom, the TV and film industries are overwhelmingly white, heterosexual and male. That's both in terms of the people running the show and in who's being cast in major roles. The crisis of equal representation in Hollywood reflects the attitude Rhimes describes, wherein the idea of diversity is understood as something that's a sort of bonus rather than a necessity.

"The goal is that everyone should get to turn on the TV and see someone who looks like them and loves like them," Rhimes continued in her speech. "And just as important, everyone should turn on the TV and see someone who doesn't look like them and love like them. Because, perhaps then, they will learn from them. ... Perhaps they will even learn to love them."

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What "normalizing" really means: According to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, the word "normalize" means "to bring (someone or something) back to a usual or expected state or condition." As such, it can also translate into the idea of enforcing conformity or reducing something "to a norm or standard." Conformity, in itself, may very well run counter to the idea of affirming and celebrating difference. 

That doesn't sound like what Rhimes wishes to advocate, however. Rather, the way she uses the term "normalizaton" sounds a lot like what happens when the practices of equity and inclusion are factored alongside diversity. 

As the Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education notes in its guide on professional competencies, an advanced understanding of equity, inclusion and diversity means that one should be able to "ensure institutional policies, practices, facilities, structures, systems and technologies respect and represent people's diverse abilities, beliefs and characteristics." How Rhimes articulates "normalizing" reflects her effort to ensure that a celebration of difference is a foundational element in her work — that is, there's a seat at the table for everyone. 

Whatever you call it, there's no denying the need to have both social settings and institutions that reflect the demographics of the real world. Surely, there's a way to summarize and characterize that need in a pointed manner without making it seem "rare" or "optional." 

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Understanding the elements of equity, inclusion and diversity will be instrumental in remedying real-world imbalances fueled by the continued dominance of whiteness, heterosexuality and maleness. Where representation is not only descriptive but also substantive. Where inclusion isn't reduced to tokenization, and where, ultimately, there's equity in both access to opportunity and power. 

That's what Rhimes is suggesting. Hopefully, it's a question more people will ask themselves when they think about the meaning of diversity.