Disney and Diversity in the 21st Century: Part 1

[By: Dr. Maryemma Graham]

Diversity has become a vexed issue in the 21st century.  Once it was a priority in our corporate and education sectors, with accountability for its implementation built in. Today, it has become that carefully crafted phrase one sees on websites, usually so watered down we pay scarce attention. Even when we were not guided by a principle but by underlying marketing needs, diversity forced us to have many honest, if difficult dialogues.  Now it seems that only members of  “diverse populations” talk about or show concern for diversity.   And we know what that means.  In the last three years, I have been to too many strategy sessions —even at my own university—with the absence of any discussion of diversity.  It seems to bother no one. If we ask questions about it, we are strangely inappropriate. If answers come, they serve to redirect the conversation. So we are often silent or vow to show our protest with our future absence.

If diversity is everybody’s concern, where did it go? When did we start letting the university, our administrators, our CEO’s off the hook?  Was it only the intimidating presence of affirmative action legislation that “made” people do the right thing? Now that the pressure is off, it’s back to business as usual.  While the concept is still with us, there’s no power behind it.

Can we blame social media for this shift, the place where everybody has a voice?  After all, nobody is legally denied access anymore. The catchword “equal” is everywhere; we all expect jobs to say “equal opportunity employer.” Surely this suggests that a major goal of the civil rights movement has been accomplished.
But there’s a downside to the social media. To paraphrase Malcolm Gladwell here, the voices that seem to be the loudest are not those that offer constructive or balanced critique in good faith. Gladwell is correct: those who want to sway public opinion, present a biased point of view, and show disregard for facts, may have more to gain by social media than those who are more fact-driven. Social media can make us feel connected to each other, at the same time it can divide, exclude, and distort the truth.  Our heavy reliance on it confuses us.  We think we see what is not there; we think we know more than we do. We connect with like-minded people, and we assume this to be “most” people. We are, all of us, living in a world of illusions.

No one was better at creating illusions than Walt Disney.  He had the unique ability to appropriate and collapse centuries of historical knowledge from ancient and modern cultures.  He helped to turn entertainment and marketing into the institutions that are the fabric of our lives today.  As he turned his own dreams into reality, creating newly imagined identities for us all to share, he ushered in an era that diminishes the need for any real knowledge while simultaneously clouding our vision of diversity. While Disney is not wholly responsible for the illusions of wealth accumulation that are pervasive, disneyfication is synonymous with the post modernization of America and the world.

We are the newly colonized, and diversity is in lockstep with cultural tourism.

But we do study this phenomenon, historians, political
analysts, foreign policy experts, and pop culture scholars alike. Students in
business schools across America use Alan Bryman’s The Disneyization of Society as a major text, and, according to the
description on Amazon, the book is often used for “beginning students in a
number of different courses and fields.” In short, Disney has moved out of
children’s literature and culture studies and is helping to redefine the
content of academic curricula more broadly.

Sadly, the homogenizing tendencies of our consumer culture
have stripped us of our capacity to benefit from what makes us different, that
which comes through dialogue and debate. 
We are blind to the idea that the knowledge we gain through our
difference helps us to recognize our humanness. We are fearful that it will
take us out of our comfort zone, that it will require too much effort at a time
when much of what we do comes easily and quickly.  
Diversity insists that we recognize that world is not
homogenous, and we learn this by reading and studying traditions/cultures that
are not our own.  Diversity is all around
us, in the natural and physical world; it is what makes us better and
stronger.  But when reduced to its lowest
common denominator in the social world, the world that we create mostly for
profit and personal gain, diversity through appropriation somehow becomes a
good thing.
When we don’t have a
clear understanding of the need for diversity
, we accept and embrace what we
already know and do without question. Biased attitudes go unchecked. We target
non-white people of color as a knee-jerk reaction, with tragic circumstances
that we can all cite.
 Content to remain woefully ignorant of other worlds, other traditions, other cultures, other ways of thinking and being in the world, contemporary and future generations become the main beneficiaries of disneyfication. Kindles, Ipads, and other E-readers can give us that knowledge, but these are private spaces that don’t necessarily transform our social practice. 
Simply put, the public engagement with diversity is slowing becoming obsolete. The more we see higher education primarily as the place where students get the necessary training and skills for gainful employment, the more we limit the exposure to those fields that teach them about themselves in relation to a larger human community.  Later for African American or Black Studies, Latino/a Studies, Native American Studies, Asian American Studies, Sexuality Studies. Studies.  By default, education become a product one buys, at a very high price. Forget the part about becoming a meaningful contributor to a larger human community, helping to sustain our planet and world, a world where diversity is absolutely essential.
All of this follows the long march of our industrialized society. But should we ignore those socially transformative moments in the 60’s and 70’s?  Did we not agree that economic prosperity, the “good life” as we called it, exposed some ugly truths that we had to address? The movements for civil and equal rights, for social and economic justice forced us to acknowledge difference, while working toward a shared goal. 
But that was the past, and although we recognize human rights violations on a global scale, for too many Americans, it’s “over there,” “those people,” “not really affecting us here at home.” 
We left diversity at the door of the 21st century.  We have lost sight of its purpose.  
But is there a way to “blaze [new] roads through the vast forests” as James Baldwin once called it?  Does diversity still have a chance?
[Part II is forthcoming]