By Robert Wood
In my social media feeds, I often come across plaintive cries and hopeful calls for greater representation of diverse people. This can be in politics, society, the arts, but what they share is the belief that ‘we’ are not being heard, that power and privilege are still the province of unnamed straw men who are white. That might be true. But it seems like people are often fighting to simply be seen and accepted into a position of personal visibility without a radical critique, utopian vision, collective project that is structural. In that way, the author has been reified without thinking through the diversity of ‘diversity’ as a frame let alone what to do once you get into a position of influence. It becomes liberal in its orientation rather than truly leftist.
The point of arguing for diverse representation cannot merely be a narcissistic one – my voice is not being heard, I am being silenced. In these statements and actions there is the kernel of a disavowed self within the paradigmatic identity categories one positions oneself as belonging to. It is not even that this is paradoxical where we can point out that by telling me you are unrepresented, you actually represent yourself. Nor is it that this can sometimes be disingenuous – amplifying one’s (marginal) race rather than one’s (normative) gender, playing up one’s (discriminated) sexuality without acknowledging one’s (dominant) education, or all the other ways in which the performance of victimhood allows one to obscure privilege. Nor is it even that they rest on conservative definitions rather than on say territory, lifestyle, position that is not national, class based or liminal.
This fails as truth (or simple honesty, maybe decency too) as well as intersectionality and so one feels like a con artist waiting to be caught by the person who has suffered more. Wither the impure in call out culture and let us race to the bottom one and all. Yet, we cannot constantly seek to outdo each other in our marginalisation lest we paint ourselves into a corner of suffering, all the while perpetuating the very categories we are seeking to break out of. New language can help with that, but so too can collective projects.
And so, the reason diverse representation matters is not to be found in the simple culture war shibboleths that are so prominent. It is not that we need more Indian writers because they are Indians, more African voices because they are African. It is not that we need more stories from people we cannot see, and not only so we can assimilate them to a structure that does not change. It is that we need those stories to help us develop sensibilities that encourage us to be good people leading good lives. Diversity and representation cannot simply collapse into an art for art’s sake myopia. We need more Indian stories in ‘the West’ because there are people suffering and struggling in that homeland in a way that is all but inconceivable to us here. That is, of course, not the whole story, nor the story about the rise of the Indian middle class, the ‘saffronisation’ of national politics, the turn to consumerism. But it overlaps with these stories that many already know. And that, surely, is a story we need to know here today even if we must ask why it matters to us as well.
This is about understanding the subaltern in such a way that we move beyond an accepted frame of reference and, in that way, we can better understand our responsibilities as global citizens and people with power. This goes for many Australians. Even the marginal among us live a life of material privilege relative to many on the Indian subcontinent. Similar things can be said in a great many other places, but because I have roots in India and because I have ongoing connections there, it seems necessary to focus on that in this essay. This does not mean we can forget about rural China, the Eastern Congo, or favelas in Brazil, to say nothing of Roebourne in the Western Pilbara back home or the peripheral places that make up the poverty belt in America. My claim here simply means the reinvigoration of a conversation about the wider world in reference to a place I know about and that has a vast population. If everybody matters, maybe we can talk about the hundreds of millions in India just for a minute.
And so, what are we to do from here, for now? It means, in part, redefining what we want a progressive state to be. We must think of the work of community groups, international NGOs and the United Nations. But we must also re-tool what we want the nation to do. That means changing our idea of the welfare state into an activist state. The activist state is the next step for expanding what we deem possible in a community beyond our borders. To say that we need to help where help is needed means understanding what we do best and thinking this is a crucial imperative. After all, these are also relative statements and, in that way, we do not need to send more yoga teachers from California to Kerala. A redefined Peace Corp, on the other hand may warrant some investigation.
For example, what we might do as an activist state is expand local council budgets to fix the potholes beyond our borders. Australia has far better roads than India even though there are new highways such as the one between Delhi and Agra. We specialise in a kind of infrastructural expertise that means we can fulfil our responsibilities to the world at large. This does not mean we forget about ourselves or that this specific example needs to be realised in practice. What is suggests is that an activist state expands the horizon of what is possible so that we can help people meet their basic needs rather than repave our own roads with glitter and gold while we grow fat on the tolls of our national prosperity. That is why diverse representation matters – because we must represent our people, who are all people at the end of the day, with hopes and dreams of what might be possible if they had good neighbours like us as well.
Robert Wood’s writing has been published in numerous literary and academic journals. He has interned for Overland, edited for Peril and Cordite, been a columnist for Cultural Weekly. At present he works for The Centre for Stories.