In the past month, diversity has felt anything but casual. Oklahoma and Kansas both passed major legislation preventing LGBT couples from adopting. The federal government admitted to “losing” thousands of immigrant children during transport, some to human traffickers. Multiple Black people had the police called on them for “looking suspicious” while living their lives.
So it’s weird to be asked to start June talking about “casual diversity.”
It’s a term that’s catching on in children’s literature particularly—“diversity [that] is just a part of everyday life.” Casually diverse stories are something of an ideal, in which characters of any race, ethnic group, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability, or socioeconomic status could appear in any role.
30 Minutes or Less was celebrated by the Huffington Post for casting Aziz Ansari in the role of Chet. Chet didn’t have to be an Indian American character. He didn’t have an accent or some interesting cultural appeal or some fish-out-of-water moment as he struggles to acculturate to America. Chet was just Chet. And he happened to be of Indian descent, just as Ansari happens to be a South Carolinian of Indian descent. This is casual diversity in a nutshell.
Casual diversity appeals a great deal to second- and third-generation immigrants. We tend to be more acculturated than our parents, and we find we connect more easily with characters who look like us but who are as connected to American culture as we are. In my group of friends, I am the only Hispanic, and my ethnicity very rarely comes up. I still found myself deeply connecting with characters played by Latin American actor John Leguizamo while I was growing up. They were just like me—American, and Hispanic. I could imagine that their lives were a little like mine, too.
Casual diversity may be less interesting to people whose diversity makes them the subject of social, political, and even physical attack. In the wake of #MeToo, I find gender anything but a casual subject matter. While a moratorium on stories about characters who happen to be women is not due, a recognition that characters who are women have idiosyncratic life experiences may be. In the wake of attacks against Latin American immigrants in this country, I find myself connecting more with stories that highlight the ways in which Latin Americans are treated differently, although I see no less of a need for stories in which they are treated the same.
Casual diversity works best, as all things do, when it feels possible. In the 1980s and 1990s, stories about gay teenagers struggling with coming out and their first secret affections for someone of the same gender were necessary in a world that was actively hostile to gay teenagers. By the 2000s, the momentum appeared to have changed, and the world seemed less hostile towards gay men. Casually gay characters in television and literature are more common now. Less than I’d like, but Chechnya’s systematically exterminating its gay population, so that’s where we are. In 2018.
Where casual diversity is not appropriate, formal diversity will have to do. If casual diversity is “diversity that is just a part of everyday life,” then formal diversity may be “diversity that is apart from everyday life” or “diversity that is out of the ordinary.”
There is a place in fiction for casual diversity, even where and when polemic is high. There is still room to tell stories about immigrants (or the descendants thereof) who do not generally suffer at the hands of the state. There is room to tell stories about LGBT people who are not afraid of being openly themselves. In this sense, “casual” is not a synonym for “careless.” Diversity, whether casual or formal, exists within a larger context. It’s context that prevents casual diversity from being shallow.
In Sense8, one of the lead characters is a transwoman living in the United States, where many laws still prevent transpeople from being free, and where societal pressure remains stacked against transwomen in particular. Even though Sense8 is not a show about “being trans,” it is a show where diversity plays a role in how characters’ lives develop. The context in which Nomi Marks exists cannot be ignored while she struggles with being a sensate in a world where they are hunted for their special powers. She also has to struggle with being a transwoman in a transphobic biological family—a very real struggle for many transpeople today.
Keep all of this in mind as we move through June and discuss casual diversity in fiction. Casual doesn’t mean careless, context always matters, and where casual diversity doesn’t work, formal diversity will.