Editorial diversity hacks: is tokenism ever ok?

Tokens: awesome for games and public transportation! Not so awesome for people. Septa Token © by lindseywb, used under Creative Commons license.
Here's a sad reality: 90% of the content submissions we receive to the Offbeat Empire's websites feature young, white, able-bodied heterosexual Americans. Thousands of cute 20-something white couples having adorable weddings! Hundreds of adorable white families made up of bio-mom + bio-dad + bio-baby! Dozens of home tours from across the United States… and nowhere else.

So many amazing offbeat people — who are all white, all young, all cisgendered, all straight, all able-bodied. I've written many times over the years about the challenges of keeping the Empire's content diverse. We almost always bubble more diverse submissions to the top of our editorial queues — there's no quicker way to get your wedding featured than to be, say, a wheelchair-bound Latina marrying a transman in South Africa. Diversity is a huge priority for my editors, and they get downright giddy when they get submissions from communities we don't see enough of in the media.

We're so hard-core about it, that while we accept wedding profile submissions from all couples, when it comes to submissions from wedding photographers, we don't even consider non-diverse submissions. On our Two Bright Lights submission page, we say this:

At this time we are ONLY looking for wedding submissions for ethnically diverse couples. Interracial couples are great too, but we are NOT accepting wedding submissions for couples where both partners are Caucasian. (Unless the couple is diverse in another way, ie LGBT, older couple, disabled, etc.)

(To be really clear: we totally accept wedding profile submissions from ALL couples. But when we're talking submissions from wedding industry professionals, we only want the diverse stuff.)

That said, some weeks (and indeed, even some months), there's simply nothing diverse coming in. That's when we start getting creative — going out and actively recruiting content from the communities we want better represented. It's not a comfortable thing to do. It's weird for me as a publisher to tell my editors: "Next week's content is too much about young white heterosexuals — GO FIND SOMETHING ELSE." It makes diversity feel like a scavenger hunt… a problematic framework, even if the motivation behind the hunt is well-intentioned.

As I asked recently on Facebook and Twitter: When we go out and actively recruit more diverse content for the sites, is that tokenism? And is that kind of tokenism ok if it's increasing the media visibility of minority communities? Most folks seem to feel that it's not tokenism because our goal is reflecting the diversity of our readership, but I'm still not totally comfortable with it.

In addition to going out and recruiting content, we also have a number of creative ways that we work around a particularly un-diverse week of content:

  • Feature box promotion: Each site has a feature box on its homepage, scrolling through 5-10 older posts we've chosen to highlight that week. If a given week's new content is relatively light on diversity, we'll compensate by featuring older diverse posts in the feature box that week.
  • Guestpost stock photos: When we have an essay that needs an illustrating image, we'll make a point to always use a diverse image as an illustration. In other words, if you're going to slap a stock photo on that post about wedding planning, use a photo with people of color.
  • Monday Montage: Since the Montage is just about featuring images, even if we're not getting any good submissions, we can always go out on Pinterest, find a diverse image that fits with the week's Montage, and lead with that.
  • Go Lite: If we get a submission that's fairly traditional but features diverse people or non-US locations, we'll shift our editorial priorities to focus on the diversity. That church wedding that you could have seen on The Knot? Well, it was a Mongolian couple living in Russia, so even though the details of the wedding weren't especially Offbeat Bride material, we'll run it.

While these hacks each do their best to compensate for the challenges of homogeneous submissions, I can't say I'm fully comfortable with any of them. Hacking homogeneity ultimately makes me feel like I'm reducing people to check-boxes: We've got a disabled post featured here, a non-white bride illustrating that post, a lesbian birth story over here, a Mexican home featured over here, a British plus-size mama over here, an older rockabilly Asian home-owner over there… but where is our transgender content for this week!?! SOMEONE BRING ME A TRANS-POST IMMEDIATELY!

I also feel bad about the editorial excitement when we get a submission that hits the sweet-spot of diversity, with non-het, non-US, non-white, non-young, non-cisgendered, non-able bodied content. Seriously, sometimes I think Megan and I would bump chests if we ever got an Offbeat Bride submission that featured, say, an older MTF Filipina bride with her a Black queer-identified Gulf War veteran with Fibriomyalgia groom getting married in Ireland. Even these awesome diversity posts can bring up complex issues: what if the photos of this Filipina/Gulf War Vet wedding were low quality? Would we run the post anyway, choosing to bump Madison and Jeremy's gorgeously photographed vintage glam WASPy wedding in Upstate New York? That feels icky, too — the wedding blog equivalent of affirmative action.

I don't have any answers here, only more questions. How can we ensure that all the communities we serve are both represented and respected? How far are we willing to go in the creative methods we use to find and feature diverse content? I still have a lot to learn in this arena.

  1. I wonder if you were take a step back and look at your submissions as a whole if you would find that the type and frequency of submissions reflects your readership? You know, for example, comparing the amount of trans readers to the amount of trans posts – percentage wise. If they are proportional, I think that would be telling. Presumably, your readers are also your contributors. I think focusing too much on the idea of "diversity" comes with the risk of, as you said, reducing people to check boxes. I applaud you for asking these questions though, and I hope you continue to do so. I think it's far more beneficial to show people of great diversity how alike we all can be (Mongolian Wedding in Russia) than having the most diverse amalgamation ever that almost no one can relate to.

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    • While submissions somewhat reflect of our readership, it's not 1-to-1, nor do I think relying on low-hanging fruit (ie, just what's submitted to us) is a good way to build an editorial strategy. The Offbeat Empire about serving niches — if I only reflected the majority of readers (who are not especially diverse), the sites wouldn't have a reason for existing.

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      • … and (as a trans reader), this commitment to diversity is *why* i'm here. because it's a place that that i can feel a little less alone in being a fat disabled genderqueer kid planning their wedding with a non-binary trans guy.

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      • I'm a bit late to this post, but I just wanted to add that not all readers want to read about people who are like themselves. Although I am white, in a straight relationship, middle class, living in a suburban apartment etc I still want to read about diverse weddings/families/homes. That's why I read offbeat bride and not The Knot. Cis-gendered people can be interested in trans issues too! I read the offbeat blogs because I want to be informed, aware, and open-minded. For this reason I think that actively searching for 'offbeat' content is absolutely fine. When there are fewer public outlets for particular ways of living, then those outlets need to work doubly hard to address the imbalance that is found in the rest of the media. Keep up the good work, Ariel + team, I love your blogs!

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  2. I've always thought of the Offbeat sites as experience/lifestyle diversity sites as opposed to racial/sex/global diversity sites. To me, a story about a gay foster-to-adoption is just as interesting as a straight foster-to-adoption and a biracial wedding on an airboat is just as interesting as a white wedding on an airboat. I'm NOT saying "I'm colorblind" or "I think we live in a raceless society." But I enjoy the Offbeat sites as more of a thought-provoking look into different lifestyles and life choices than "wow, look at all the different ethnicities and people at different places on the gender spectrum."

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  3. My opinions on this subject are rarely popular, but here goes:

    I think it's 100% ok to try and solicit entries from your more diverse readers- let people know you'd like to reflect all your readers more accurately but you're not getting many non-youngwhiteheterocisUSetc submissions.

    I think if you're posting something you wouldn't post otherwise, because it's not offbeat enough, or because the photos or low quality, etc… then it feels icky, to me. I know that if I were to submit something to, say, a woodworking blog that was largely male dominated, and they posted it just because I was a token female to show how diverse they are…I'd feel pretty selfconscious about it. And in fact I don't think I'd submit to a blog with that policy, for that reason. I'd want to be recognized on my merits just like any other woodworker.

    Likewise I think if you're faking it by using stock photos or slurping off Pinterest, you're not really representing your readership, are you? You're representing the readership you want to have, maybe, but…maybe the unfortunate fact is that your readership IS mostly white/hetero/cis/young/American. And if you know that's not the case, through surveys or whatever… the next step would be to figure out why these other groups aren't submitting.

    (I think, though, if you find something on flickr or Pinterest, it's totally fair to track down that person and ask them to submit for a feature. Maybe then you'll add some new people to the readership :-) )

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    • As part of a site that has a large amount of submissions, I don't know that a reader would ever feel used as a token if their submission was run. Readers submit because they WANT to be featured and, using your example, a reader would be more likely to NOT submit because their post would never be run, rather than to submit and then feel they were featured because of a novelty factor. I am no expert, but I think more readers are too busy emailing everyone they know to show off what a rock star they are on Offbeat Bride that day to consider the politics behind it.

      That being said, I love the idea of featuring the readership you WANT to have rather than the one you do. I know from the Offbeat Mama reader survey that 98% of the readers are women, but as a woman when I see a dad or male comment I get excited to see their point of view. (And then promptly feel smug that one of my favorite sites is so diverse. But I'm a terrible person.) So to me, personally seeking out that material that I can't personally generate is something I benefit from and appreciate.

      Conversely, I adore Mama Montage and devour it because OMG SQUISHY BABY FACES!!! But I get a special thrill when I see teeny brown babies that look like they could be mine or toddlers rockin' an outfit in my favorite fandom or personal subculture and makes me want to submit my own squishy baby face when s/he is born. And I rarely pay attention to if they came from Pinterest or are a reader submission.

      Dunno, maybe I'm so jaded by other sites that don't even bother to strive for diversity that I hold up the ones that do in high regard. Kind of like when you get a nice person at the post office or in the TSA line in the airport; you're so damned excited about it that you forget it SHOULD be that way all the time.

      (Apologies to postal workers and TSA agents reading this comment. Unless you're one of the not nice ones. Then stuff it.)

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      • That's a good point that in featuring diverse content it makes people from those backgrounds/cultures and so forth feel more comfortable submitting their own content, which then (theoretically at least) helps to increase the actual diversity of the group.

        And I'm fine with stock photos being used. Stock photos are used by a lot of publications, so you may as well try to do something different that is reflective of what you want your publication to represent.

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        • I should clarify that when I say "stock photos," I mean offbeat stock — which is to say photos that have been submitted to the Offbeat Empire's various Flickr pools. That's our stock house. :)

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        • Yup. I'd never submit anything to a blog about marriage and family that didn't prominently feature queer stories. I'd feel worried about being judged/mocked, but I'd also feel like it wasn't a community for me. I appreciate the diversity hacks.

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      • Offbeat Bride was the only wedding site I visited *because* of all the effort Ariel&co put into make sure queer weddings are featured. As a queer woman myself, it makes all the difference when that kind of content is featured. It's great to be able to see myself in the websites I visit (and not just the explicitly queer-oriented ones).

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  4. I don't have a problem with the recruitment of non-"traditional" content; frankly, as someone who hits a few of the diversity tickyboxes, I know that I am still reluctant often to share my stories/pictures/etc outside of very known, safe spaces (my only "parenting" web appearances was on "Butches+Babies") and the request makes it feel safer to share. I mean, it could certainly be *done* in an icky way, but I haven't seen the Empire being icky about it.

    In other words, I bet your readership is more diverse than your submissions.

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    • In other words, I bet your readership is more diverse than your submissions.

      Exactly that.

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    • I agree with this. I recall a recent post that brought tons of lurkers into the comments, but we rarely see that particular niche being submitted. But I know they are out there, and I what I hope is that bringing diverse content to the editorial calendar (without being icky) will turn some of those current readers into submitters.

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  5. Thanks for posting this. I never thought about what goes on behind the scenes to make up the overall product. These inner workings posts are fascinating.

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  6. I felt really squeamish writing about Native history on OBM specifically because I feel like those kinds of posts should come from those voices and not mine, even if the post was experience-based. At the same time, I feel like, This needs to be written about!

    The funny thing is, despite being a Rodrigues married to an Aragon family with lots of minority/ethnic experiences, I don't immediately think of us as that. I mean, we've taken our kids to funerals for Native family on the reservation, I've traveled to the backwoods of Brasil where my grandparents lived, and we're deeply devoted to issues of race and ethnicity. But when I think about writing, I almost never think to come at it from those points of view. I think it is because, like many second or third generation Americans, I feel like I'm not connected enough to the experience people are expecting to hear from my background. Like, I'm too blended to speak for any particular ingredient.

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  7. Just had to give a yay for the use of the SEPTA token picture. I can't stand SEPTA, but I adore seeing anything Philly-related on websites I read. :-)

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    • Me too! I was wondering if that's really a SEPTA token, or if anywhere else uses the same token :)

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  8. This was really interesting to read for me. Do any of the blogs have posts about being the, for lack of a better word, "non-diverse" part of a couple, when getting attention specifically for being a diverse couple? We live in a liberal enough environment that no one really comments on the fact that we're an interracial couple, and the inter-cultural aspect was mostly relevant in our interactions with his parents, which was more of a private thing.

    Now that we're engaged & having a Nigerian engagement ceremony in addition to the wedding ceremony, my family is calling it "exciting & interesting," our photographer thinks it's awesome, & apparently it would probably make us more likely to appear on OBB. Don't get me wrong. I'm glad people are supportive, & I'm excited, too, but it feels weird when none of it's really about me. (& I'd actually be in favor of a much more Offbeat Celebration for the wedding part, but we'll be more Offbeat Lite, specifically because of my fiance's tastes.)

    I'm not sure what will happen when we (hopefully) have kids, but I wonder if there's a sort of equivalent situation. So, yeah, just wondering if there's a post on this that you could suggest for me to read. Thanks!

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    • To some readers' dismay, Offbeat Bride's tag archive for non-white folks is called "offbeat couples of color." Note the wording: we say COUPLES, even if one half of the couple is lily white. This is to say that we cluster diversity by units: couples, families, home occupants.

      Some people rankle at this word choice, arguing "it's not the COUPLE that's of color — sometimes it's just one person!" Ultimately, diversity is a complex issue, and I'm not looking to make it even more divisive by splitting hairs over "Well, this couple only counts as HALF diverse." What about mixed race people? "This couple is 1/4th Latino." "Couples of color" basically gives an at a glance way to say "someone here has self-identified as not white! BEHOLD!"

      That said, I will say that some readers have split hairs based on the most common interracial couplings. I've heard people say "It doesn't count as 'diverse' if it's white groom/Asian bride; or Black groom/white bride." While I'm fascinated by the gender patterns of interracial marriage, ultimately people's impressions of certain interracial couplings being "not diverse" is a super complex sociological issue that's waaaay outside the scope of my silly wedding blog's editorial diversity hacks. :)

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    • Oops: I'm realizing I misunderstood your post's original question. I can't think of any posts off the top of my head — sounds like you've got a guestpost to consider submitting! :)

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    • Not sure about posts and whatnot, but I can definitely relate! My family and friends aren't very familiar with my future husband's cultural traditions or his country (which is where we'll be getting married). And my future husband's family doesn't know the ins and outs of American wedding traditions, either. We get curiosity and a bit of objectification from both sides — his family is curious about what "exotic" American traditions might incorporate into the wedding, and my family and friends are curious about what "exotic" traditions they'll be able to see in this distant foreign wedding.

      I love that people are interested in my wedding and all, but I feel a little strange about the fact that they sometimes seem interested in how "different" the associated events and traditions are, rather than interested in us as a couple. At the same time, I can understand the curiosity and excitement around learning about a different set of traditions and events. It's a complex issue for me.

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  9. This is interesting to me as well, from a different-but-similar position. I am producing (and husband-elect is directing) a docu-mercial (lulz) film about the Society for Creative Anachronism. We are agreed on placing a priority on filming and interviewing members of color and also, specifically, older and/or female heavy fighters, to the point of intentional over-representation. Why? Some people have had the mistaken impression that people of non-European backgrounds do not belong. Some people are under the impression that boys fight and girls do arts and sciences, or at least, only target archery and "light" rapier fighting. We decided that it was more important to show that members of any background are welcome to participate than to be "accurate" or "truthful."

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    • YES. See, that's exactly it: I guess I'm willing to wrestle with the discomfort of "hunting down" diverse people to feature on the sites because I'd rather overcompensate and … well, be the change we wish to see. As a member of the media, I feel like this is more than just my responsibility — it's my gift to be able to give. Media has power, and I want to use mine to show more than just what's easy… I want to use my corner of the media to show what's possible.

      (Ok, yes: that's a little highfalutin for a silly wedding website. But it's true!)

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      • Hey, if you run a tremendously popular 'silly wedding website,' and we're making a promotional documentary that only people interested in this weird fringe hobby are ever going to see, and YOU'RE highfalutin, what does that make us? :)

        My main concern has been and still is making sure that no one *feels* tokenized, like they're being put out there to make it seem like this group is more diverse than it is, because I know that feels awful. Example: Soon I'm going to have to contact two ladies who are very good heavy fighters, including one who is often referred to as "you know, the female Knight" — it's a title you have to earn in this organization, and it is NOT easy to earn it no matter the gender. In reality, it's probably worse than a 10:1 male:female ratio with Knighthood in the SCA. I'm feel pretty safe in guessing sometimes she'd just like to be "you know, the Knight who pulled x crazy maneuver at the last War," so I'm trying to plan my verbal approach very carefully. I'm hoping something along the lines of "We'd love to interview you if you're going to be at any of these events, because we want to make it absolutely crystal clear that girls and women can and do heavy fight and fight really, really well."

        Wish me luck?

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  10. I love your blog and am so relieved to see this post. Yes, relieved. I am a black reader engaged in an interracial who is having an unconventional wedding. What I love about your blog is that you recognize that diversity isn't just about color it is about nationality, sexual identity, religion everything! We are different in different ways and I appreciate that you make an effort to highlight the ways in which we are all different. I have looked at other wedding blogs have been saddened by not even being able to see a chubby heterosexual white female. And for my two cents, I do believe that highlighting the diverse submissions will make more "diverse people" more likely to submit because they feel like they will be selected. I would never submit to other blogs because I can literally see them trashing pics of a short chubby Caribbean-American black woman marrying her white Jewish skinny fiancee, balding and all! There are no perfect solutions but I appreciate your honesty in how your blog handles this issues.

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  11. I'm a skinny white girl who was shocked (in a good way!) when my wedding was featured on OBB. One of the things I love about the Offbeat sites is that I see people who look like my friends. I remember bouncing up and down in my chair and forwarding a post on natural hair for OBB brides to one of my best friends. My friends are black,white, gay, straight,Hispanic, Persian. The fact that the Offbeat Empire makes an effort to include people who look like my friends makes it feel more welcoming to me.

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  12. Sah-weet! gonna get featured when I have my japanese redneck country
    folk meets city slicker mexican but all around very christian &
    american wedding~

    Just kidding, I have no idea the kind of quality the pics are going to end up being.

    I agree 100% with @LG. I love that you at least make an effort. It
    means a lot to me that you at LEAST TRY!! Even if 85% of the women who read OBB are white, I like that you find diverse pics for the 15% of use who are not. Thanks for noticing we are here too! I went through some other bridal sites just to SEE if I could find more than just tall skinny white women getting married. I couldn't. Not that I do not love my tall skinny white women, but I don't look like that. There are certain hairstyles/make up that would look weird on me, and I just want to see what it would look like on someone with eyes like mine, and hair that can't be dyed pink the first try. It's nice seeing other couples who are of different ethnic backgrounds and how they integrated their heritage in their wedding planning if at all.

    I grew up being one of the only japanese kids in a 50%white/49% hispanic population. Its made me feel excluded sometimes. So it feels good when there is effort in pointing out, 'look these people are different too, but its not a bad thing, in fact i am stoked that i found a Buddhist native american lady marrying an atheist Chinese man, and I will feature them because even though 85% of my readers may not relate to them, there are 15% who might… at least SOMEONE IS GOING TO APPRECIATE IT!'

    Even if you make shit up and post a random pic you found – the hell am i going to know? And why would I care? "oh that goddamn ariel, faking this gay marriage picture so that I feel welcome and not left out because 99% of couples are straight so she doesn't have any pictures to work with! hurrumph to her trying to create an equal feeling environment!" These are obviously extreme examples but you know what i mean.

    Like @rodrigues I don't usually write coming from a 'japanese person point of view'… unless its in reply to something about race specifically. So there it is. a post written from the perspective of a very japanese looking girl working in a heavy civil construction office- whose cowgirl mother's favorite past time is shooting sporting clays and branding cattle, and whose dad is an unusually tall roller derby coach. how fucked up is that?

    short answer: you do a good job, keep up the good work. fuck, at least you're trying.

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    • Don't feel like those diverse posts are just for you! We straight white women know what its like to have a straight white wedding. I am far more likely to click on a queer or "ethnic" wedding post because hey, I just might learn something new! That rockabilly wedding looks cool and I might scroll through the pictures, but I probably won't really read much of the article.

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  13. I have a love/hate relationship with SEPTA, but I have the same feeling about anything Philly related. And I kinda love that Philly is creaky and square enough that it still uses tokens :)

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  14. I have to say, one of the things I love the most as a reader is the fact that things from the Offbeat sites ARE so diverse. I don't view the attempts to actively seek diversity as "tokenism," but as a very real effort to be inclusive. You have no idea how much the natural women of color hairstyle article meant to me personally. Although I'll be a Black bride with natural hair, I doubt I'll be wearing it out and natural, it meant the world to me that OBB portrayed it as a viable, GORGEOUS option for women of color to embrace-something that is hard to find on web. I love reading about transgendered wedding, steampunk weddings, how to make Pho, and butter/egg coffee.

    When I see I stock photo with diversity, I don't think tokenism, I silently cheer in my head because I to me, it's a first step in changing subconscious homogeneity that gives preference to WASP ideals. Seriously. I rejoice when a stock photo has brown people in it or a same sex couple for something minor/unrelated (like a showing 2 men in awesome tailored suits hugging only point out the bowties. I really appreciate the efforts of OBEmpire on things.

    Now does it feel slightly icky thinking better posts/features are skipped over in an effort for diversity? A little. But for me, the trade-off and rarity in the diversity post/feature is worth fewer high quality pictures and knowing that honestly, I can find the more WASP-y looking feature somewhere else on the web. The disabled cisgendered wedding during Burning Man (all of these things mind you, I learned about from OBEmpire) I will only find here.

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    • Asha, thanks for making my day with this comment. :)

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