Editorial diversity hacks: is tokenism ever ok?

By on Feb 8th

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.