Nicki, Taylor, and What We Talk About When We Talk About Diversity

Whether Nicki Minaj is deserving of a VMA Video of the Year nomination is besides the point.

Jul 24 2015, 1:53pm

Image by Dan Ozzi

By now, you’re well aware of the exchange between Nick Minaj and Taylor Swift that transpired this past Tuesday on Twitter. Lines were drawn, sides were taken, and the merits of Minaj and Swift’s respective works were debated. The value of an MTV Video Music Award itself was also argued as many wondered whether an award that to some, isn’t particularly prestigious or representative of musicianship, warranted all this attention.

Whether Nicki Minaj is deserving of a VMA Video of the Year nomination is for me, and maybe even for her, besides the point. What she said was true: If you check as many boxes from the thin, pretty, white, and innocent categories, all other things being equal, you will very likely garner more recognition for your work. Additionally, those qualities are often perceived as interrelated and the standards for them have largely been enacted and sustained by white men. And while there are so many other issues involved in the Minaj/Swift exchange like the inclusiveness of feminism, body image and representation, and how we perceive and value sexuality in art, I’d rather not speak on issues that are better understood and analyzed by women and women of color in particular.

But I do want to talk about diversity and address the idea that Minaj’s criticisms are to be discredited as self-interested and/or wrong just because artists of color like Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, and Bruno Mars were selected as nominees and therefore that pool of nominees must be the product of unbiased criteria and “diverse enough.”

Continued below.

Diversity of any kind shouldn’t exist outside of the context of history. But when we talk about diversity we tend to focus on the here and now. With good intentions we try to ensure that the groups we create “look” approximately like the world we live in today. But in doing so, we easily fall into thinking in terms of quotas. We think in terms of percentages and try to get a representative number of Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Whites, Men, Women, LGBTQ persons, etc. that somewhat correspond to the the distribution of the population at large. Then we congratulate ourselves for creating such a “diverse” grouping.

But we don’t account for the years and years that white persons, men in particular, were overrepresented in groups of all kinds. And we don’t account for the artificial cap we mentally place on the inclusion of women, persons of color, and members of the LGBTQ community, in assembling these groups today. As a thought exercise be honest with yourself and ask: What would happen if this year, every VMA Video of the Year nominee was black? Or if every nominee was a woman? You think that would transpire quietly? Or would many feel that something is “naturally” amiss because black people only make up around 14 percent of the population and the distribution of men and women are roughly equal?

If you look to another example, Album of the Year Grammy winners, it took 11 years for a black person to share in the award as a member of Blood, Sweat, and Tears and this is what the band looked like. In the 16th year of the award’s existence, Stevie Wonder won the award as a black featured artist and won it again the next year. In that span three women took home the honor, none of them women of color.

This is not an appeal to enact diversity without regard for merit, as those who argue that Nicki’s music and videos are simply poor and not deserving of recognition, might think. But if this particular group of nominees was truly chosen solely on the superior quality of their work, I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that the video for “Bad Blood” pairs an extremely annoying song with generic sci-fi visuals and literal supermodels (which speaks directly to one of Nicki’s points). Ed Sheeran’s video is even worse: what’s so impressive about a glorified episode of Dancing with the Stars? Again, my point isn’t that we shouldn’t strive to recognize the best and brightest talents in all things, but we should question why we are so willing to accept that broad and constant recognition of the same types of favored persons year after year is the product of an objective meritocracy. This belief pervades everything around us and it aids in the dismissal of legitimate arguments about the inherent biases that affect selection processes for everything from celebrity awards, to college scholarships and employment opportunities.

As illustrated by the Chris Rock bit about living in the extremely wealthy town of Alpine, NJ along with Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z, Eddie Murphy, and a white a dentist, women and persons of color are often expected to just “be better” to get the same opportunities and recognition as everyone else. Ta-Nehisi Coates once said that true equality means “black people in this country have the right to be as mediocre as white people. Not that individual black people will be as excellent, or more excellent, than other white people.” And if you don’t believe that different standards for achievement exist depending on who you are and what you look like, look to the past obsession with President Obama’s grades vs. his predecessor’s grades or Abigail Fisher suing the University of Texas over their admissions practices despite objectively not having grades that would have warranted admission into UT Austin. These biases are so ingrained that we would question a former Harvard Law Review president’s intelligence then turn around and allow a person with OK grades to argue in front of the highest court in our country that she should’ve been entitled to the one of the last 8 percent of seats at one of the most exclusive universities in the country.

It feels as we are trying to achieve diversity and meritocracy at the same time, but we always implicitly ensure that whites are well represented, even in spaces one wouldn’t expect, while everyone else must compete with the other “diversity candidates” for whatever is left. Additionally, to return to our VMA example, Taylor Swift, Mark Ronson, and Bruno Mars all borrow (to put it gently) from black music on their nominated works, which speaks to Nicki’s assertion that comparable work does not always equal comparable reward.

To reiterate, for me this not really about the merits of Nicki’s work or the merit of Taylor’s work. Subjectivity will always factor heavily when attempting to recognize and reward work and the question of what someone deserves is always going to be difficult. For me, this is about how we think about, discuss, and foster diversity of all kinds while trying to properly recognize the achievements of all people in all areas of life. And while many will belittle this Twitter exchange as a simple “celebrity feud,” it sparked many important conversations, and how we think about diversity and merit is just one of them.

Yung Costanza is on Twitter.