Diversity and the Culture War

Robert B. Marks
13 min readDec 21, 2023
Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Song_of_south_poster.jpg

Having done a corrective to the right-leaning side of the culture war, it’s time to provide one to the left, and talk about diversity. Culture warriors like to present themselves as champions of diversity and their efforts as making things better for under-represented minorities. In reality their legacy is much more one of erasure.

But to understand why, we need to look at how the world was depicted prior to the culture war — not just the media of the twentieth century, but the century before as well.

Exploring the World

For English speakers, the 19th century was one of a widening world and Empire. While the United States would become somewhat isolationist at the beginning of the 20th century, military action brought them into the rest of the world. The Barbary Wars brought America into its first foray in the Mediterranean and North Africa, and the Second Opium War brought it to China. It would also find itself deploying troops in Korea, Egypt, Samoa, and the Philippines, finishing the century with colonial possessions in the Pacific taken from the Spanish during the Spanish-American War.

For the British, it was a century of worldwide empire. British colonial possessions existed on every continent save Antarctica. The nature of these empires depended on the circumstances and the time. The colonial empires benefitted from the African slave trade for centuries, but they were also the ones to decide that slavery was a moral evil and dismantle it. This put them in the position of being sometimes an oppressor, and sometimes a liberator. History is, and always has been, complicated.

But what this meant for the average English speaker was a growing fascination with their widening world. They wanted to see the wilds of darkest Africa, and the exotic Raj of India. They wanted to visit the Forbidden City in China. For those with means, this resulted in a flurry of international travel, and the wealthy Victorian gentleman often prided himself on safaris to far away lands. For those in the academic sphere, this fuelled the growth of anthropology, and an ever-increasing effort to learn about the societies and cultures the Western world was encountering, and document and preserve their stories.

Most people, however, were not men of means, nor were they academics. They still had that hunger for exploring the world and the places in it, but they had no ability to see it for themselves. While they may not be wealthy or members of the academy, they were literate, with most Englishmen able to read by the 1830s. They could not see the jungles of Africa for themselves, but they could read about in books. And that is what they did.

An Illustration from H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Walter_Paget_-_H._Rider_Haggard_-_King_Solomon%27s_Mines_-_To_those_who_enter_the_hall_of_dead.jpg)

In many ways, the adventure genre was a means for people to vicariously experience other places and cultures. Readers could go an expedition to find King Solomon’s Mines, or the jungles of India. To say that this depiction could be problematic is something of an understatement — with empire and colonialism had also come the “white man’s burden,” a concept that dictated that it was the obligation of the civilized West to bring this civilization and its benefits to the rest of the less civilized world. Just about every other non-Western culture was depicted through this lens, regardless of whether they deserved it or not. When combined with the recent concepts of “whiteness” and “blackness” created in a previous century to control African plantation slaves, this led to many depictions being highly racist, right into the mid-twentieth century.

But this was not the only form of 19th century literature exploring the world — there was also an activist strain, written by authors like Joseph Conrad. These were attempting to raise an alarm bell regarding the treatment of colonized people. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was an effort to bring attention to the horrors of the Belgian Congo (and as additional information came out of the Congo, the true situation proved to be far worse than anything in his novel).

What this all meant was that as the 19th Century came to an end, the perspective of English speakers had become global — they lived in a wide world with many different cultures and skin colours. Many of the depictions of these cultures were skewed, and some bore very little resemblance to reality. But, they were present, and the first half of the twentieth century would only reinforce this.

The World Goes to War, and Gets Even Bigger

The first half of the twentieth century is marked by two cataclysmic wars. And while millions of people would die (around 11 million in World War I and 70 million in World War II), it also had a marked impact on the way English speakers viewed the world. Almost none of the battlefields had been in any English speaking countries. This, in turn, meant that almost all of those who served did so abroad, visiting places they had only read about. The foreign travel that they had been barred from due to lack of means became a reality, albeit under arms.

Cover from C.S. Forester’s The African Queen (source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:AfricanQueen.jpg)

This sustained hunger for adventure stories in foreign climes. Many of them, however, were now framed through the lens of the war, such as The African Queen. It also fuelled the activist literature, with a new level of introspection. Writers like George Orwell pondered the reality of colonialism they had witnessed in essays like “Shooting an Elephant,” as well as the interplay between the colonizer and the colonized. While the “white man’s burden” remained, it had become considerably more murky, despite efforts through pseudoscience to prove the higher intelligence of white Westerners.

Between and after the wars, however, the basic problem remained: English-speakers wanted to visit and experience other places, but while the advent of the airplane had made travel easier, it was still expensive enough that many could not afford it. Happily, there was a solution, and it appeared in theatres across the country.

Enter the Motion Picture

Often forgotten is the degree to which movies right into the 1970s were a form of vicarious tourism. Moviegoers might not be able to afford an African safari, but they could watch the film adaptation of The African Queen. They might not be able to visit the Far East, but they could sit down for a showing of The King and I. James Bond movies would take them around the world, showing viewers exotic places they had read about but never seen.

Like earlier depictions, these representations could be problematic. Between the combination of the racial politics of the 1950s and 1960s and the perceived need for star power, yellowface became a common occurrence. The most infamous example is the casting of John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conquerer, but while this may have been the most egregious, it was also par for the course — Yul Brynner not only played the King of Siam (modern day Thailand) in The King and I, he also played Ramses in The Ten Commandments. Alec Guinness and Omar Shariff played Arabian Sheiks in Lawrence of Arabia. When depicting places abroad, star power trumped skin colour.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Ten_Commandments_(1956_film_poster).jpg

However, when movie crews travelled abroad this casting was not necessary a problem for the people they were depicting. Lawrence of Arabia was able to film in the locations where many of the events they were dramatizing had actually taken place, and many of the extras were Arabs who had known the men being portrayed by these Western actors. They were welcomed rather than shunned. Being able to see their heroes depicted in a big Hollywood movie mattered more to them than whether the actors in the role were Arabs.

Many places, however, were recreated. While some movies travelled, others reproduced exotic locales in film studios or found substitute locations. But, this was still in service of bringing the world to the moviegoer, with all of its exotic people on full display. The average American may not have cared much about the diversity in their own country, but they wanted to see the rest of the world.

By the 1970s this was, however, beginning to change, possibly because travel was becoming more affordable, and possibly because the Civil Rights movement had made movie audiences much more interested in seeing blacks on film.

Black Cinema

One of the earliest attempts at representing the black experience came from Walt Disney: The Song of the South. By the onset of the Second World War, he wanted to make a movie based on Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus stories. Harris was a journalist who had spent part of the Reconstruction period talking to former slaves, and he used Uncle Remus as a framing device to record their folk tales, in his best rendition of their dialect. For the slaves, these stories were all that remained of the culture of their African homelands — most did not even know what part of Africa their families had been taken from, and their history had been erased by the slave trade and generations of forced labour on plantations.

The production of the film was fraught. The first outline Disney received from the man he had hired to write the script, Dalton Raymond, was so racist that the Hayes Office required terms like “old darkie” to be taken out. Disney hired an African American writer named Clarence Muse to consult on the screenplay, but Muse quit after Raymond refused to depict black people as anything other than Southern stereotypes. The screenplay was then handed over to Maurice Rapf, who made extensive changes.

The finished product was controversial. At the time of release, critics either loved it or hated it. Some considered the portrayal of blacks to be backwards stereotypes, and a number of civil rights activists took exception to the depiction of blacks as subservient. Muddying the waters was an early misconception that the film was set during slavery, and an apparent feud between Walter Francis White, the executive director of the NAACP, and one of the actresses, Hattie McDaniel, due to the fact that McDaniel was darker skinned. But, for all of its controversy, it was a hit with audiences. Filmgoers wanted to see black people, as well as their folk tales, depicted on the screen, and by the time of its final re-release, the movie had grossed $65 million off of a $2.125 million budget.

Outside of the studio system, there were the “race” films of the 1910s to 1950s, which featured black actors in leading roles, but these were usually bankrolled, written, and directed by whites. In many ways, African American voices were just waiting to be heard. This came about in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s with a wave of “Blaxsploitation” films.

Unlike the “race” films, these were usually written and directed by black filmmakers. They used these films to explore the issues as they saw them, and (in some cases influenced by the Black Power movement) they presented their protagonists as they themselves wanted black people to be seen. Blaxsploitation protagonists were anything but subservient or victims in movies about the modern day. They were cool, powerful, and virile. When society oppressed them, they fought back and won. They kicked ass, took names, and then kicked ass again. Blaxsploitation movies about slavery threw aside the sanitized depictions of mainstream Hollywood and presented its true violence and horror.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Shaftposter.jpg

Unlike the “race” films, they also found and held a mainstream audience. American audiences wanted to see black people and black stories. The studio system noticed, and this opened the door to black filmmakers in the 1980s like Spike Lee to explore the issues facing them in mainstream cinema. This success also upset organizations like the NAACP, who saw this unfettered expression of black stories and identity as a threat to what they were attempting to accomplish, and they began a campaign that would eventually kill the genre.

However, African American culture had been properly introduced to America, and generally embraced. Audiences loved it, and wanted more. Mainstream cinema began to incorporate features of Blaxsploitation. This, however, was not the only representation to have a massive cultural impact. At the same time that African American culture was being embraced through black voices on the screen, Asian cinema was doing the same.

Coming out of Hong Kong and spearheaded by Bruce Lee, and later Jackie Chan, the Hong Kong action genre was dynamic, exciting, and unlike anything Western cinema was doing. When it reached the shores of North America, it became a massive hit. These were very much Asian voices — while Western stuntmen would eventually travel to Hong Kong to work on these films, there was little of the Western World about them. Some, such as Bruce Lee’s Fists of Fury, explored the Japanese occupation of mainland China and the tensions of the time between the Chinese and Japanese. Hollywood reacted by reinventing the action genre around what they were learning from Hong Kong, and some filmmakers like John Woo would become celebrities in Western mainstream filmmaking.

These are just two primary examples — there are many more (when Rotten Tomatoes put up a guide of LGBTQ+ movies, it had 200 entries going back 90 years). Thus, the filmmaking of the 1980s and 1990s was built upon and heavily influenced by diverse voices. What these voices had to say and explore had been embraced by North American audiences. And the 1970s was also a sea change in other ways — with films like Star Wars and Alien, women were emerging in heroic roles. While there was still a bias towards stories that represented the American majority audience, the minorities were present and accounted for, and often speaking for themselves. While some were presented as stereotypes, these were far fewer than they had been in the 1950s and 60s, when minority roles were more likely than not to be an stereotype of some sort.

But with the advent of the culture war, this representation would take a massive step backwards.

Enter the Culture War

The left-leaning side of the culture war is governed by a specific ideological framework, and everything is viewed through this framework. Based on Marxist ideology, social groups are divided into two categories: oppressor and oppressed. Any visible or non-visible minority is therefore expected to fit into one of these roles, regardless of their actual situation. Racism is redefined from any type of bigotry to bigotry towards an oppressed group. And this creates perverse results and the mass erasure of actual diversity.

One of the first to go was The Song of the South. The film had always been controversial, but with the Uncle Remus books long in the past, it had also been one of the few places where the folklore and remaining heritage of black slaves had been preserved. Now seen as entirely racist, it was suppressed, and with it that heritage was erased.

Following this was a reimagining of minority identities. Even though the Blaxsploitation films were created by black people and represented how they saw the world and wanted to relate to it, they were relegated to victim status. Black filmmakers of the 1970s had told stories about fighting against discrimination and winning — now what became important was not victory over their suffering, but the suffering itself. Anti-racist claims about black people’s inability to succeed had less in common with the Civil Rights Movement than it did with their opponents and the KKK. Visible minorities were acceptable, but as suffering victims of oppression.

This created truly perverse results. A video game titled A Night in the Woods, which presented a number of queer characters who were well developed and living their lives, was damned because these characters were not suffering enough. A movie titled The Woman King erased the role of the colonial powers in ending African slavery, and changed the kingdom of Dahomey from a slave trading nation known for its brutality into a champion against it, much to the disgust of the black community, many of whose ancestors had been enslaved by the Dahomey.

This type of erasure occurred across multiple ethnic groups. Narratives that fit the oppressor-oppressed model were accepted, those that did not were suppressed. Minority authors speaking their truth about their communities found opposition whenever they presented anything that went against the model. Those who dared to write about another culture were sometimes told to stay in their lane and just change the characters to be their own culture, as though the experiences of different minority cultures were interchangeable. And some cultures were just erased — the much criticized revisions of Roald Dahl’s childrens books removed the word “Bedouin” from at least one passage. Egypt — a country with a North African population that has been there for millennia — went from having its history co-opted by American white supremacists to having it be co-opted by American black supremacists, with the actual people of Egypt being hand-waved away as colonizers.

But worse was to come. As the culture war gained momentum, the depiction of minorities began to move backwards into many of the very same offensive stereotypes that had been shrugged off during the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Star Trek Discovery presented an all-female bridge crew that dramatized the misogynist complaints about women in combat. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever presented the government of a supposedly modern African nation as wearing loincloths and making monkey noises — a level of racism that would have been shocking a hundred years ago, much less today.

That was if these cultures or stories were depicted at all. Race swapping of characters and historical figures became commonplace, with figures like Anne Boleyn and Cleopatra being recast as black, and any protestations met with claims of racism. But the true racism was in the race-swapping itself — rather than tell more new stories of visible minority characters or tell the stories of previously unexplored historical figures from around the world, minorities are expected to accept a form of “sloppy seconds.” Their own cultures and stories aren’t worthy of depiction, but they can have a piece of a previously existing story — and only so long as they fit into the roles set out for them by the culture warriors.

In a lot of ways, it is a perverse resurrection of the “white man’s burden” — based on the actions of the culture warriors, Western culture has an obligation to take the less advanced minorities and fit them into the superior Western culture. The end result is not diversity, but erasure. Erasure of those stories that do not fit the ideology, and erasure of the history that contradicts it. This is the true legacy of the left-leaning side of the culture war.




Robert B. Marks

Robert B. Marks is a writer, editor, and researcher. His pop culture work has appeared in places like Comics Games Magazine.