Diversity and the “Cultural Elite” of New York

by Guest Contributor Joanna Eng

The September 25 issue of Time Out New York (TONY) featured a list of their favorite 40 New Yorkers who have made an impact on the city in the past 13 years. I was appalled to see that out of the 40 cultural leaders that they highlighted, only three were people of color (Jay-Z, Derek Jeter, and Junot Diaz), two weren’t even human (Spider-Man and the MetroCard), and the other 35 were white.

Right after reading the issue, I and probably hundreds of other readers wrote letters to TONY to call them out on their list’s glaring lack of diversity as it tried to represent one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world. In my letter I said, “Rather than reminding us that white people are still in power, you could have been a little more creative with this list.” And I proceeded to list several people I would have liked to see on the list: Rosario Dawson, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Jean Grae, David Paterson, Chang-Rae Lee, Rosie Perez, Majora Carter, Rosie Mendez, etc.

They must have gotten quite a number of these letters, because a week later they had posted a piece online called “Where are all the people of color?” In the article, a TONY editor basically continued to defend and justify the lack of diversity in the list, and sparked even more angry comments from readers. The response piece, in some ways, was even more appalling than the original list because it showed no sign of regret and stated even more clearly (in case we didn’t get the point the first time) that they believed that New York’s “cultural elite” was made up of mostly white people.

After commenters threatened to cancel their subscriptions and criticized the editorial staff for being clueless and lacking in diversity themselves, TONY must have started to realize the significance of their mistake. I received an email from another editor saying that they were preparing for a future issue on the topic and were looking for suggestions of more people of color that readers would have liked to see on the list. So I wrote back listing a few more people I had thought of since, such as James McBride, Pauline Park, and Nydia Velazquez. Even though my respect for TONY was waning, I was eager to see what they would do next.

The November 6 issue displays the result of their scrambling to make things right. The feature of the issue focuses on what is most essential to New York City, and the first topic they address is diversity. They asked questions about diversity and multiculturalism to a panel of 15 well-known New Yorkers including Santogold, Talib Kweli, James McBride, Vijay Iyer, and Young Jean Lee. TONY showed themselves to be naive with some of their questions; for example, “Are we a melting pot or a mosaic?” and “Is ‘color-blind’ the right approach?” But I did appreciate the fact that that they published these panelists’ responses, including some harsh criticisms of TONY, like Danny Hoch saying: “Only entitled white people who are in charge possess the cluelessness to ask these benign questions in 2008.” I get the vibe that TONY still doesn’t fully understand what the problem was in the first place, but is at least willing to host conversations about racism, gentrification, and diversity.

On the last page of the article about diversity, there’s a box that says, “Despite NYC’s diversity, it’s not often that you find yourself amid a nice racial mix. Here are some of our favorite places to break out of the monochromatic social scene.” They list 10 places you can go to hang out among a mixed crowd (like TV On the Radio concerts and the New York Public Library). It got me thinking about the places I hang out and whether it is actually difficult to find racially diverse spots. Sure, there are plenty of bars and restaurants and venues in the city that are chock full of people from similar backgrounds, but I don’t think you really have to look that far to find a place with a more diverse crowd. (I might not use Time Out New York to find it, though!)

Readers in New York and other culturally diverse places, what has your experience been? When you go out, is a diverse crowd the norm or the exception?