My high school agenda book had riddles, story problems and logic puzzles in the margins. A friend pointed out how one of them involved three characters: Abdul, Bjorn, and I can’t remember the third one, but let’s say it was Hymie. We laughed at how forced the picture they were painting was, of a world of ethnic diversity and harmony. Of course, our Vancouver school was pretty evenly comprised of Chinese, Filipino, Portuguese and mixed northern European mutts, but that was normal to us. And we were all united in Catholicism and conformity - but our conformity included Chinese, Filipinos, Portuguese and whitebread mutts. We didn’t know anyone named Abdul, Bjorn or Hymie. Who did? Who does? Apple does.
I was at the Apple store in downtown Toronto, sitting at the genius bar, getting something installed in my laptop, which took a while, and mostly involved waiting. The guy helping me, in conversation with another employee, joked about how when customers try to describe which person helped them the last time they were in, they’ll sometimes say it was “the guy with the tattoos” or “the girl with the piercings” and how that doesn’t narrow it down at all.
That got me looking. They were right. Plenty of store employees had tattoos on their arms, necks, hands, and piercings in their lips, eyebrows, noses. Some had beards, some were unshaven, some had scruffy hair. One guy who works at the downtown Vancouver store I go to wears a fedora, tilted backward at a hipsterish angle. These are the public faces of a corporation on par with Disney and McDonald’s, both of which strongly regulate their employees’ hair length and style (Disney's appearance guidelines run seventeen pages), and expressly forbid anything but the most modest of earrings - and only on girls’ earlobes, at that. In a touch that borders on self-parody, Disney’s theme park employees are expressly warned against frowning.
I asked the guy helping me if there had been any rules laid down from management tattoos or piercings or anything like that. No. Nothing. His previous employer - Tim Horton’s Donuts - had hassled him. The manager told him his earrings were inappropriate. He wore those big circles - about the size of a nickel - within the earlobe. He’d looked up the regulations and it turns out he’s allowed to wear earrings, and there was no reference to their size or style, but the manager made a judgment call, and in doing so, lost an employee.
Another thing - the Apple store employees were of both genders, and various skin colours. White guys don’t have a monopoly on computer expertise, it seems. And it’s not unusual for the advice I get at the Vancouver store to come in a Russian, French or Brazilian accent. The customers covered every colour on the spectrum too. Part of how they run the Apple store inadvertently (or maybe very deliberately) emphasizes this.
Let me take a moment to explain what the “Genius Bar” is, for anyone who doesn’t know. Official Apple stores - not computer stores who sell Apple computers among other things, but stores that sell nothing but Apple products - most of which are in malls - have a long counter at the back called the Genius Bar. If you’re having trouble with your computer, your iPhone, iPod, iPad, you go on to the Apple Store’s website, book an appointment, bring your thing in, and they’ll look at it, give you advice on it, or even work on it for free. If they have to replace a part or keep it overnight to work on it, they’ll charge you for that. And of course, the solution to your problem might be to sell you something they have in the store. There are screens behind the Genius Bar showing a rotating series of tips on how to use your Apple products better, and every few minutes the list of names for upcoming appointments pops up, so you can get a sense of how long you’ll have to wait.
Given that the installation on my computer took a while, I had time to sit there and look at the names, and they paint a picture of diversity I’d noticed in previous visits. Here are a few from this last time there:
Nini N. (there was one of those little wavy lines over the second n in Nini)
With those examples I’ve favoured ethnic, or otherwise non white bread names. Here are some from the white bread category:
These names don’t necessarily belong to white bread people. A Chinese guy came up to the stool next to mine when one of the Apple geniuses called out for “Ryan”. No one came up when they called for “Panagiotis T”. Maybe they were pronouncing it wrong. They tried it with the hard and the soft G. Multiple times. No luck. Which is a shame. I would love to have seen what a Panagiotis looks like. I’d probably have been disappointed. I’m sure he looks like most people. My full first name, incidentally, would have wound up in the diversity list: “Ti-Jon,” and there’s no way they would have pronounced it right (you need to give the J the soft French pronunciation)(and the first part is pronounced “tee”).
This is a diversity I don’t see in my own profession. The world of theatre is incredibly white, and very male-centred. There’s ready acceptance for gay men, and that shouldn’t be discounted. And women seem to be on equal footing in fringe theatre, but fringe plays are self-produced, and the fact that so many women are self-producing means their work isn’t being presented by the big boys. And the audience is pretty white. Shows by ethnic performers often have that person’s ethnicity as the central hook of the piece, and draw audience from that ethnic community, which doesn’t go to see other plays.
Hollywood movies are extremely white and male centred. Chow Yun Fat’s time as a leading man in American movies was short, and you don’t see Lucy Liu in lead roles anymore. Black actors usually play “the black character” (the one consistent exception I can think of is Will Smith), Latinos play “the Latino/a character”. Movies with women in the lead are dismissed by men as chick flicks and avoided at all costs. And when’s the last time you saw a TV show with a main character named Tova, Tariq or Tiago?
It’s a rare actor who sports tattoos or piercings. Actors deliberately cultivate a sort of standard look in order to play any role. There are only so many casting possibilities for someone with visible tattoos, a tongue stud, purple hair or an imperfect physique. To assert your individuality is to eliminate the possibility of playing leading roles.
Movies and TV shows purport to tell stories about regular people - usually going through irregular experiences. And yet they ignore the story possibilities of increasingly larger chunks of the population because of their perception that the important part of the audience is white 18 - 24 year old males. Plays cast their nets wider, but only slightly, and probably because ticket prices are higher, and young males aren’t in the habit of going to the theatre. Older white women are - and despite this, it’s still exceedingly rare for a play to have as many female characters as male, much less more women than men.
Is Apple deliberately diverse because there’s a market for it, or did they have a corporate philosophy that championed difference in the first place? I don’t know. Their website does say “We are committed to diversity. Apple is an Equal Employment Opportunity and Affirmative Action Employer,” but that doesn’t mean they’d allow lobe expanding earrings and hipster hats. I highly doubt there was no consideration given as to how they wanted their store employees to look. Their employees' individuality, by the way, is granted right up to the point of making them all wear the same blue t-shirts, which quietly advertise the iPad. And my experiences in Apple stores have been limited to Vancouver and Toronto, both cities with immigrant populations who proudly hold on to their culture. There might be fewer Avitanias, Abdullahs and Mooyups waiting at the genius bars in Winnipeg or Omaha.
But the world of mixed colours I exited when I left high school for university and the theatre world reappears when I go to the Apple store, diversified even more with piercings, tattoos and religions other than Catholicism. It’s a world where at least one major corporation doesn’t insist its employees look like Ken and Barbie in order to soothe the sensibilities of a customer base it presumes looks and thinks like Ken and Barbie. This world, full of skin tones, languages, accents and names you’d never encounter as the protagonist of a movie, is with me in line at the grocery store, at the climbing gym, going through airport security and riding public transit. It’s the world of my old high school agenda book's story problem. Damn, they kind of got it right.
To read more on this topic, Trevor Malkinson's article An Irishman in Bordeaux - a piece about postmodern relativism - ends with a look at a way forward that promotes both diversity and commonality at the same time.