Reflecting on the ‘Diversity Day’ episode as a specific instance, one could argue ‘The Office’ commonly operates to destabilize ethnic stereotyping using strategies that are effective in what Stuart Hall refers to a trans-coding of the meanings often conveyed by racial stereotypes. This in turn works in leading those meanings to “slip and slide […] into different directions.” (۲۷۰)
Through his iconic last name, corporate’s diversity ambassador, Mr. Brown, plays out a central stereotype which is outwardly perpetuated by Michael who naively presumes his name serves the sole purpose of putting his political correctness to test. This is a behaviour Michael repeatedly displays including when he asks Oscar if he would like to be addressed by something less offensive than ‘Mexican’ or when he tells Stanley he is in a ‘colour-free zone’ and does not view him as another race. The immediate reminders that there is nothing wrong with using the words Brown or Mexican is an attempt to “construct a positive identification with what has been abjected”, a reminder to accept and celebrate difference. (Hall 272) Mr. Brown embodies this idea further by suggesting that they re-enact an offensive comedy routine repeatedly performed by Michael, this time “with a more positive outcome”.
Similarly, the roles of the two binary opposites are reversed when Kelly reacts to Michael imitating the East Indian accent by unexpectedly slapping him in the face and walking away, briefly shifting the power dynamics at play. Michael’s shocked response perhaps echoes nothing but his embodiment of the new position: “Alright she gets it. Now she knows what it’s like to be a minority.” Having been physically violated, Michael seems to be – as Hall puts it – “trapped in [his] stereotypical ‘other’.” (۲۷۲) Same can be deciphered from how the concept of heroism is derailed and defined within an entirely opposite framework. While HERO at first stands in for what feels like a synthetic, ingredient-based recipe for diversity comprised of honesty, empathy, respect and open-mindedness, Dwight is quick to point out contradictory notions such as the claim that a hero kills people and is “born out of a childhood trauma or a disaster that must be avenged.” While he may be referring to a typical super-hero in Hollywood (as another example of an infrastructure operating on ethnocentric ideologies), it’s not a coincidence for his reversed definition to share elements with how a ‘terrorist other’ in defined within yet another relevant binary structure.
Additionally, in spite of dismissing corporate’s strategy as ineffective, shallow and impersonal and undermining Mr. Brown’s authority figure by mocking and later ripping up the commitment he is forced to sign, Michael establishes diversity as a more personal and deep seated matter, sharing the following views before he gets his team to revisit the topic in a different style: “Was there any emotion? where was the heart? where was my Oprah moment? […] he got us half way there, he got us talking.” The office staff are then asked to engage in a team exercise in which each performs stereotypically in order to correctly hint at the racial label the others wear blindly on their foreheads. Michael asks everyone to deliberately provoke one another and “stir the pot”, pointing out “this is real life” and not a game. As the interactions continue, they become increasingly forced, insensitive and uncomfortable, something that the characters and the viewer experience in unison and shares elements with Hall’s idea of contesting representation from within. (274) By embodying the stereotypical system of representation in an exaggerated manner, the participants come to a new awareness on the unsettling realities of their time and are forced to look at them up close as a way to “make the stereotypes work against themselves”. (Hall 274)
Stuart Hall defines the final trans-coding strategy as one which “accepts and works with the shifting, unstable character of meaning, and enters, as it were, into a struggle over representation, while acknowledging that, since meaning can never be finally fixed, there can never be any final victories.” (۲۷۴) ‘Diversity Day’ depicts this theory in the variety of ways in which it tackles and frames diversity and representation, alternating within a spectrum of inappropriate, poorly handled jokes, critically engaged observations, sheer political correctness, as well as superficially enforced formalities that are mocked and dodged.
Hall, Stuart, ed. Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. 234, 259, .: SAGE Publications, 1997. Print.