Today, diversity is a fact of life – and, increasingly, of fiction. Look at the publication lists of any major publisher today, and you can’t miss the interest in the experience of women, ethnic minorities, and LGBQT+ communities. However, writing diversity is not as easy as sympathy or a will to justice. Unless you think about what you doing, your attempt at researching and writing diversity can falter from carelessness, misguided good intentions, or unexamined assumptions. If you are not careful, you can even bog down in outdated perspectives in a new disguise.
Here are nine potential ways efforts at diversity can be a problem:
Thinking It’s About You
A few years ago, I came across an article entitled, “How to write a sexist character without being sexist.” However, a more accurate description would have been, “How to write a sexist character without the character’s opinions being mistaken for yours.” That intent has always seemed to me a distracting intrusion of the writer into the story — as well as an extreme case of insecurity. It’s also a waste of effort, because any story can be misread by some reader, no matter how careful you are. If you want to express your social opinions, write an essay.
Hang around any online writer’s group, and sooner or later you will come across an aspiring writer who is going to Do Things Properly. Their cast of characters will include at least one disabled character, one ethnic, and one for each letter of LGBTQ+. Aside from the unlikelihood of a perfectly distributed group of people getting together, the result is an awkwardly large task. The fact that many of those characters are likely to exist only to fill out the roster only interferes with the storytelling. Unsurprisingly, this tokenism gone wild rarely results in a finished book, let alone a publishable one.
Assuming that those you write about are willing to help you
Your research or a sensitivity reading may matter to you, but are probably unimportant to those you write about. They have lives that don’t include you, and many have grown tired of misrepresentations.
Believing that one person speaks for an entire group
No, not even if they hold an elected office. Get a variety of comments so that you know the range of opinions. Then depict that range.
Thinking you know better than the group you depict
The willingness of a group to be portrayed, or to have its stories told varies. Some cultures are exclusionary, and view their stories as property. Others have stories that can be freely told, and stories that are family property. A few might even be unconcerned who depicts them or tells their stories. It should go without saying that these preferences should be respected without any qualification. Your opinion does not give you the right to say what is appropriate one way or the other.
Insisting that the right to storytelling or depiction is a matter of blood
Too often, people who pride themselves on their sensitivity maintain that you can only approach certain topics if you belong to the group itself. This position is embarrassingly close to racialism.
Moreover, it quickly descends into an absurdity that is never discussed, but hovers at the edge of awareness. If only one of your parents belongs to a culture, do you still have the right to depict it? What about only one grandparent? Are the rights matrilineal, patrilineal, or bilineal? What if your ancestors belong to the culture, but you were raised in another one? Culture is not a matter of genetics.
You do not need to belong to a group to understand it. However, the assumption that rights in a culture depend on the family you were born into discounts this self-evident fact out of hand. For example, my blogging partner, Jessica Larson-Wang is American, but lived in China for nearly two decades and married a Chinese citizen. Obviously, she has picked up some understanding of the cultures in China. Yet a surprising number of people insist she has no right to express that understanding, much less write about China herself. Possibly, her knowledge might be incomplete or contradicted by another source, and must be evaluated like any other sources, but an unexamined rejection is simply absurd. These days, outside experts may even be hired by a culture for their knowledge — and if they are good enough for members of the culture, they should be good enough for you.
“Woke-splaining” is a word I have coined by analogy to “mansplaining.” Just as a mansplainer is a man who explains to women what they already know, a woke-splainer insists that, by virtue of their social and political opinions, they know better than the members of a group they write about. Sometimes, they may actually do so, but the fallacy lies in the automatic assumption. For instance, one commenter attacked my article about whether the painter Emily Carr was guilty of cultural appropriation, insisting that what was discussed was not really cultural appropriation. Yet I consulted several of the First Nations that Carr depicted — most of them artists — and every single one of them saw some of her work as appropriation, and discussed it in those terms. Sorry — you don’t get to make judgments on the assumption that you know better because of your views.
Assuming that cultures are static
History shows that cultures continually change, often as the result of contact with other cultures For example, the cultures of the Pacific Northwest have altered drastically in over two centuries of contact with European settlers — not only through subjugation and epidemics, but also through the introduction of steel tools and paints and dyes that have enhanced their arts. True, through those two centuries, a core of customs and values has survived, but to deny that change happens goes against observable fact. Yet fantasies in particular are prone to depit cultures that have stayed the same for centuries, especially low-tech ones.
What makes static representations ironic is that they uncomfortably echo the views of capitalists and imperialists. When a culture is seen as a brand, as a commodity of value only when it can be sold, consistency of product is a necessary virtue. Yet to insist on that consistency is to deny the humanity of the people of those cultures – and that’s the opposite of what diversity and writing ought to be about.
I realize that much of what I say here will provoke reflex outrage in certain circles. Many people act as though, having declared themselves supporters of diversity, they have no need to examine their own attitudes. However, that kind of arrogance easily overshadows the point of diversity: respect for others and the depiction of everyone as human and equal. It is no longer enough just to declare yourself empathic or against cultural appropriation. You have to avoid the arrogance that comes with holding correct opinions, and learn about and listen to those you are writing about.
At the same time, don’t let this list scare you away from diversity. Attempts to depict other people and other cultures are as old as the novel or the short story – especially if you are writing fantasy or science fiction. However, these days, writing other cultures is under closer scrutiny than ever, and the standard is higher than ever before. We all make mistakes, and the point is not to be perfect, but to try and do better next time.