If you’ve ever been in an online writing community discussing diversity, likely you’ve seen the phrase “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” once or twice (or twenty times) in various discussions over the past few years. The usual complaint, mostly from white writers, is something along the lines of “I’m expected to write diverse characters, but when I do, I’m accused of appropriation or tokenism! What’s a writer to do?”
If you argue with these people, they will have sad stories about how they were attacked online when they revealed their intention to write a story set in feudal Japan, or how the Black sidekick in their story was called a token character (the Black sidekick didn’t even die first, she died second, so what was the problem?!). They’ll tell you that they were directed by agents to make their stories more diverse OR ELSE but they have no idea how to do this while still avoiding criticism because, you guessed it, they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
While the “damned if they don’t” portion of the phrase is certainly debatable, there are many in the publishing industry who believe that increased diversity in fiction is a good and positive thing. The diversity reflected in the books published today reflect the diversity of the world we live in, and writing diversity opens up greater opportunities for marginalized people to see themselves represented in the books they read. So, even if writers who do not write diversity are not exactly “damned,” writing diversity is certainly encouraged. Although I certainly take issue with the idea that this diversity is somehow forced of required of writers, I do agree that publishing is better off for having (at least partially) embraced the idea of representation for all.
So what about the “damned if they do?” Are authors who, having given into the inevitability of being “forced” to write diverse books then persecuted for not doing it correctly? Perhaps, a better question is: if writers approach the very idea of writing diversity from the perspective of having been “forced” to do something they never wanted to do in the first place, what are the chances that they’ll do their diverse characters justice? In fact, if someone approaches writing diverse worlds and populating them with diverse characters with willingness and an open mind, then writing diversity well isn’t really all that difficult.
I could write entire essays on how to avoid cultural appropriation, tokenism, and bad representation, but before a writer can tackle any of these (very important) questions, the writer must first must make sure that the attempt at writing marginalized groups is made in good faith. If the writer is only grudgingly including a few marginalized characters in order to ward off the haters, then the accusation of tokenism is sure to follow because your diverse characters are by nature just that — tokens. If you want to avoid being accused of writing token characters, don’t treat your characters as items on a checklist that you tick off in order to avoid criticism.
Likewise, while avoiding cultural appropriation can be tricky, at the heart of the matter is a very simple principle: respect. The writer must show true respect for the cultures and people they choose to represent. Once more, someone who believes they have been “forced” or “damned” to write diversity is unlikely to treat their subjects with the respect they deserve. These might be the writers who believe that being anime fans gives them the freedom and expertise needed to write about Japan, or who writes about First Nations cultures with only the barest knowledge imparted by the mainstream culture, not bothering to do in-depth research. These writers might defensively say “it’s all fiction anyhow, why do I have to be accurate?” There are complicated and interesting answers to those questions that have to do with colonialism and power dynamics, but the simple answer has to do with respect. If you respect another culture, you attempt to it justice.
A big part of the problem lies in the assumption that a writer, white or otherwise, must always produce something that is above criticism, and that all criticism must be avoided. Instead seeing criticism as an opportunity for growth, a chance to do better next time, the criticism is seen as a condemnation. The recipient of this criticism becomes bitter in a way that does not seem to happen with other types of criticism. If I criticize a writer’s plot or characterization, a writer may thank me and make necessary adjustments, but if I criticize the same writer’s depiction of marginalized groups, the bad-faith writer will take this as further evidence of “damned if you do damned if you don’t.”
In defense of the criticism-wary writers, their apprehension is somewhat understandable in a world where Twitter outrage often takes on a life of it’s own and a stray insensitive or unthoughtful remark can undo years of goodwill. Whether or not this is particularly likely to happen to any given writer is a topic for another day, but many writers seem to take the mere possibility of such a thing as a good excuse not to even try. In fact, often in the face of social-media outrage, good faith acceptance of criticism can go a long way towards dousing even the hottest flames.
It seems to me that the “damned if you do,” is often a direct result of taking the “damned if you don’t” approach to writing diversity. If writers approach writing diversity as an opportunity to make their work more dynamic, realistic, and frankly, interesting, instead of approaching it as a task or a chore, they’re more likely to approach it with the sensitivity and respect necessary to write diversity well. The writer writing in good faith, who is willing to accept criticism for the mistakes they make and who vows to listen and do better next time truly has nothing to fear.