To Write (or not write) with Diversity
No one can force you to write inclusive stories. Inclusive meaning media that consists of marginalized people, because that is what diversity really is – including people who have always been right there, but have been purposefully left out and erased from the pages of books and scripts. Those who are, when finally represented, are overwhelmingly assigned small, unflattering, and / or stereotypical roles.
Pages like Writing With Color are an offering. Our presence here is for those who choose to write with diversity. We aim to make being inclusive easier because we all believe in the importance of it. But as much as we know how enriching diversity can be, we cannot convince you to do something you don’t necessarily believe in.
Don’t do it because you feel forced
As you mentioned, you’ve read the posts. You know the facts. The decision cannot be forced upon you. If anything, including diversity out of obligation alone could lead to bad representation. Forcing people to do things without motivation usually means it’ll lack effort, or be done with spite. Trust me when I say marginalized people don’t usually want to see themselves represented by someone who does not want them there. That unwelcome feeling shows. In short: Lack of representation hurts. Bad representation hurts worse.
I only ask that you have accountability.
Now that you’re aware that your works default to white, you have a choice to make. I think a lot of us grew up reading and writing very white stories – both as PoC and white people – but once you possess the knowledge that things can be different, your next step is a conscious one. You’re not on auto-pilot anymore when you make everyone white (and/or straight, able-bodied, etc). You know better now. Own up to your choices.
So ask yourself: why have I chosen to write without diversity?
I’m afraid to write People of Color.
Being uncomfortable writing People of Color is a big reason why people stick to writing white people, and only garnish their stories with PoC, if that. White people have long been the default, the everyman. White perspectives are “neutral” to approach. It’s daunting to go from feeling you can portray characters in whatever way you wish to suddenly having the weight of good versus harmful representation on your shoulders.
You don’t want backlash from getting it wrong. You also don’t want to be insensitive to groups. It’s easy to avoid writing them altogether, right? Sure.
Be aware, though:
You’re making a choice to exclude people out of fear.
Of course, new things are scary. But that’s okay! Courage is the ability to do things that frighten you. Face your fears. Will you shrink away from the challenge, or use it to your advantage?
Let the fear fuel you to do better and to know better. Your concerns about writing PoC can drive you to get the research right in order to best represent people. If your fear is leading to more effort into thoughtful creation, you’re putting it to good use.
Let me tell you right now – you will mess up.
Maybe in small ways, perhaps in a big way. But mistakes will not kick start the apocalypse. Ideally:
- Do your research to avoid the most obvious and devastating mistakes from the jump.
- Equip yourself with the right beta-reader and sensitivity readers to catch those things.
Even with errors, your story can be quite enjoyable for people who hardly see themselves represented. Yes, mistakes and all.
As a Black woman bookworm, if you write an exciting story about a Black girl on adventures and falling in love but mention a few questionable things about how she takes care of her hair…I will wince, but it won’t ruin the book for me. I’m willing to overlook some things, for the sake of my enjoyment, and let the author know how I felt about those parts in hopes they can improve.
Say you get something real important wrong. People call you out for it. I suggest you apologize, listen to their critiques, and do better. If possible, pull back the story and re-release when you’ve improved the piece. If that’s not an option, fix it in future works. Getting a finger wagged at you doesn’t mean lock up in fear and never write with diversity again. It means you improve.
Research PoC like you would on any topic:
For comparison’s sake, consider writing People of Color (or any group different from you) like writing other topics you’re unfamiliar with in-depth.
For example: You may know the basics on Medieval England. The knights, royalty, and so on. But i’m sure there’s a lot of misconceptions mixed in there from television or unreliable sources.
- To write people from this perspective, you would do lots of additional research… right?
- If someone mentioned how you messed up on some of the facts, you would take note and dig into it more for the future…right?
- You might even have more experienced persons check your facts for accuracy beforehand to do the best job possible.
Approach researching PoC in the same way as other topics. There may not be hard facts on how to write an X character, but there are portrayals to avoid with explanations why, and roles people want to see themselves in.
I don’t like to be told what to write.
There’s this misconception that writing with diversity restricts creativity. I get it – there are things you’re being told not to do when writing certain groups. The lists of No’s can get dense. This reflects how poor representation has been for People of Color as there are a number of stereotypical portrayals folks are tired of seeing and has been detrimental to them.
Fiction simply reflects real life: People of Color being viewed through the lens of preconceived notions means being written on with those stereotypes in mind. It is a vicious cycle. Stereotypes are more than an annoyance – they can and do lead to real life consequences.
Being treated like a stereotype lowers our quality of life. Experiencing racism and daily microaggressions has a psychological effect – from insecurity, depression and PTSD – it is serious. (X)
Viewing People of Color by their stereotypes is what makes, say, a Black person who speaks with passion no matter what it’s about (and even if they’ve been wronged) too hostile and “Angry” to take seriously. If anything, they’re now a serious threat. And that’s dangerous for them.
Put yourself in the shoes of the overly typecast.
Think of a time someone misunderstood you. You had a bad day and acted grumpy. Well, being a grump defines who you are now. When asked, people describe you as crabby and humorless. Every new person you meet sees your every action through that lens.
Strangers tiptoe around you, as they can just tell you’re ill-tempered. Peers choose their words carefully, afraid of what might spark your wrath. Your children even inherit the title; teachers discipline them more and take other students’ word over theirs- your kids are snappy, difficult, and known to not play well with others, after all.
Wouldn’t that get old? Wouldn’t you feel it was unfair to be reduced to a label, and that you’re sick of being defined by it? Wouldn’t you have the desire to be seen for who you truly are, and can be? Perhaps you do get grumpy sometimes, which is just being human. You’re so much more than a grouch.
Stereotypes are not creative.
Writing outside of stereotypes open up so many more possibilities. How many times have we seen the Black Best Friend play out in media? You’re not being silenced when readers criticize your sassy sidekick. Your message has been heard, loud and clear – again and again and again. People are upset because it’s not anything new – in fact, it is quite old. We want multiple portrayals. Why not create something new before you decide to write so closely to how we are always written?
OP said: I don’t want to change my stories/characters to suit everyone else while not liking them myself.
This should not be the case. Avoiding stereotypes has nothing to do with making unlikeable or even perfect characters. Simply make Characters of Color who go beyond stereotypes! Characters who are best friends without being arc-less doormats. Characters who are fierce and emotional and stand for something without being simplified to irrational, hostile, and angry.
Knowing the difference between stereotype and culture is important, too. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re doing something wrong when their bias means they perceive your character as being stereotypical, or problematic, when they’re not. (See: Stereotyped vs Nuanced Characters and Audience Perception.)
If anything, writing beyond hard labels leads to complex characters. Writing about new cultures is interesting and can be exciting.
If you only like your East Asian characters when they’re geniuses or your Black girls when they’re angry without a cause…do some self-reflection. Why do your Characters of Color only seem “right” to you when they are flat, or confined to stereotypes? Why not allow them to be complex humans?
I’m not convinced that representation matters.
Well, representation does matter. A lot. While it has been written on so much, and there being countless studies, statistics, and personal accounts to support this, I would like to mention…
Representation (or lack thereof) lowers self-worth.
“If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” -Junot Diaz
The Racial Empathy Gap.
I want to be brief (too late, right?) so let me just mention another point of research for you: the racial empathy gap. Stereotyped depictions and the limited roles for People of Color are internalized by society, leading to lack of empathy towards People of Color and the enforcement of stereotypes in real time. Lack of empathy actively affects how PoC are treated, such as the belief that Black people experience less pain than others and therefore are misdiagnosed (their illnesses and pain are downplayed) and under treated (X X X).
Fiction Increases Empathy.
In addition to the racial empathy gap, look into the studies on how fiction improves empathy. For example: reading about vampires increases empathy towards vampires. Imagine what non-stereotyped, marginalized depictions in fiction can do for empathy. (X, X)
The strength in which people are against representation speaks volumes.
If representation does not matter, then why are some people so angry when it’s there? Let’s take book to movie depictions:
- A Character of Color depicted as white simply means they were the best actor for the job, according to a vocal presence in social media.
- However, even a verified Character of Color being depicted as such leads to boycotting, accusations of being “Politically-correct”, and wide complaints that they can’t relate to the characters and they are poor actors. Never mind that so many Actors of Color attend prestigious schools only to get so far.
The hypocrisy speaks to a need for more representation, and a prevalent lack of empathy.
The People Want Diversity!
On a positive note: shows that reflect the real world, aka include diversity, continue to get high ratings despite many obstacles: those who don’t want them there, lack of advertising or inconvenient airtime for shows with diverse leads, the ole bait-and-switch method, and hasty cancellations. Not to mention media simply refusing to be inclusive even when they know “diversity sells” (X X). Gee, I wonder why….
Audiences are more drawn to projects that feature a diverse cast, a new study finds, though mirroring the population in the United States remains a problem.
“Less-diverse product underperforms in the marketplace, and yet it still dominates,” said Ana-Christina Ramón, the report’s co-author and assistant director of the Bunche Center. “This makes no financial sense.”
Diversity simply reflects the real world accurately.
There is nothing forced about diversity. People of Color exist in the real world, go out and about, and have lives. Creators including marginalized people only seems strange because media actively scratches them out as much as possible, pulling the marginalized out of focus to zoom in on white characters. That is what’s unrealistic.
Ultimately, you, the writer, will write what you want. Just ask yourself why you have decided this is what you want to write. Are you okay with that reason? Despite all the progress that is being made, you’ll blend in just fine with all of the other mostly white books and movies out there. And as people become more conscious and bored with the same stories, we can and will choose to ignore whitewashed media.
The good thing is that there’s so much awareness and activism going on with representation; the path has been paved for you and it is not lonely!
There are resources out there, and WWC continues to be one of them.
More Reading – Diversity:
- Braving Diversity: How to Write Yourself (and others) out of your Story (An early WWC post quite relevant to you, OP)
- Diversity exists in the real world
- The Key to Moving Beyond checklisting is not LESS diversity
- Bad Representation vs Tokenism vs Diversity: just existing without justification like in the real world
- How to research your racially/ethnically diverse characters