On Writing Diversity

I will admit that I am somewhat hesitant to write about this, mostly because talking about race in fiction can quickly devolve into some sort of Fail. However, I do think writing race and diversity is a subject worth thinking about and discussing, and I ask that you please keep the comments cordial and on-topic. (Related to that, no tone policing or derailment, please.) I will keep mostly to discussions of race because that is what I feel the most comfortable addressing.

First, I would like to address a few pervasive and damaging myths when it comes to writing. The most important: Am I allowed to write outside my own race?

The answer is: Of course you are. You are allowed to write whatever you want. But instead of asking, Am I allowed? I think the better question is: Is it appropriate? When is it appropriate? When race is treated thoughtfully and as an organic part of a character (i.e., not exoticized or otherized). When is it inappropriate? When it is tokenism.

“Appropriateness” and “appropriation” are two related, but distinct ideas a writer needs to keep in mind when it comes to writing racially diverse characters and settings. The first is easier to deal with. With research, by asking thoughtful questions, and having readers vet your work, the question of whether or not it is appropriate to write outside your own race is mitigated. Can you describe your character without referencing their race/ethnicity, their looks, or what they wear? Or is their race simply shorthand for stock and stereotypical traits? Think about these questions carefully and be honest about the answers.

The second is…complicated. It’s complicated because individual sensitivity to cultural appropriation can vary quite widely. If you are writing about a setting and/or culture not your own, proceed with caution. Appropriation most often happens when the writer is “outside” the culture and looking in. This “outside-in” viewpoint is problematic because it very often leads to exoticization and othering.

Let me explain about exoticization and othering, and let me explain with personal experience. Growing up, there weren’t a lot of characters like me in the books I read, and if there were, they were inevitably made to seem Other. Here is the default, the books seemed to say, white, heterosexual, able-bodied, and middle class. The default seemed to be the only type of person worthy of being the hero of his/her own story, as the not-default acted as props to further the default hero’s narrative. You know what they say, “Three times a bridesmaid, never a bride.” Always the Sidekick, never the Hero.

Or, on the other hand, if the not-default had his/her own narrative to carry, then inevitably the story was about the not-default’s Otherness. (The so-called “issue books”: coming out stories, racism stories, Old World vs. New World stories, etc.) All of this subconsciously leads the not-default reader into thinking s/he isn’t Normal.

We all want to feel normal. That’s really what writing diversely is about: normalizing the vast array of human experience. If you can conceive of a race or a culture foreign to your own as Normal, then that mentality goes a long way in avoiding appropriation in fiction.

Tropes to think about and avoid when writing outside your race and/or culture (WARNING: You WILL lose hours of your life on this website, clicking and clicking and clicking….):

If your work happens to contain one or more of these tropes, it doesn’t mean you are a horrible person, but it does mean that perhaps you ought to take some time and think about why your work contains these tropes. It may mean that you have neglected to imagine your characters complexly. The truth, as John Green says, resists simplicity, and so does being human.


14 Responses to On Writing Diversity

  1. CB Soulsby Jul 25 2012 at 5:47 am #

    I really enjoy the intelligent and thoughtful articles this website posts. This is something I care and worry a lot about in my own writing. I am always careful to contain a cast of differing ethnicities but I never know how to approach describing them. As I write in first person it often feels inappropriate to have the main character comment on their own race. Other than the “looking in the mirror” trick, I struggle to find a way to include this information. And as readers default to “white” if it’s not explicitly stated otherwise I fear this is how they’ll read my work (if they ever do, but that’s a different issue ;)). I try to include clues, e.g. names or surnames that may indicate race, having a sibling that they can describe, etc but worry I may stray into stereotypical territory doing this (the Patel twins from Harry Potter spring to mind). I just would really hate for my characters to come across as token or stereotypical. I notice that there are certain races that never seem to be represented in writing unless their race is ignored / tokenistic or becomes integral to the plot. I want to take some steps to re-address this balance but often feel it is not my place. In the same way a male writer can sometimes miss the point of being a female, I don’t want to, as a white writer, mis-represent people. But at the same time, I don’t want to add to the massive bulk of white heroes with multi-racial supporting characters that already exist, in the same way I don’t want to add to all the male leads with female supporting characters that already exist.

    And I really hope my comment doesn’t come across as ignorant!

    • JJ Jul 25 2012 at 7:43 am #

      It’s always good to ask questions!

      Personally, I would rather that the character mention what race s/he is fairly soon in the narrative, and explicitly. White people have the privilege of not having to live with the conscious reality of their race, and that’s where they struggle when it comes to describing it. But why avoid mentioning a character’s race directly? Because to do so seems to imply that being not-default is still Other, not Normal. Like having blonde hair and blue eyes, my being Asian is simply another descriptor of my appearance, and will be so until we become a post-racial society. We do not live in a post-racial society, no matter what optimists (whose optimism, I would say, stems from ignorance) may claim.

      I would also read first person accounts of non-white people to get a sense of how they describe themselves. Memoirs. Books like Mexican White Boy, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, etc. (Which are fiction, but are written by POC authors.) Writers who have characters who are not-default. Justice Larbalestier does a wonderful job writing characters who are not-default, and she is white. Liar has a biracial black protagonist, and the most recent Team Human (co-written with Sarah Rees Brennan) has an Asian one.

      There is a wealth of information and examples out there, if one takes the time to look. 🙂

      • Marie Lu Jul 27 2012 at 8:42 pm #

        Such a great post, JJ, and I also love that site! It’s totally a timesuck. I do admit that it can sometimes be challenging to insert a quick race description somewhere in the beginning without it seeming off/obvious, but I agree, I think the earlier it’s mentioned, the better. Ever seen that Louis C.K. comedy skit where he talks about an incident at a club where a white bouncer is attempting in vain to tell him that his black friend is waiting for him outside?

        Bouncer: “Hey Louis, there’s a guy asking for you outside.”
        Louis C.K.: “Oh that must be my buddy, what’s he look like?”
        Bouncer: “Uh….tall, glasses, red tie….”
        Louis C.K.: “Is he black?”
        Bouncer: “Oh I dunno I couldn’t really tell, it was dark outside…”
        Louis C.K.: “What do you mean, you couldn’t really tell? Is he black or not?”
        Bouncer: “uhhhicouldn’ttellitwasdarkoutside.”

        So I totally agree, it’s okay to state the race. 🙂

  2. PK Hrezo Jul 25 2012 at 9:33 am #

    This is helpful, JJ. Thank you. It seems there is a real need for culturally diverse MCs–probably cuz authors are hesitant to tackle an area they are not an expert in. So maybe rather than do it wrong, they don’t do it at all. Which is the safe way to go, but doesn’t solve the need. Hopefully posts like these will educate more writers and encourage them.

  3. Chihuahua Zero Jul 25 2012 at 9:52 am #

    -sees links to TVTropes-

    Eh, that time already went down the drain a long time ago. :p

    Lately, my mind has been more racially diverse when it comes to creating protagonists in story ideas–without racism being considered as a main issue. There’s at least one short story I should follow through with, since it had potential to become a novel or a novella.

  4. Shannon LC Cate Jul 25 2012 at 9:56 am #

    I find myself feeling the need to portray a world in my writing that reflects my own world, or my knowledge of how the world got to be the way it is. When writing historical US American stories, that means a lot of social, racial, sexual, class, complexity (etc.)

    I think these discussions of “diversity” in novels must begin to include discussing “diversity” in publishing. Whether or not a “default” person (as you cleverly coined it) can write a non-default person is kind of a moot point. She, go for it. But the real “corrective” to white people possibly getting Black characters wrong is not so much being uber sensitive or having Black beta readers, but having lots and lots of books written by Black writers; having lots of Black editors at major publishing houses; having Black buyers in stores, putting big chain stores in areas where there is a broad array of people walking down the street, not just white, straight, middle-class ones.

    What is frustrating about non-“default” stories–whether books or movies, or t.v. or elsewhere–is that there is usually only one in 50 or more, and that one is somehow supposed to represent for every member of whatever non-default group it portrays.

    As a white transracial adoptive mom to Black daughters, I find a lot of discussions about doing things the “Black” way. But the fact is there are as many “Black” ways to parent as there are any other race’s way. There is always diversity within diversity because no two people are alike, even if they share a lot of personal experience.

    If we really want to attract new readers, interest old readers in new characters and stories, and open up the literary world to the realities of the real world, we need more “diversity” at every level. I think it should start with who is actually doing the writing and getting promoted.

    • Marie Raven Sep 2 2015 at 8:13 pm #

      “Diversity at every level”

      This is so important. Hurray!

  5. Megan Duff Jul 25 2012 at 10:08 am #

    Great post JJ! As a reader I don’t consciously seek out books with multi-ethnic so therefore I am always surprised by how few books have diverse MC’s. However when they are there I really appreciate it and commend the author for doing so. Everybody should be represented in literature and given a story they can really relate to.

    As a writer I gravitate towards characters of many races. My WIP has a bi-racial main character and an important secondary character who is bi-racial. Other characters range from African American, Chinese, Indian, Hispanic and Native American. This is easy for me because my family is diverse. I have two aunts who are adopted from China and cousins who are half Chinese and half Hispanic.

    I am hyper aware as I am writing my characters and describing them not to be stereotypical or fall into any tropes. Sometimes I wonder as a Caucasian how I can relate to being bi-racial and any emotional/social struggles that come with that. But then we are all human and writing/reading is about putting yourself in another persons shoes and stripping away those barriers. So just by being creative and maintaining sensitivity you can write any sort of character. How freeing is that???

  6. jodimeadows Jul 25 2012 at 10:32 am #

    Great post, JJ. Thanks for such a thoughtful discussion.

  7. Kat Zhang Jul 25 2012 at 11:03 am #

    I’m always open to discussion about race in fiction (and women in fiction…and…just fiction in general, lol). This is a lovely, well-thought out post–which is exactly what I think we need: more thoughtful discussion, less attacking or defensive retaliation that just ends up leaving everyone with a bad taste in their mouth.

    Thanks for writing this out!

  8. Biljana Jul 25 2012 at 8:16 pm #

    I’m really glad you wrote this post, JJ. I especially love this: “Can you describe your character without referencing their race/ethnicity, their looks, or what they wear?” If you can describe them as a person in terms of personality, goals, and fears, then I really think tokenism can be overcome. Where I start to get uncomfortable (aside from in the face of blatant faux pas and ignorance) is when I think about the people that actively search for tokenism and appropriation, because they seem to latch on to anything and everything. If a minority character has personality traits that aren’t necessarily desirable, some people automatically assume it’s because they’re a minority. And while that’s true sometimes, other times it’s just part of the character that grew out of the story the author wanted to tell and their race was coincidence. That’s where most of my “fear” lies, I suppose; that I will treat and write the minority characters as real people (as they are and should be) but somebody will pick out all their flaws (which they will inevitably have because they’re human) and call me insensitive and accuse me of tokenism.

    Either way, love the post.

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