Disclaimer: this is not comprehensive by any means.
This wasn’t what I planned to write this week. With what’s been happening today–and most days–it seemed like a good time. (There’s a lot that can be said on this subject, but I’ll keep it brief today. I am appalled and angry. I am also starting a new job tomorrow and desperately need to make sure I’m prepared to teach.)
The stories we read and watch matter
Fiction acts as a mirror. It gives us a way to examine new thoughts, to live new lives, to look critically at the world around us. It teaches us empathy.
If fiction is a mirror, what happens when that mirror is distorted? When the society it purports to reflect is missing huge swathes of the actual population?
Children miss out when they don’t get the chance to have heroes who look like them in books and movies. People also miss out if they don’t see heroes different from themselves. If you only hear about an event or time from one perspective, you miss out. Our world is so much more interesting and varied than one color or one community.
There have been lots of stories about how social media acts as an echo chamber, simply echoing your own beliefs back to you. Fiction shouldn’t be that way.
If you’re tempted to say the following: “But historically….”
If you’re telling a historical story, it’s easy for your readers to believe the people missing from your story weren’t there at all.
But people have traveled and traded and emigrated for thousands of years. (Australia has been continuously inhabited by Aboriginal groups for over 65,000 years. Polynesians and Vikings were master navigators. Travel is hardly new.) Reprehensible things like slavery and imperialism have also shaped our world. After all, slavery forcibly relocated millions of people from Africa across the globe. On a more positive note, gold rushes in Australia and America also brought people from all over.
Historical dramas can, and should, contain POC.
This was another beautiful movie I watched with my grandmother.
I want to hear, and read, and see history from everyone’s viewpoint. When I saw the movie Dunkirk with my friend a few weeks ago, I kept thinking back to this BBC article .
Two Indian soldiers evacuated from Dunkirk–photo from the BBC article above.
People are good at spending time with people who look just like them. There are many stories that could easily be all white, all black, all Chinese, all Indian, etc. But why should they have to be? There are decades of stories out there like that. Why not tell something else? (As the success of Hamilton shows, it’s not as if there isn’t a market for it.)
History is not merely black & white. History is every shade, every story. It absolutely matters whose stories we hear and whose faces we see.
It’s dangerous not to tell stories with diversity
It is so much easier to dehumanize people you don’t know.
And how can you know someone when you’ve never heard their stories?
It’s shockingly easy to lean on stereotypes when you don’t see people as individuals. No single person can accurately represent their whole ethnic group or their entire community.
Unfortunately, when there is only one character in a story that’s different from the rest of the cast–especially one who is there as a “token minority“–that’s often exactly what they’re forced to do.
This really came home to me when I started watching Bollywood movies and K-Dramas (Korean dramas.) After all, when the entire cast is Indian or Korean and the stories are written by people from those countries, nobody is relegated to playing the part of the “noble savage” or “model minority.”
One my friend wanted us all to watch in college. I was hooked.
I also made two friends because we were all watching this.
So pick out a movie whose leads look different from you. Pick out a story with main characters who are different from each other. Try one that is written by somebody from another country or cultural background. You may be surprised at how it makes you look at the media from your own country.
Fantasy without diversity is lazy
This is a huge pet peeve of mine. You’ve created a whole new world. It only exists because you’ve brought it into being. What do you mean it’s all white? Why???
Tolkien was born in 1892 and published The Hobbit in 1937. What’s your excuse?
If you are writing now, what reason could you possibly give to not include POC? Your fantasy world can be whatever you want it to be. Characters with different skin color don’t have to be analogous to Earth cultural groups. I can’t fathom why so many white writers are content with creating an entire world in their own image.
(Even setting aside the issue of race for a second, I can’t count the number of books I’ve read where male authors literally forget half the species exists. Dude, it’s not that hard to write women. Start with the idea that we’re people and go from there. But that’s a post for another time.)
Now, it can be daunting to write a character that’s different from you. It’s drilled into us from the start. “Write what you know.” So know more.
Start by reading and watching diverse stories. Pick up a book by an author who is Latina/ Latino, Black, Chinese, Japanese, Indian….you get the idea. Watch movies from different cultures. Watch movies and TV shows that were absolutely not created with you in mind. Listen to the people in your life who don’t look like you.
Writers can also be scared of doing or saying the wrong thing. There are lots of dos and don’ts. (I read an amazing article years ago and can’t seem to find it again. One idea in it that I found thought provoking was “if you don’t have a reason for the main character in your story to be white, then don’t make them white.” <–although it’s easier not to screw this up if you are writing fantasy and working hard to stay away from stereotypes. I wish I could find it again.)
For more reading
There are many people who’ve written more eloquently than I have on this subject and with lived experience of what it’s like not to see representation that doesn’t reek of appropriation. These are a few I’ve seen today:
Offensive mistakes white writers make with good intentions
White authors writing characters of color
More things to stop doing if you’re a white writer
Why you should stay away from writing POC protagonists if you’re white
Writing people of color as a person of another color
In conclusion, we are part of a diverse world. The stories we consume and the ones we create should reflect that diversity. We have the ability to learn and do better.
If you have stories with excellent representation in mind, or stories/ articles you love, please share! I’m always trying to expand my reading list and learn more about writing.