On diversity and doing it wrong

A sheet of paper with fragments of writing visible under a pen.

The push for diversity in fiction — specifically children’s and young adult fiction — over the last few years has been really exciting to watch, because I love it when readers are able to see themselves in the books they consume. But it’s also come with some incredibly complicated political and cultural discussions. Who is rewarded for writing diversely? Who is punished for it? Who can write what kinds of stories? Who is ‘allowed’ to write characters from a given background? I maintain that the diversity triangle — diverse characters by diverse authors with diverse stories — is critical, but not the only thing.

These are not questions that one person alone can answer, and many people have conflicting, complicated beliefs about them, which is why you should talk to, and read, lots of people discussing the subject. For example, some writers of colour say that white people should really think carefully about writing characters of colour — not just because they may do a poor job of telling those stories, but because those are not their stories to tell, and white people are often rewarded for writing them while authors of colour are pushed out. Others say that white people shouldn’t be afraid to write diversely, but should be prepared to commit to doing it well, and to soliciting and utilising feedback from beta readers and consultants who are compensated for their time. It’s not my place to weigh in on this discussion, because I’m white: You need to go see what people of colour are saying about it, and not from a stance of preemptively expecting permission for the project you’re working on.

But there is something I want to talk about today — keeping in mind that I am not the spokesperson and arbiter of all diverse people everywhere — and that is the deepseated fear of writing diversity, which almost seems to have increased with the growth of diverse literature. People say they’re terrified of doing it wrong. That they won’t be respectful and thoughtful. That there will be backlash. That fear drives them to refuse to even try, and it’s important to explore the origins of that fear.

One consequence of more open discussion about diversity is that nondiverse creators are forced to see that discussion. It’s not like diverse readers and creators just now started criticising works that have huge problems. Rather, those conversations were happening, often in the open, and no one cared or paid attention. Now, there’s enough momentum that they become highly visible, that it’s no longer possible to be insulated from them. Some nondiverse creators appear to be operating under the impression that there’s an army of mean people gearing up to descend on whatever they write to shred it to pieces as soon as it hits the shelves — or before. Often, that comes from a defensive position, because it hurts to hear that you did something wrong, or that something you worked on for months or years has major problems, and the instinctive reaction is to lash out to neutralise the criticism so you can go on with your life.

There are two kinds of fear here:

One is the fear of doing it wrong, and that’s a fear I share. When I write characters outside my experience, I go to a lot of effort to seek out people who share that experience as I develop them, as I research them, as I put them on the page. I compensate those people — whether through paying them, or trading reads, or any number of other ways. It’s important to me to try to get these things right, and to pay attention in the early stages when someone raises questions about a character or an entire plot. Inevitably, I also know that I am going to fuck it up.

Because people are not a monolith. I can consult 10 desis from a variety of backgrounds about a desi character, but they’re not giving me a pass. They’re giving me their insight and experience to help me make that character better. A desi reader might encounter her and be very concerned about what’s represented on the page and how. That reader might challenge me, asking why I didn’t do better. You need to abandon the notion that you will magically make a perfect character with a flawless representation, because people disagree. Because there is context and nuance. Some desi readers might argue that I shouldn’t even be writing a desi character, given that I am white, and I need to respect and consider that point of view rather than archly dismissing it. As I can do is this: I can do the best that I can, and I can pay attention to critiques, and I can learn from them.

The other, though, is the fear of how you will be perceived. This is the difference between ‘I am sorry that my actions caused the following thing to happen’ and ‘I’m sorry if you were offended by my actions.’ Someone might think I’m homophobic. Those mean Black women on the internet will attack me. Those unreasonable trans people will yell at me no matter what I do. Rather than being a question of what you can do to make your work more diverse, and to make it as good as you can, it becomes a question of defensiveness. The problem isn’t that you tried and failed, but that other people just don’t respect the amount of work you did. They don’t see your vision.

I want people to create diverse fiction. I also want people to listen to the communities they are depicting. But I also want you to listen to yourselves. If you’re white and you’ve decided you want to write a Black main character, why? Is it just for diversity points? Is there a compelling plot reason for it? Who are you talking to about how you develop that character and the larger story around her? Is the story all about how she’s Black, or is she a well-rounded, complicated character? Have you missed subtle internalised racism that manifests in how you portray her? How many people are you talking to? How are you compensating them for their expertise? How early are you consulting them? Are you looking for a rubber stamp and a seal of approval, or an actual thoughtful review of your work? Are you worried about whether you’re doing it right, or about how you might be perceived? When you are publicly criticised, how will you engage with it?

Don’t freeze yourself up with fear, but be honest about examining that fear. Because if your worry is rooted in perception rather than performance…you’re probably doing it wrong.

Image: The end of the line, Bruce Guenter, Flickr