I’ve been doing a fair amount of research on diversity for a large essay I am writing on Diversity in the Language Arts classroom. As I’ve been writing, I have been thinking a lot about how this relates to writing, my own fiction and the novels I read.
You don’t have to look too far or too deeply at literature to get a sense of the prevalence and, whether intentional or not, the preference for whiteness.
It is a problem, but I also don’t think it has originated lately as much from intent as it has from ignorance.
White Writing World
Academia (like much of the world) has been largely dominated by Europeans and European immigrants to the Americas for the past few centuries, and over those centuries the social structure was predominantly white above others in the dominating cultures of the Western world. What I mean by this is that it is not so surprising that the “classics” are essentially educated whites writing about white life. They were writing what they knew.
But, today, educated writers populate all races. And so things need to change, in the classroom and in the publishing spheres.
If you take a look at any bookshelf in any bookstore, you will continue to notice a dominance of white writing by white writers. We need more diverse writers, undoubtedly. And we need them to write great stories. I think especially in Kidlit.
I am talking about #WeNeedDiverseBooks.
White Writers Writing Diversity
We need more diverse writers. So if you are one, write more and more and get really good at it, and give the world some fantastic stories! Outside of encouraging people of color to write, I can’t add much more to the conversation in that arena.
If you are white like me, then what? How do you approach diversity tactfully?
The last thing we need is a bunch of white writers trying to write diversity because its in demand right now. Maybe you are a white writer who is passionate about racial equality toward a specific minority… Whatever your reason for writing more diversity into your books, you must tread carefully and correctly…
Know What You Write!
If you are going to write a novel about an inner city African-American girl, and you are a Caucasian man from Montana, you had better do your research! You had better interview some African-American girls from the Bronx or Atlanta or wherever your novel takes place.
Otherwise your book will not ring true. You might get published, perhaps, since people are asking for diverse books. Who knows? Either way, though, it will be a crappy book.
And no one wants more crappy books out there. Let alone crappy books that deal with diversity.
I am that white guy from the American West, where we don’t often see a ton of diversity, sadly. I live in an energy boom town presently, and we have a little more diversity than is typical for the region, mostly Hispanic.
I’ve an idea for a “diverse” novel about a pair of Ugandan kids caught in the middle of LRA conflict. This is a topic which I am pretty passionate about. Human trafficking is awful and I think a story about kids caught in the middle of it could be very powerful. But I am not writing it right now. I don’t have the experience and haven’t talked to enough people for me to be able to write the story RIGHT. Regardless of the book, I really want to spend some time in Africa with displaced kids. But if I do end up writing that book, I want it to ring true. So for now, it is on the backburner.
What made Kathryn Stockett’s The Help ring true, I think, stemmed from Stockett’s own experiences with racial issues in Jackson, Mississippi, not to mention her friendship with an African-American domestic worker.
If you don’t have much experience with racial tension and conflict, then maybe you aren’t the best person to write a racial issue novel centered around someone of a race you aren’t familiar enough with. I am just going to be honest.
HOWEVER, that does not excuse you from addressing the diversity issue.
A Diverse Cast
You do live in a world populated by diverse races and cultures. And so, the world of your novels ought to express that diversity as well in order to ring true.
But, being diverse in your writing does not mean making your presently-white protagonist Chinese or African-American just because… you know, diversity, and stuff…
Just as you had better not add a rape element to your novel just for tension’s sake (as rape is something which should alter your character’s entire world, and so the entire novel), you should not write race for diversity’s sake alone. Diversity is more than mentioning skin color, it changes how this character perceives the world. It changes their back story. This will vary depending on the novel and the character’s story.
When it comes to race, you have got to be more INTENTIONAL than that. We need more than diverse color in books. We need diverse culture represented.
Color Your World
I think we tend to view things through our own racial “tinted glasses.” At least I know I do. Like I said, I am a white male from a predominantly white region. Until I am told otherwise, if I am honest, I do tend to read characters assuming they are white in novels. Not because I am racist. But because that is what I am most familiar with, I suppose. And also, probably because so many characters in novels, are in fact, white.
Reading is rather like jumping in another’s head, but we are tinged still by our own skewed perspectives.
I am working on a new middle grade sci-fi novel, and I realized early on that I was defaulting to white characters. I wasn’t even thinking about it consciously. My protagonist’s best friend, I initially viewed as blonde and white, essentially a softer-spoken Lyra Belacqua.
As I began the novel, I realized that, just as I tend to view characters as white initially in novels I read, I was doing the same in novels I write. I had to make a CONSCIOUS POINT to diversify and thereby expand and enrich the universe of the novel.
In the opening, a future Earth has frozen over, and life has been restricted to Terradomes. I hadn’t yet figured out where my novel was happening on Earth. But I knew I wanted some diversity, and I wanted it to enrich the world of the novel. Suddenly, I realized this best-friend character needed to be Hispanic. I didn’t know why, only that she should.
And then, with that idea in mind, I saw that it would make most sense for my Terradomes to be situated along the Equator, placing my protagonist and his best friend in South America, where people from both Americas all migrated as the world froze over.
By creating a diverse character, it also broadened my sense and scope of the universe I was creating.
Eventually, my protagonist is recruited for a space expedition in search of a portal to another universe, and suddenly these Equatorial Domes were giving me an opportunity to populate the ship with diversity too. People from several different domes around the world manning an exploratory ship.
Diversity isn’t the point of this sci-fi story, but it helped me expand the world in a really good and sensible way. Diversity is enriching, both in real life and fiction.
Let It Ring True
As you write diverse characters, let them enrich the worlds you are populating, let the story ring true.
If you are compelled to write a racial issue book or a novel set in another country from what you are familiar with, DO YOUR RESEARCH. If you are wanting to make a protagonist someone of color, make sure it is adding culture to the story as well, and not just a mention of skin color. Be INTENTIONAL as you approach diversity, be TRUE to the story.
Diversity in literature is important to the present and to the future.
Don’t color anything in your world lightly.
*I would love to hear your thoughts on this post, and your own thoughts on diversifying your novels*
*If you are interested in checking out the first chapter of my new sci-fi project Bode Marvellus, go here. I would love to hear what you think!*