You know those checkboxes you get on some official forms where there’s an incomplete list of races/genders and you’re like “Where am I on here?” and also “Is this, strictly-speaking, legal?”
|Not even an “Other” box?|
Very few of us fit in neat boxes, but you can imagine a hypothetical and inclusive checklist. And I posit that most of us feel pretty comfortable writing characters with whom we share an identity–people who would check the same boxes as we would.
In seeking to write diversity, I definitely feel like I can speak for the type of people that would check the same boxes as me. I’m bipolar. I’m biracial. So I’m comfortable writing characters with mood swings or people who never feel quite at home in any one culture. Part of this is that I have a huge amount of lived experience to draw from.
And part of it, of course, is that I never have to fear that someone can accurately say to me “We’re not like that. You got it wrong.”
I hate being wrong, of course. Most people do. But it’s more than that.
Any member of a marginalized community knows how hurtful stereotypes and misattributions can be. (If one more mass murderer is diagnosed by popular opinion with “mental illness” post-rampage, I’m going to go NUTS.) (See what I did there?) I don’t want to feed into stereotypes. I don’t want to hurt people. I don’t want to make things even worse.
But I don’t want to do nothing either, because the status quo is actively harmful.
So how to try to make things better without making things worse instead?
Two things I recommend.
1) Read and support marginalized voices outside your own experience. Listen, like, buy, retweet, signal boost. And most importantly, do this without butting into the conversation to give your own take on other people’s lives.
2) Use the learning that naturally came from listening in your own work. Try to write outside your checkbox. My main character is mixed race, her father is a bipolar addict. Those are all things I’ve dealt with. But her best friend is Persian. Her surrogate father is Nuer. I am neither, but I did my best to research, to listen, to understand, and then to write a compelling cast of diverse characters.
Did I get stuff wrong? Very likely.
Will I apologize for getting it wrong when someone lets me know? Most definitely.
Would I rather have just stuck with people that were like me? Certainly not.*
|After all, they can’t ALL be crazy.|
Trying and failing is better than not trying at all. Do your best to write diversity well, and acknowledge in advance that you can always do better.
And then write books that can proudly check loads of boxes.
*That is, unless for some reason my portrayal of these characters causes massive harm to others. I really don’t think it will. But I may be utterly clueless. You have to leave open that possibility, the possibility that you are Utterly Clueless.