I did this post for Write on Com. Figured it would be worth sharing here also.
Diversity in Writing
by author Ellen Oh
Recently, I was part of a conversation where an author said the following: “But there’s been a lot of anger from some quarters about “appropriation” and “exoticism” … I’m terrified of incurring the kind of wrath I’ve seen online, and have decided I’m not qualified to tackle diversity head on.”
Guys, if this is you, then I want to talk to you about why it is okay to “tackle diversity.” If you are the type to say, “Yes, I want to include diversity! I just don’t know how.” I want to talk to you too, because there are right ways and wrong ways to do it. But mostly I want to tell you how important it is that you all are trying. Thank you for that. Because I was once that little girl scanning through the books desperately looking for someone like me, who wasn’t a stereotype. And now I have kids who are doing the same thing. Thank you for wanting to have this conversation.
But if you are scared about being called out for including diversity in your book, then wake up and smell the diapers, children, because you are not going to be able to make everybody happy. Someone somewhere is going to be offended for something you wrote and for a reason that you never intended! You wrote a girl empowerment book? How dare you put down feminine girls! You wrote about sexual exploitation? How dare you write a slut shaming book! You wrote a POC main character? How dare you white person try and exploit minorities!
Look, I’m Korean American and I wrote a fantasy book based in ancient Korea. I studied it for 10 years on top of all that I knew from being raised by Korean immigrants. And yet I had plenty of people bash me for getting things “wrong” about Korean culture in my book – and most of them weren’t even Korean! So the one thing I can promise you with absolute assurance is, someone somewhere is going to be irate at you for writing. Whether it is the fact that you wrote a POC character or the fact that you are posing in your author picture with a hand to your cheek, someone is going to hate you for something. Listen, you are not ever going to make everyone happy. That’s just human nature. I bet someone out there is reading this post right now and pissed off at me just because they don’t like my face. What can you do? You can start not caring about making everybody happy.
Now writing about POC is a bit different in that most people are afraid of being called a racist. So they avoid diversity because of it. However, let me reassure you that by not including diversity, you are also being called a racist. Maybe not to your face, but you are. And guess what? Being called a racist is nowhere near as painful as dealing with actual racism.
Now that I have freed you from the fear of being reviled on the internet, let’s talk about a few things that you need to keep in mind:
- Do your research and be respectful. Don’t culturally appropriate from POC and then claim that your world is different therefore you can do whatever the hell you want with it. Call your world whatever you want, but if your world looks and sounds like China, and you even use Chinese words and architecture and terms specific to that culture, then don’t pretend it’s not China and mix us up with every other Asian culture. It just reeks of sloppy research and not giving a damn. If you want your world to feel Asian without specifically calling out a specific country, it can be done – see Eon/Eona. See The Last Airbender series.
- Avoid stereotypes. There are many. The magical negro, the blonde bimbo, the smart Asian math whiz, the ghetto talking black kid, the feisty Latina, the Asian dragon lady, the cryptic but wise Native American, the uppercrusty WASP, etc. Using stereotypes is lazy writing. You don’t want to invest in your character’s development to go beyond an easily recognizable trope. Don’t do this.
- Exotification of another culture. “But remember, there are two ways to dehumanize someone: by dismissing them, and by idolizing them.” ? David Wong. I think the context of this quote was about women and how men view them. But it works well in this context also. If you don’t include POC in your book, you are dismissing them. If you do include POC but make them exotic and other-worldish, you are going the other way. Neither is acceptable.
- Check your privilege. Don’t get mad that I used the “P” word. I know privilege can be a touchy subject. Asking you to be aware of your privilege is not the same as calling you a racist. What I’m doing is asking you to be aware of it. If you are a female, then you know that male privilege is very real. Take what you understand as male privilege and make a correlation to white privilege and you will see what I mean. And if it helps, read this: http://ted.coe.wayne.edu/ele3600/mcintosh.html
- Reach out to minorities for help. If you know nothing about the culture that you want to include in your book, then reach out for help. Yes, you can find a lot of information on the internet, but some things you can only learn from people who live that culture 24/7.
It won’t be easy, and it shouldn’t be! You will probably make mistakes. And that’s ok! You’ll learn from them and you will fail less and less the more you try. But the most important thing is that you try. Because you are writing for kids. All our kids! And they need to see that their books can reflect their world.
What I appreciate the most about this post is how it gels with the most recent convo about cultural appropriation I had. All too often I get asks that boil down to “How can I avoid, prevent, or circumvent people calling out my writing if it’s racist?”
The answer is, obviously, you can’t. People will respond to what you write, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t control that. And if that makes you uncomfortable, well, I’ll just reiterate: being called racist isn’t comparable to actually having to deal with racism.
My characters are white because they're the 'default' race for me, a mixup of everything. I see no benefits in making them a certain ethnicity just to improve diversity? And it makes sense to me that the supporting cast are also white (1)
Since when I look around at the groups of friends around me, they more or less bunch off according to race. (Whites, asians, jocks (I know this is not a race), mainly). It just seems easier to make everyone white, why is that a bad thing? (2/2)
These will tell you why it is a problem that white people are the default and why representation is important:
- Children and the Myth of “Colorblind” Youth
- From Nichelle Nichols to Whoopi Goldberg to Lupita Nyong’o
- Representation in Hollywood
- You Can’t Do That! Stories Have to Be About White People!
- Representation Matters
- Why Representation Matters in Children’s Books and Media
- Whitewashing Book Covers
- Visibility Matters: Why POC in Books Must Be “Described” as POC
- Do Not Be Afraid to Write POC/Female/LGBT+ Characters
- This is a Jar Full of Major Characters
- Imagine Being a Kid in School
- You Guys Know About Vampires?
- Study Examines Television, Diversity, and Self-esteem
- Why Diversity in Roleplays is Important
Reasons why I have never and will never turn on anon, #5,409.
Anyhow these are all great resources on race and representation, and why it’s very, very important (if it wasn’t already obvious from the anon ask).
Hi! I am sorry to bother you with such a pointed question but I am working on my MA thesis on the Representation of Madness of PoC in Early Modern English literature and am having a hell of a time locating any resources, both literary and, especially, history based. Early modern documentation of this eludes me...I was wondering if either you or any of your followers could help point me in the direction of some historical sources? and if i finally come across anything i would be happy to share!
Actually, pointed questions help because they’re usually specific.
I have a few things, but a major problem with this topic is that “mentally ill” and “people of color” are written about in historical writing as if they are mutually exclusive categories. Especially writing about Europe.
What I have on hand is going to be related to my particular specialization, but I’ll post what I have.
There are some resources at the link to the original post above.
One exhibit you might be interested in investigating is “Riotous Baroque: From Cattelan to Zurbarán" at the Guggenheim:
Usually associated with dynamism, sensuality, extravagance, and theatricality, withdrawn from the quiet solemnity of classical forms, the baroque era also exemplified an age of instability, marking the collapse of an established order. As noted by the art historian Erwin Panofsky, the baroque was founded in “the victory of subjectivism, which aims to express suffering and humor in equal measure.”
AFAIK it’s pan-European, so you’ll probably be able to find something you can tie into the whole English literature theme. Here’s a little more on another “Riotous Baroque” artist, Pieter Aersten.
There’s always the works of Shakespeare as well, and I think that barbotrobot’s fascinating post on the internalized racism of Othello might be a good place to sort of get into how being subjected to racism and stereotypes can drastically affect the mental health and well-being of people of color in white supremacist environments.
Here’s the post with primary documents (photocopies and transcripts from Elizabeth I’s own hand) that give the historical context on the Black British during the Tudor/Elizabethan era in England. It expands on the usual narrative about the famous Poor Laws being passed as a response to the previous system of Feudalism starting to break down during the 16th and 17th centuries. What a lot of places leave out is that the Black British were used as scapegoats more than once in the attempt to remove supposed throngs of indigent, unstable, and out-of-work “Blackamoores” from England. It didn’t work, since people are not likely to report their good neighbors to be deported, since we’re talking regular folks-cobbler’s apprentices, middle class guildsmen and servants, craftspeople, et cetera.
I have a reading list from the Victoria and Albert Museum on Black and Asian performance in British History, which I think can be easily tied into Early Modern European ideas about madness, religion, and other views from the margins of British Society in literature:
If I think of anything else, I’ll be sure to add it here, as well as any recommendation from readers! Best of luck with your thesis, and PLEASE let me know how it turns out!
Ahhh! This is so cool!
An author was writing historical fiction, and decided (in hopes of escaping anachronistic language) to only use the vocabulary that Jane Austen used. They made a custom dictionary of all the words Jane Austen used in all of her books, and used that to spell check, so it flagged modern words and phrases that she would have totally overlooked otherwise.
I’m thinking it would be incredibly easy to do the same thing for fanfiction, especially book-based - compile a dictionary of, say, all the words GRRM used in ASOIAF, and use that as a spell check dictionary so it would flag any words GRRM did not use…
Or a particular TV show character’s dialogue, though that would involve much more manual effort…
edit: apparently, some historical fiction authors use old dictionaries (circa: 1700-1800s) as their custom dictionaries, even when writing about much earlier time periods. This helps them escape writing with modern-sounding anachronisms that throw modern readers out of the story, but also allows them to use language that a modern reader can understand when writing about time periods where characters should be speaking, say, Old English.
These are some great resources for authors of historical fiction (and/or fan fiction)!