There’s a lot of talk about the lack of diversity and representation in the media. It’s a lot of talk that I definitely agree with. I’ve always been a fan of diversity in characters, and the stories that accompany people from different walks of life than me. I want to have as much diversity as possible in my fictional worlds.
Here’s the thing: I’m white. I’m like, white bread white. European ancestry on both sides with no deviation as far as I know. And straight. And I’m comfortable with my gender. As such, some people say that I’m not allowed to write anything outside of my little whitecishet sphere.
Statements like these fall somewhere between raging bullshit and hand-wringing fear. You see, I grew up in Canada, in a fairly big city, and I’ve been fortunate enough to interact with a variety of people. I’m not what people might call “wordly,” but I like to think that I don’t have a narrow grasp of it either. A fictional world feels richer to me when I can see the real world reflected in it, with all its different people and cultures and conflicts. That’s not to say that I can’t enjoy books with a lack of these qualities—I’ve read plenty of fantasy books which have the “endless Europe” problem—but I just find I like them a little less than the books that go beyond one kind of representation.
I want to write about all these different people, but at the same time it makes me very nervous. Basically, trying write outside a certain sphere has a “Damed-if-you-do, damned-if –you-don’t” aspect surrounding it.
If you don’t, you’re at best lazy, and at worst racist.
If you do, and get it horribly wrong, you’re offensive and racist.
But what if you do, and you actually manage to do it right?
I want to avoid stereotypes; I write a character overall, letting ethnicity or sexuality influence the character as I dive further into their development. I try not to be colour-blind, because I know that can be just as bad as all out exclusion. I try to research, I try to talk to the people I know who may have some experience with what I’m writing.
But at the end of the day, I’m still considered part of the ‘white majority’ (which, honestly, isn’t really much of a majority anymore). While I can research and talk to people and get opinions, I’ve still never experienced aspects of different cultures first hand, nor do I know the negative reactions to it face-to-face. I don’t know the prejudice of being gay or trans beyond what I can read. I can eat different foods and wear different fashions and research and read but at the end of the day, I’m never going to get the full extent of what a person who actually lives in that culture might feel or how their interactions with others might be different.
I’m worried that it will show in my writing, and by extension, decrease its quality. I’m worried about being offensive. I want to create a world of characters people can relate to, because we all relate to characters differently, and seeing ourselves in popular culture is important.
Fact is, even if my representation is good, there will be people who resent me for it because, for all my good intentions, I’m not part of that culture. And if I do succeed, the resent comes from the fact that someone outside of a certain group is being praised for that group’s portrayal, while people who are members of the same group go sadly unnoticed. Others may think I’m only doing it for the attention and don’t actually care. Some might criticize me for overt “political correctness.”
So, damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
But the way I see it, if I’m damned either way, it’s better to be damned for trying and doing rather than letting fear get the better of me.