Today I read this opinion piece on why diversity in books is often poorly mishandled and encountered a quite familiar mantra that has never sat right with me, and that we’re gonna discuss today. I’d love to hear your opinions and urge you to read this piece for yourself.
Before you start throwing rotten mangoes at me, let me explain. I don’t think diversity in books is WRONG. NOT AT ALL. I just think that the way some authors and readers go about it is wrong. NOW THAT THAT’S CLEARED UP, hello! Welcome to yet another discussion in which I am more rambly and […]
My first instinctive reaction to this piece as a #blackgirlnerd #blackauthor #femaleauthor #contrarianPOS was “What the hell is “natural” and how do we know what “natural” is?” It is often one of those I-know-it-when-I-see-it scenarios, but the whole concept of natural v.s unnatural diversity is laughable to me.
Let me tell you a little story, recently I was on twitter and came across a woman I’d been aware of before. She’s a white nationalist mommy blogger, who hopes to use her promotion of motherhood to prevent “white genocide” and she posted an image of the countries of the world. On this map were white figures to represent population density of white people and black figures to represent population density every other ethnic/racial group in the world. The captions basically were “Do you believe in white genocide now?”. When I first saw this image I wasn’t even upset or bothered by it. All I could think was “Did you…did you honestly think most of the world is white?” and instantly my mind was flooded by examples across my 25 years that confirmed that yes, a lot of people do.
And why shouldn’t they if they’re in the western world?
This isn’t exactly a common scene
Television, books, radio shows, newscasts, newspapers, and even the toys sections of children’s stores are dominated by the imagery of white people to an excessive degree. As a kid it was a struggle to find black media in North Carolina, and even when the X-Men movie came out I spent at least a half hour going through the action figure section, filled with Rogue and Jean Grey, until my mom asked a salesperson to go in the back and see if they had any Storm figures. That was a blockbuster film and still not all of the characters were available based on the perception of what people wanted and who could buy.
Diversity as a concept is deeply influenced by individual perceptions of the world even if they are not accurate. As a result the whole concept of “natural diversity” is buggered. What is natural diversity in a world where writers of color are told their minority characters aren’t realistic for not conforming to stereotypes, when constantly imagery exists predicated on the belief that white is universal and in high quantity. It simply does not exist.
With that said authenticity does and it isn’t limited to people of a character’s background being the only ones to write it. The above piece makes an excellent point, and I’ve seen much of the same where people struggle with including minorities of any kind into their work. While I sympathize with trying to create a character and struggling this is an excuse. What is it an excuse for? Bad writing at best and someone’s unconscious biases at worst. Why do I say this? Because I’m a person who is also black, and while that impacts my perception of the world it doesn’t not negate that I’m a person. I talk a hell of a lot about race because it impacts my life, because of the rise of nationalism, and honestly because I’m in an interracial relationship and if he can’t take me at my Angela Davis he can’t take me Marcus Garvey. But I remain a person, and I have friends who are gay. They are not just my gay friends, but my friends who are gay. They are people.
If you have problems with a character because they are not like you then you need to do research, and if that’s too hard for you then you need to just write something else. Find beta readers like your characters, email other authors for advice, and don’t get upset if someone says “How you asked that question and wrote this character is fucked up”. That is a question of authenticity, of whether the character sounds natural. If it is easier for a person to write dragons than asians…something is wrong, and I extend that to white people as well (but that’s not as big of an issue because white is used as the universal story).
The idea of natural diversity is an admirable one, and yes I do believe it makes sense to reflect the realities of diversity in context. While I enjoyed the black victorian soldier in a recent Doctor Who episode, the unwillingness to acknowledge that he was a black victorian soldier and just make him a soldier is problematic. To me it signals avoidance, but it still was nice to see. It was a clunky aspect of that episode’s casting that did feel forced, and it felt forced because no one wanted to deal with it. When The Doctor brought black woman, Martha Jones, to meet Shakespeare she addresses it directly and part of what makes it work is…characters respond to her race. Even in being flirted with she’s treated as an exotic dark woman. It wasn’t just glossed over. That felt natural. Not every setting, character, etc. will address race, but pretending it doesn’t exist is unnatural. In fantasy settings, and Americans have trouble conceptualizing this sometimes, ethnicity matters too. Race is noted because physical differences are noted, toted, and demonized. Over that? Ethnicity. Historically we know that is natural to people. That is an issue of authenticity.
The problem has never been that there are all white settings. I’m from the south where in the 1990s and 200s my family was often stared at in restaurants. Two years ago I was on vacation/research with my mother and a white woman did a fucking double take. She was tall like me, and she looked from my mom to me with utter confusion because two black women were in the nice part of down town because that usually doesn’t happen there. There are neighborhoods I know of that a white person gets stared at because they are so not common. At black BBQs I’ve been to a person’s white partner is accepted but also exceptionally rare. Majority asian, white, black, latin, etc. settings and places exist, but that isn’t an inherent problem. That is equally natural.
The problem has been that majority to all white settings have been unequivocally accepted as natural for centuries, creating a belief that white is the majority, which then feeds back into “It is natural to have majority white character settings as the relatable settings and cast”. The default is white, natural is white, in the west, to such a degree that people are uncomfortable with the modern reality of globalism as “white genocide” when what they’re experiencing is population reality. So this idea of natural v.s unnatural diversity is a big farce in the context of reality.
What is natural to write isn’t always actually natural, and the assumption that this would be the case or can be the case is one done with a lot of optimism, as the blogger of the piece reflects, or in more negative terms, as has been my experience.