Diversity In Writing
Writers hold a lot of power. I would go as far as saying writers have the potential to be the most powerful people in the world. As a result, being a writer during times of change is extremely important. Look at writers across history. From the Bible to present day writers open minds, transform hearts, and aids their readership through scary, unfamiliar territory. That being said, our ability to write inclusively, as writers, gives us the ability to counteract marginalization in literary works. Our efforts to improve the quality and diversity of the representation present in our stories can aid in the deconstruction of harmful social hierarchies, the expansion of our readers' worldviews, and the eventual achievement of our goal of ensuring that every reader recognizes themselves in the pages of their favorite books.
But how do we, as writers, do that? Do we deliberately include diverse backgrounds, genders, and cultural backgrounds in our writing in order to be more inclusive? Do we do so at the fear of being perceived as political and insensitive? I hear that fear. Trust me. I have had people ask me where I got the basis for my characters and judge my authenticity, but I did not want to stick to writing characters who were somewhat similar to myself. So how do we challenge ourselves to become more incluse and diverse without speaking for someone else's experience? No one said writing inclusive, diverse fiction would be easy, but as with most things, the journey and the product are worth it.
Here are a few tips I put together to help.
1. Accept that you need to learn.
Face it. You’re writing from a deficit. Writing characters that are vastly different from yourself puts you at a loss. You have no reference base from which to speak and even then, your reference base is limited to your experiences.
Research can take many forms. You can expand your world view, do the leg work, and yes, read. Read stories by people who are vastly different than you. Let their stories evoke emotions. Get out there and see the world. Get to know new people. How can you write from a homeless person’s point of view if you never saw, volunteered or spoke with a person who is homeless? Pay attention when others are speaking. Listen to what they have to say, what they have gone through, what they are going through now.
3. Respect other people’s journeys.
Marginalized communities can speak for themselves. There is no one better than a member of a marginalized community to tell the story of said community. If someone dismantled their experience by writing their story from the perspective of a person who did not walk the walk, so to speak; it reinforces the marginalization and takes away an authentic opportunity to be heard.
4. Use Sensitivity Readers.
Sensitivity readers are people who read manuscripts, novels and articles for offensive content, misrepresentation, stereotypes, bias, lack of understanding, and other such things. When an author writes about a specific community, sensitivity readers are often drawn from that same community. They should provide both academic feedback and feedback from personal experience.
5. Avoid Tokenism.
When you're writing your characters, you should treat them as humans and individuals. It is not acceptable to include a character only for the purpose of representing a broader group or because they are supposed to be indicative of a larger portion of the population. Characters from a variety of races, cultures, and sexual orientations do not require a "reason" to exist in the plot, just as diverse people do not require a "reason" to exist in everyday life.
6. Don’t Be Defensive.
Whether or whether someone thinks your work does a good job of being inclusive or diverse is not a commentary on you; rather, it is a reflection on what is on the page, and what is on the page can change. Although you may have gotten your beta readers on board with your idea, and your friends have given their approval, and you have taken extra precautions to conduct your research, there is still a potential that some people will not approve of the choices you've made in your work. Revision is not a bad word.
7. Don’t Box In Your Character.
We must refrain from limiting our characters because of their identities in the same way that society restricts real people. Even though identity is important in fiction storytellers can make a genuine positive difference in the world by removing limitations on marginalized communities without writing stories where diversity is the central theme. By including diverse characters who aren't constrained by their identity, you're creating a positive representation of that group for others to learn from, while simultaneously adding depth to your own story.
8. Be equal.
You describe a person of color in your books while failing to describe a white person, isn’t fair. Not to mention the fact that it implies that white is the standard color in your world. Whenever you are tasked with describing the sexual orientation of a bisexual or pansexual person but not with describing the sexual orientation of anyone else, you automatically assume that heterosexuality is the default position. Not only is this incorrect, but it draws attention to the differences between people. The fact that one person is described but the other is not draws attention to them. It makes them an outlier. That is not to say that a storyteller has to describe every character in detail, but it is best to describe all of them at the same time when describing one of them. Everything else would be assumed by the reader as an extreme case which is not true. Furthermore, describing an outlier has very little to do with describing genuine diversity in a statistical population. For example, the data shows that 4.1% of the population in NJ is LGBTQ+, therefore your characters should be representative of that data.