The topic of diversity has been on my mind lately. It was triggered by a “joke” someone printed out and brought to me at work. This customer is known for bringing us the “Sunday funnies,” but what she gave me was mock bridal magazine cover rife with racist remarks about Muslim women. I shredded it, wondering what my Muslim coworker and friend would have said if she’d seen it. It was disgusting.
As I said last week, I was honored to sit on two panels discussing gender diversity and racial diversity in Steampunk literature and culture. I was incredibly nervous: What would I say? Who would I be speaking with? What do I have to contribute to the conversation?
At one point, I told the audience I was waiting to be denounced by the Fraud Police. I’m a cis-gendered straight white gal. What do I know?
Well, I know what it’s like to be a cis-gendered straight white gal in a world that cries out for diversity, but shuts it out at nearly every turn. On the gender panel, I sat with Milton J. Davis, co-editor of the Steamfunk anthology and owner of MVmedia, LLC, as well as Arthur Hinds, musician and author of Voyage of the Dragon. For ethnicity and race, it was only me and Milton.
So we had me, the aforementioned white girl, a white man, and a black man. It was small convention, but at least we had three different voices for three different experiences.
A friend of mine told me she’d moderated a panel on diversity once and was bothered by the fact that the panelists were not racially diverse. More than that, when she brought it to the attention of the director, nothing was said. He didn’t see an issue.
In gender diversity, we spoke about a lack of non-binary representation. Genderqueer, nongendered or genderfluid characters are starting to appear in mainstream literature, little by little. That’s excellent. People want to see themselves represented in media they love.
I was asked how I’d go about writing a genderfluid character. Honestly, I have no idea, but it’s not a task I’d take lightly. I’d read, research, talk to genderfluid people about their experiences. I don’t know what that voice sounds like or how the experience shapes it. Teach me.
Several things were paralleled in the ethnicity panel and one thing rang out in both discussions: people are afraid to write the other.
Writers are afraid of fucking it up. Of misrepresentation. Of falling into stereotypes. Of being illegitimate. Of offending the people their trying to portray.
The dirty secret is, YES, you WILL fuck up. Someone WILL call you out. Someone WILL accuse you of the thing you fear most. The solution is to not to write the best black/asian/blind/genderfluid character you can, but the best PERSON you can.
Writing the other isn’t about what makes them “other,” it’s about what makes them a person. And if you open your mouth and start a conversation, you will learn. You will gain experience. People want to see themselves in the media they love; someone will be willing to help you if you ask.
It’s not enough for white writers to give racially diverse characters the change to be the protagonists; we need people of color writing people of color. We need more people like Sana Amanat and G. Willow Wilson, the editor and writer behind Ms. Marvel, which features Kamala Khan as the main character. She happens to be Muslim, as are her creators. We need more shows like How to Get Away with Murder, which stars Viola Davis as a strong and fearless lawyer, and also features a gay main character who isn’t ashamed or afraid to use sex to get information, and kinda accidentally falls for the first guy he used.
If you haven’t seen the finale yet, I won’t spoil anything, but next season looks like it will get into dealing with HIV. Please, please, please.
Milton made an excellent point regarding the need for more people of color raising their own voices. When people don’t see themselves included in the literature, or see themselves cast as slaves, prisoners, etc, they assume they’re not wanted. Who wouldn’t?
Take Steampunk. We were at a Steampunk convention, after all. In three days, I saw three black people. One was Milton. A fourth girl may have been Indian. I saw one Latina woman (who was a kickass Steampunk Sailor Mars.) When people don’t see themselves represented in something they might be interested in, they feel unwanted. Unwelcome. Here we have an alternately history where you are still a slave, or a mistress, or the tech-genius. Everything is centered in America or England. What about the rest of the world?
And it’s not just books. The Kingsmen film came out a few weeks ago. My first thought on seeing the trailer was “Mr. Darcy just beat up a room full of thugs using only a top hat and cane. SOLD.” And yes, RAVE reviews have flooded Facebook and Twitter, but with it came questions on diversity. All the lead “good guys” were white men. All the “bad guys” were black, or Asian, or handicapped. Even the girl who gets to join the Kingsmen isn’t given much if any agency. Sure, it’s a riff on the 60’s spy-film genre, but even James Bond had Bond girls who were independent, had a job or career, which, for the era, was downright unheard of. Oh, and they were racially diverse, good vs bad status pending.
That by no means makes it a poor film or detracts the enjoyment viewers got from it, but you can still love something while pointing out its flaws.
I will be the first to admit that I have not written very diversely, but I like to think I’ve done so (so far) with reason.
In THE KILLING TYPE, Charlotte is a white, middle-class woman. Why? Because her story centers around her schizophrenia and the treatment she needs to continue living her life. She needs her privilege, but it works against her. She’s a middle-class white woman who happens to be schizophrenic. Even when she’s being a reliable narrator, will you take her word for it?
Jonathan Gale, my detective, is bisexual. I wanted to include that aspect of his character without making it a big deal. I wanted to normalize it, but I hate having to use the word “normalize” because that implies it wasn’t normal to begin with. Who he loves has nothing to do with his job, but I couldn’t stand not mentioning it. He needs to be allowed to be himself, not because he’s bisexual, but because he’s Jon.
Though not a main character, Aaron, Jon’s best friend and medical examiner, is black.
It’s not diversity for the sake of having diversity. It’s about writing people. We need these voices. We need white writers to channel them. We need writers of color to speak out. We need men, women, genderfluid, and non-binary people.
We need to be inclusive, no matter what art we’re making or who’s making it.