In this case, I mean specific categories: Race, sex and gender, orientations, ethnicity, national origins, religion, and so on. Diversity of ideas we won’t spend much time or energy on but that’s also a thing that exists.
Why try to write it? Just because it’s Politically Correct (PC) or in demand – or for deeper reasons?
There’s respectful language and careless language. If one is motivated by fear of criticism, that’s a solid reason to add diversity. That’s how society changes: We criticize outmoded ways of doing things. Nothing wrong with responding to that.
I’d like to start with one primary reason to be as inclusive as you can.
Mamie Phipps Clark and Kenneth Clark are famous for the Doll Test, which they wrote about in three papers between 1939 and 1940. The internet is replete with various versions of this test (for example https://youtu.be/tkpUyB2xgTM). The short version is this:
A 5-year-old black girl is shown two baby dolls. One has black skin, the other white skin. Mamie asks her a series of questions about the dolls. “Which one is pretty?” “Which one is good?” “Which one is ugly?” “Which one is bad?” and so on. The girl points to the white doll for pretty, good, and nice and to the black doll for the opposite answers. Then Mamie drops the bomb: “And which doll are you like?” At this point, the girl looks at the researcher with this hurt expression. Like, “You sonofa… you tricked me.” Because she knows which doll she is like.
This is a segregation-era test, but it wasn’t set in a segregated state and the results persist across time and place. Segregation matters for this thing, but isn’t the only factor. One of the issues must be representation – otherwise, why would brown kids south of our border react in just the same way?
It isn’t just little girls of color. The suicide rate for people on the GLBTQIA+ spectrum always exceeds straight folks. People of disability constantly push back on well-meaning microaggressions. Jews, Sikhs and Muslims in America often experience literal danger, and black trans women, being at the pernicious apex of three disadvantaged groups, are some of the most murdered people in this country.
The better we represent people in our writing, the more we can reflect and create a just and equal society.
With that, let’s delve into five diversity errors, ranging from worst to best. To get into the plus side, ways of getting this right, come to PPWC and drop in on my talk on this subject.
People will pay to see films and read books/comics that portray them. Sometimes creative products get made that include or focus on minority or underrepresented groups just to pump sales.
The comic book character, Cyborg, was written and produced by white, able-bodied people. Black people had no say and the money they spent didn’t profit them or their communities. The titular character hates himself and his prosthetics—a very able-bodied view of what it might be like to rely on medical devices for empowerment.
Women in film and comics, and yes in literature, are often-usually included for sexual value. There’s a certain trope in horror, for example: A serial killer stalks around the nightclub scene and finds his perfect victim. She’s young and hot and we get to linger on descriptions of her sexuality. The killer gets her home, things get hot and heavy, and then she murders him. She’s not there to empower female readers; she’s there to profit white male writers.
A lesser form of exploitation. The character is still there to attract a certain audience and still doesn’t profit the minority community. She doesn’t necessarily conform to a bunch of stereotypes or otherwise outwardly offend, but she’s alone on the screen.
Example: Rogue One. Felicity Jones stars. She has a non-romantic plot, a Hero’s Journey, with tons of screen time. BUT, the male crew, and stars, outnumber females by well over 6:1. Only male characters die on screen.
Sometimes we’re so afraid to say anything bad about a minority group that we go too far the other way. A Mary Sue is overly idealized and usually has incongruent skills.
The NCIS TV franchise is notorious for MarySue characters: the Goth girl with extraordinary hacker skills (“girl” being a misnomer; Abbie is portrayed as eternally 28 despite being born in 1969). Wheelchair bound Patton Plame (portrayed by Daryl “Chill” Mitchell) is an unrealistic hacker with magical superpowers. Sebastian Lund played by not #ActuallyAutistic actor Rob Kerkovich (as far as I know), starts in forensic medicine, graduates to field agent, also has unrealistic levels of skill and knowledge and ability to “overcome” “autism”.
If you’re doing Mary Sues, you aren’t necessarily doing anything terrible, but you can do better.
Some writers may not know any people of the minority group and therefore relies on stereotypes to write the characters. Sometimes we get our ideas about people who aren’t like us from movies, TV and books.
Positive stereotypes are still stereotypes. What’s the harm of positive stereotyping? It tends to pigeonhole the group. You can be black and not into rap music or dancing. You can be Asian and have neither talent nor aptitude for math. You can be female and have actual ambitions.
I’m an autistic man. You don’t know me. Everything you think you know about me from watching TV is wrong. I’m not smart because I’m autistic; I’m both smart and autistic. I worked very hard for my academic success.
Positive stereotyping tends to credit our success for attributes rather than effort and dedication and sacrifice.
So, you’ve decided to include people of color in your novel – congratulations – because people of color exist, and you want to write a realistic world. Racing towards inclusion, in good faith with good intentions, we might make some mistakes. Call them microaggressions.
I’ve read a lot of books lately where, when a character is black, the author mentions it but, when a character is white, they don’t mention it. This sets up black as a category that bears discussion, but white as default mode: nothing to see here.
If you’re going to describe characters as black, then their skin color is in some way noteworthy. Probably you’re right. But the truth is, black is important because white is important. So, I advise also describing white characters as white.
What else? Describing females in terms of their sexuality but not the males. Lingering on black hair but not white hair. Describing a Hispanic person’s accent but not those of Euro people from all over the country.
Now that you have a glimpse into what not to do, sign up for the conference workshop and we’ll primarily spend time on doing this stuff right, with more positive examples.
Jason Dias is a doctor of clinical psychology with fifteen years of experience working with developmentally disabled adults, and is the co-founder of the Zhi Mian Institute for International Existential Psychology. His writing credits include web journals and articles for The New Existentialists and A New Domain, two book chapters about existential psychology, a book of poetry and several novels and anthologies. Jason lives in Colorado Springs with his wife and son and keeps mostly to himself.