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Do you write diverse characters? If so, how do you avoid cultural insensitivity?
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There’s a faction of society who believe that representation isn’t necessary in media, including books. The false idea behind it is that a reader will imagine a character however they want, regardless of descriptions, by suspending belief and letting their imagination run in their own ways. There is also the false idea that there are writers proportionate to each group, and thus they get all they need by the numbers. However, that’s not the case, and I can tell you why: the market pushes for what sells best. Thus, the dominant group, who are conditioned to seek their likeness in media control what is seen. In addition, those who are the tastemakers, the ones in seats of power to control representation, and those who define what is ideal, have come from groups with greater opportunity. There is a lot to cover!
For the sake of this blog, I will just say that oppression, repression, historical trauma, and systemic bias makes diversity by a truly free market an impossibility. There is no such thing as a free market. Someone or some group is always in control of it, and it is planned this way by decades of systems put in place to assure it so. To deny this ignores how our market functions, and how it is deeply tied to the culture of the society, and reveals either and ignorance of it or a willfulness for it to remain as it is.
Thus, writing diverse characters becomes a bit of a conundrum for writers outside of the groups they wish to represent in their work. Write what you know. If you haven’t lived the experience of a marginalized individual, you risk your character being a caricature, which is both dangerous and insensitive to the community represented. An author has to do their due diligence when writing a character out of their wheel house.
The writer should examine to what ends they wish to have this character a part of the story. Is it because you want to tell an important story that requires their presence, or is it because you think it would be cute and fun? In other words, does the character fit the story and are they necessary? Don’t include characters simply because their appearance, vernacular, behaviors, or culture provide amusement to an audience that has greater power and privilege in the real world.
For instance, Native Americans are not your mascot. They’re people of hundreds of cultures that flourished on this continent from the great north to the deepest southern reaches of the cape for thousands of years before the land was invaded and they experienced an ongoing genocide. It is dangerous to portray them in stereotypes for humor, because this reinforces the ideas that lead to their being placed in concentration camps, had their culture stripped, their children stolen, and opportunity barred from their lives. While things have somewhat improved, this demographic experiences poverty at a higher rate than any other group due to the aforementioned history. It is not funny or necessary to have a native caricature holding space in any written work. It was unhelpful in the past and inexcusable at this time.
What can a writer do to make sure they’re not inadvertently being offensive? There’s a great deal to do beyond examining one’s own motives. Examining your bias should work in tandem with uncovering the reasons you want to portray this individual(s). However, a writer will need to be completely honest with themselves on that journey. This is especially difficult to do when you are someone who has bought deeply into and tied their own persona with the status quo of current society–wherever you fall on the political spectrum.
When the ideas we hold of others are too tightly tied to the perception we have of our reality, and have come to even frame how we identify ourselves, people will tend to explode in anger when having their bias challenged. Bias comes in so many forms. For instance, I have a bias against the wealthy which is framed from my experiences with them while working as a teenager at a Saratoga Springs resort. While this is a lived experience, it still has created what could be characterized as an unfair assumption that the wealthy are narcissistic and indifferent to others outside their closed group. Then again, it is a lived experience that hasn’t been challenged by too many proving otherwise, either!
This is the same sentiment a racist may hold toward a group they’ve chosen to feel a certain way about. They feel that those in the group haven’t proved otherwise to them. How many of these people have they honestly been close with, learned from, worked with? In many cases, racist tendencies are learned early in one’s upbringing, and reinforced by cherry-picked examples–as in, an incident occurs that reinforces the sentiment and that is focused on instead of the hundreds of other examples provided to contrary.
A good example of this is: women do lie when accusing someone of sexual misconduct, because they want something. I’ve heard this echoed from fellow survivors! It’s taught to people early on without any proof. A parent or authority figure says it and a child takes it as gospel. No further examination of the issue is undertaken, possibly ever. Thus it gets repeated and that’s all it takes to reinforce this, along with media that objectifies women and blames them for the objectification they inherit. The idea is woven into culture, and it is repeated as a truth. However, if someone went to the RAINN.org website, and read a few pages, they would find research and evidence shows that less than 2% of cases that gone before legal authorities are deemed falsehoods. Deemed being quite the operative word here. Someone decided that the victim lied, not just that it was found that they did. So each case that is thrown out as false but really isn’t also falls into this category.
There literally is such a tiny percentage of false accusations out there, it is surprising that it is given any air. The reason it does get air is because someone will quickly come along to mention innocent until proven guilty, because somehow public opinion that an accuser be believed and a case be thoroughly examined automatically creates guilt. It doesn’t and to throw this sentence around is ironic, considering that sexism or racism both function on the presumption of guilt before innocence. The premise is to preempt justice to maintain the status quo. Therefore, average people are unwitting tools for the perpetrators of sexual violence. The perps of today don’t have to do a thing, because this was established long before them. This social bias, when included in writing, further reinforces the idea and makes it possible to get away with the crime quite easily–because the accuser will most likely not be believed as the culture daily ingests these ideas from multiple avenues.
See why writing responsibly matters? No one would want to stand accused of perpetuating a system that harms others, especially in such a heinous way.
My advice to any writer who is creating outside of their zone is to spend time with those people, if you don’t already and thoroughly examine your own bias and motivations. Spend the time researching what issues affect that group and how that history shapes an individual. Their concerns throughout the day will be vastly different. Thus, the things that they tolerate, the places they will go, how they dress and express themselves will all be influenced by the issues they face. Historical trauma is personality shaping. A good character gets beyond caricature.
No one group is a monolith. There is diversity within as well. There’s so much to consider, and although diversity should easily exist within any work, those who don’t live a diverse life will find it quite difficult to accomplish a diverse cast in their work.
This said–Ripley from Aliens was initially written as a man. The screenwriter simply changed the name and Sigourney brought her to life. Think about that. We are each human. Don’t disregard that which is unique to the diverse character, but don’t over-signal these qualities either. That can get mighty messy in its own way!
I’ll never forget my fears in writing Henrietta (Blue Honor), but I hold her in my heart as a reminder that I have to think beyond what I readily know for these individuals. It may turn out terribly and it may go well, but if I take my time and understand them, I have a better shot at succeeding. Can we even succeed? Let’s just try not to do more damage. It matters. It could be a life saved.
There’s so much to say on this topic! Literal books have been written on it. I’ve written papers in my graduate studies and blog posts. I encourage authors to explore them (especially from diverse writers). Click on the links below to follow the hop and find out what the other authors have to say on this deep topic…