Diversity is Harder than it Looks

I have always believed that people should be judged by the content of their character. I have hated sexism, racism, and any other associated “ism” for as long as I can remember. To me it is just so obvious that what is inside is what counts the most, and that under the surface we’re all the same. Our culture may be different, our training may be different, and the basic worldview programming beneath the skin might be different, but the human spirit never changes.

So you’d think that representing a diverse range of people in my fiction would be a cakewalk. Effortless. Sadly, this has not been the case.

I have learned that in order to do this I have to constantly educate myself. Otherwise, my fiction continues to run on tracks that have been programmed into me at the subconscious level. What’s done this programming? The mass media, in part. Cultural training, too, I’m sure. In the end it doesn’t matter. Some of this programming runs appallingly counter to my own highest and best beliefs, the ideals which I hold so dear, and it can be disturbing when I come face to face with it.

I started Backlash with a white male protagonist. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. In this case, that’s exactly who and what he would have been. I added strong, female characters. Ava was certainly strong, and a vital part of the story. Charlotte Corbie was intelligent and compassionate. The story cameo’d a gay man in a strong, compassionate role. I also included a massively fat man in a supporting role. In short, I felt like I was doing pretty good on the diversity front.

You’ll have to click on the spoiler below to figure out what went wrong.

I thought I was doing pretty good overall. Later, however, I learned of a trope called “women in refrigerators.” I can’t tell you how deeply disturbing–and even terrifying–it was to discover that I’d basically used that trope. I’d played it straight. I’d done it without a second thought, without ever realizing what I was doing.

This experience taught me that I have an awful lot of assumptions to dig out of my own head before I could really get to the level of diversity that I wanted to achieve.

In Dig My Grave I didn’t go anywhere with race. I only had so many pages. I had a strong, overweight, female protagonist. Not too overweight of course. I could only challenge my assumptions so far. Emmaline is about as fat as I am, which means she doesn’t need two seats or even a seatbelt extender at an airplane, but she doesn’t really look too hot in a bathing suit. Probably, in my head she was a size or two smaller, because in my head I know there’s some programming lurking around which says you can’t actually be heroic unless you’re attractive too–thanks so much for that one, Hollywood.

I wonder if I will ever be brave enough to create an honest-to-god heroine who might need a seat belt extender. I’d like to, because someone very important to me (someone who likely doesn’t realize her own importance to me because I’m crap at communicating the really emotional stuff to people) was always very large, and I never cared, because the amount of kindness that she showed me and the interest that she took in me transcended all that. Transcends all that, really, every time I see her. My aunt was one of a select few who accepted me unconditionally at a time when I felt awkward, unfit, and judged by many people in my life, and she was a hero in my eyes, and also beautiful in my eyes, and always will be. So I think I owe her that book someday.

The next book was a series of false starts. One was not a false start because of diversity issues: I was trying to make Ava the hero of it in all three cases. But it got increasingly implausible and fell apart. The second book was turning into a beautiful creation that I never wanted anyone to read. At first I thought it was because it might be misinterpreted as racism, but I think I was purging racism from myself, confronting it, coming face to face with it, rooting out all those little ugly programs and tossing them aside. Truthfully the symbolism was racist, and messed up, and I was appalled when I saw it. How had this come from me? But there it was. Perhaps it’s no accident that I set it in the deep south, in my home town of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Where better to uproot something than the place where those roots began? Still, it was not a fun journey to take. The third book was just implausible again. I might salvage it, or I might not. I’d like to, because I think Ava deserves her own story, but she’s certainly being awfully coy about letting me write it.

I do think the racist manuscript was cathartic, however, because I was able to start playing black and Hispanic role playing characters for the first time in my life. I’d always avoided it in the past out of sheer fear: fear that I’d make a mistake and play an offensive stereotype. I learned it was pretty much like playing any other character, and that I have this whole thing called “the Internet” to give me a window into what being a member of another culture looks like, as told in the words of the people from that culture. Since the “fear of getting it wrong” was what kept members of other races out of my fiction, too, I feel like this was a net positive.

Right now I’m working on The Maker’s Mark, an epic steam fantasy. I have a heroic party that consists of two white females, one black male, one white male, and one Asian male. I have already second guessed myself on a few occasions. Does this or that series of events make some statement about white men? Does this make a statement about black men? Have I turned the Asian man into a walking stereotype? Should I make one of the women a lesbian? I haven’t had any trans characters yet, oh no! I also haven’t had any disabled characters or truly elderly protagonists…but you can only do so much in one book.

There are people who would roll their eyes at the amount of thought and agonizing I put into this, I’m sure. I hear people bitching about our “politically correct” society. That makes me roll my eyes. What most people call “politically correct” I call “common courtesy.” You don’t use hurtful racial slurs. It’s really, really a good thing to be sensitive to the way that your words make people feel. But the “PC sucks” people are probably not the people who will enjoy my fiction. I feel a strong mandate to be inclusive–even if that means being imperfectly inclusive. I feel a mandate to make the world a better place with my fiction. I don’t just want to entertain. I want to challenge scripts, examine our worldview, and in some tiny ways, mitigate injustices. The mainstream may not have caught up with the idea of being inclusive, but I have, and I will. I just now have come to understand that the I can’t do this in a vacuum. It’s not enough to just pick a character and make him black. I have to continually find the scripts about race, gender, class, and privilege that are humming along in the back of my own brain. I need to examine them and keep them only if they stand up to the light of loving kindness. After all, the stories flow from me.

So it makes sense that I’ll have to work on myself, first.



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