Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Writing: Breaking out of the white mold

File:Diversity and Unity.jpg
photo courtesy of Frerieke via Wikimedia Commons

Hi guys. Today we're going to talk about diversity. Not because I'm trying to be politically correct or because I think this is a heated topic (in fact, I almost *didn't* bring it up because it is a heated topic), but because the more I see YA covers the more I see white females and a whole lot of white males and the more books I add to my TBR the more I see how many white females lead YA literature (that I, myself, read, too--I want to be clear about this). So the reason for my post isn't to stir anything up; it's to ask you, as writers, what you think about it. (I have no idea what the demographics are for authors (white versus everyone else) but to me, white authors seem to take precedence in the media. It's just how it is.)

So. Diversity. Recently, I got addicted to CW's Arrow. Lovemuffin and I watched a ton of shows back to back for an entire weekend, and were only a few episodes in when I observed that almost every scene had a white character right alongside an African-American. This has changed a bit as the series has progressed, but at that point I was like, "Wow. This is so cool." (Keep in mind that I don't watch TV ever, really, so perhaps this is now the norm. If so, whoops.) But to me, seeing both in almost every scene was proof that this wasn't some coincidence; their show was seriously trying to make it happen.

As someone who is very active on Twitter and Goodreads, I've noticed that many of the teens I interact with or follow or "squee" over stuff with are *not* white. And, I've noticed that they read the same things I do. Which means they too are not reading much about characters like them. And that, I think, is  quite unfair.

I have one series where almost every character is a different nationality specifically because I wanted it to look like a skin rainbow when the entire group hung out. My other series? Well, let's just say I saw them all as white Cali kids. Of course, neither of these make me (or anyone else) a better or worse author, but after watching Arrow I got to thinking: How hard would it be to throw in a nationality or two (even as secondary characters), and why don't we, as a society, do it more often?

Like I said, this post wasn't to start anything, but to see what you guys think. Sometimes books are best written to where the readers can decide for themselves what nationality a character is. But, I tell ya what: I can't even imagine how frustrated I would be if almost every book cover and character showed a Portuguese girl (when I am so *not* remotely Portuguese at all). It would probably be fine at first, but after years upon years of this, I'm pretty sure I'd be like, "Can't they find anyone else to put on their covers? Don't they know there are many more people in this world besides girls with dark hair?"

The mic is on! I'd love to hear your thoughts. :)

***Note: It occured to me days after writing this post that I had seen another post recently about diversity by Aimee Hyndman. You can check it out here.


Shanah said...

I personally like to write my characters with descriptions and avoid using "labeling" wording. I will describe a nationality's distinguishing physical feature if they have one, but I like my readers to decide for themselves, so they can relate to any of my characters.
Mostly I find that when authors try too hard to be politically correct or point out specifically that "Hey! I have a minority in my book, or Hey! I have an alternative lifestyle in my book, or Hey! I have something else unusual I am giving nod to just for the sake of..." it takes me so out of the story, I just want to toss the book out of the room.
Books should be about people, and characters and everyday struggles of everyone, and unless there is a specific reason for someone's race or nationality to be mentioned as part of the plot or struggle, then I say make your characters a rainbow definitely, and an eclectic blend of characters styles, but *show* don't tell your characters' ethnicities or nationalities, unless absolutely necessary. I like to think of it as just showing a unity and everyone is working together or being together like it should be.
That said, the same should go for book covers. I don't think there should be a dominating "type" of person on covers. Diversity needs to be the norm.
That being said, an author who is not well versed in another culture really needs to do research if the intention is to write outside the familiar. All peoples need to be represented respectfully. If you don't know it, don't show it. But I hope writers would take any opportunity to expand their horizons.
And I did not mean to go up on a soap box, but it is something I also think about a lot. Thank you for sharing your feelings on the matter. :)

Anonymous said...

Start something. I mean it. This is something I've been writing about all day because sometimes it just gets overwhelming - and then it gets overwhelming again when it looks like it's not a problem to many others.

Diversity has to be intentional, which means conversations have to be intentional and the *reason* it has to be intentional is that the system that got us here was, too. Intentional is how we keep from being satisfied by *one* concession.

Good on you for saying something.

GSMarlene said...

I think writing with diversity is great. I think our writing should mirror the world around us. But it shouldn't be forced. One thing I dislike is "all or nothing" in media. There either seems to be a "token" minority or all minority, which, to me, turns the movie or show into a cliché.

A book I'm just starting to query has a black mc. Some of the responses have been that there isn't enough story "about" him being black. Well, it isn't "about" his race. He's a kid who loves science and meets an alien. He's only black because that's the image that popped into my head when I wrote the short story that prompted the novel. Why should it be "about" his race? It's "about" his experience and personal growth as a kid, just like any other kid.

Shanah said...

Yes, this...this is what I was talking about.

J Lenni Dorner said...

I tend to wonder if history books (the ones in school) are related to the issue. I'm part Native American. There were hundreds of tribes. Most people seem to only be able to name five. (The only time they ever name mine is if it's in reference to the sale of Manhattan.) Tribes that had almost nothing in common and never even met are all lumped together. So it isn't just diversity of having non-anglo-saxson-decent characters, there's also the vast diversity of cultures of other people.

I think Carlos Mencia put it best:
"I was born in Honduras, that's where I was born. I live in California, where no matter what you say, you're Mexican. You understand that? It doesn't matter what you say. See -- you don't understand that, white people, because wherever you go, you're white. You're here, you're white. You go to L.A., you're white. You go to Denver, you're white. You go to Miami, you're still white. In L.A. I'm a Mexican, In Florida, I'm a Cuban. In New York, I'm a Puerto Rican. And when I come to Canada and I find out I'm an Eskimo."

Jessica L. Brooks (coffeelvnmom) said...

Bethany, I love how you say that intentional is how we keep from being satisfied by one concession. As authors, we can grow complacent with what works and what we see everywhere, and forget that there is so much more to the reader audience... but taking steps to make sure we cover more than just one base is a movement the readers completely deserve. :)

Shanah and GS, I completely agree with you. I don't think we need to shove it down the readers' throats either, just like we don't shove the "whiteness" of white characters down readers' throats. But adding a few things here or there (like having a character get annoyed and say something in their native tongue, for instance; or inviting someone over for abondegas, for example, which is so *obviously* not white people food even though a lot of us eat it) is what, in my opinion, gives the reader a quick visual/understanding of characters and how they differ from one another. I completely agree that if we don't know much about who we are writing about, it can turn out negatively (and of course we don't want that). I also feel that, if I myself have looked at someone and thought, "Wow, their green eyes look so amazing because of how gorgeously dark their skin is..." then a character might think that, too. And that's throwing something out there, quickly, without being stereotypical and saying "blah blah blah and they're black".

J. Lenni, that very well could be it. My husband is Choctaw, though I'll be honest -- we don't know a *whole* lot about them. But there are quite a few different reservations near us of tribes that are definitely not even close to the same; yet everyone sees Indians as... Indians. (Hmm. Something to think about.)

Thanks so much for your input, everyone! :)

Unknown said...

I agree with your sentiment in this post. When you spoke of watching Arrow, I immediately thought of watching Grimm (since I haven't watched Arrow), and how there's a distinct focus on diversity. The show takes tales from many sources besides just the Brothers Grimm and I absolutely LOVE that. I do want to see this more, especially in YA, but I agree with the other commenters who said it shouldn't be forced. The characters should have a certain appearance or speak a certain language because it fits the story naturally. I like stories that address a culture I'm not familiar with in a comfortable way. It really draws me in and adds something special to the story.