In case you’ve been otherwise occupied, there’s a long-overdue conversation of sorts taking place in the writing world about the lack of diversity in books, among published authors, and in publishing houses. #WeNeedDiverseBooks, #blackgirlsread, #browngirlsread, and anything by Justine Ireland and Angie Thomas are all good starting points.
Honestly, I’ve written, then tossed, some version of this post half dozen times in the past year. What can I say about diversity in writing and publishing that hasn’t already been said, far more articulately, and by those with greater insight? What even gives me the right to open my mouth?
But then comes the recent turmoil(s) in the YA community, the Write Magazine “appropriation prize” dumpster fire, and now, the privileged “diversity for the sake of diversity is discrimination” dickishness (and really damn heartening rebuttals/response) within the RWA romance community. That seems to imply the conversation isn’t reaching everyone, and either writers aren’t paying attention, or, being generous, are simply not in the know and are making mistakes out of simple ignorance.
Fortunately, ignorance can be fixed. Education is your friend. As writers, we love us some research, right?
I’m not going to argue about who “gets” to write what—other cultures, other marginalized groups, Native/Indigenous/First Nation, PoC, LGBTQIA+, differently abled, neuro-atypical, or, or, or…
Mostly because there won’t be a single right answer. No one can give a writer any sort of group stamp of approval. No Nation or group is a monolith, speaking with one mind. Sometimes, lines are drawn and discord is the order of the day among marginalized groups fighting to finally chart their own course and self-determine identity. Nuances abound.
To add more confusion, there’s also the “people need to see themselves in literature” argument (which is hella valid) versus the “who is most qualified to write those narratives” argument. Merely pointing out brown or black or trans characters in existing stories as some sort of proof we’re inclusive or precedent to write what you will isn’t a great argument either, since many of those stories are told through white, cis, colonial lenses. Those slanted, often inaccurate narratives are put out and falsely shape public perception. Some stereotypes are so ingrained in our consciousness that people outside the group don’t even realize that they’re staring at an inauthentic, insulting assumption.
So I’m not telling you what you can or can’t do. I’m not qualified.
But I would hope you at least ask yourself why you’re writing (or not writing) this character, this story. Why is it yours to tell? Because you can?
Or because you offer a valid perspective? Is there someone more qualified to write that story, and are you usurping their spot?
To plagiarize many a med school graduation speech, “First, do no harm.”
For a start, think about the potential impact of writing about a group you aren’t a part of.
Then, if you aren’t taking a place at the table from a writer with a more legitimate insight, and your heart tells you to go for it, at least do your homework.
Ask among the community—respectfully, and without getting your undies in a wad if you’re told no. No one owes you an explanation of their culture, their personhood, or their pain.
Utilize sensitivity readers.
And listen to their feedback.
We all make hurtful mistakes. But try not to make them out of arrogance and ignorance.