For those of you who don’t know, I’m white. In fact, I’m very, very white.
I’m also a man, and straight. Basically, I hit the privilege lottery. It doesn’t mean my life has been easy, or that I haven’t worked hard to get where I am. What it does mean is that there are a lot of challenges and obstacles that I never had to face. However difficult my life was, it would’ve been more so if I were a woman, or black, or trans, or all of the above.
If you’re someone who struggles to understand the idea of privilege, and you’re still reading this, here is a great video that explains it.
As a general rule, I try to avoid being an asshole. Having privilege doesn’t make me an asshole, but it does make it easier to be one, and it means I suffer fewer (if any) consequences from it. It doesn’t even have to be intentional. For example, dismissing or diminishing the struggles of those who don’t look like me because I’ve never had to face them.
What does this have to do with writing? Quite a bit actually. I wrote a couple of blog posts about it here and here, if you’re interested in reading them. If you aren’t, here is the tldr: as a writer, I have a certain amount of power. My stories and characters can reinforce stereotypes and tropes. They can dehumanize or reduce a group of people to a caricature, or their culture, beliefs, and history to a plot point or set piece. They can even erase entire groups of people entirely. They don’t have to, but they can. What’s more, the blind spots I have that are born from privilege make it super easy; stomping around, blithely unaware of what I’m stepping on. That, to me, is a good example of an asshole.
So, if I don’t want to be an asshole, which I don’t, I have to be mindful of my figurative surroundings. It takes effort and requires a willingness to recognize and acknowledge when, despite my best efforts, I still wind up being the asshole. And when that happens, apologizing sincerely, accepting the consequences, and striving to do better in the future.
This isn’t easy to do. In fact, this blog post was spurred by a recent conversation with an author friend. This person is one of the kindest, selfless, most thoughtful people I know. In fact, they are so averse to causing anyone harm that they feel paralyzed at times. They want their writing to be diverse and inclusive, but they fear screwing it up and how that will impact others. Some will use this as example of PC culture run amok. To those people, I cordially invite them to fuck off. This author wants to do the right thing, to be a good person, but they’re not sure how. I know my friend isn’t the only person who worries about this, so I’m going to share some lessons I’ve learned from the mistakes I’ve made.
In case you didn’t know this, representation is important. Everyone should get to read stories with characters like them in it. However, you need to do it correctly. If the only black character in a story is the magical negro, the only Asian is a ninja assassin good at math, or the only LGBTQ character is a super effeminate man with a lisp and limp wrists, you’re not doing it correctly. Proper representation is why #ownvoices is so important. When members of marginalized groups tell their own stories, it gives them representation and the world some cool new stories. Additionally, it also shows those of us not in that group what positive representation looks like.
So, does this mean non-marginalized people should never write about marginalized groups? No of course not, and for a couple of reasons. First, the current lack of diversity in the writing world means the only way to get broader representation is if non-marginalized people include marginalized characters. Second, and for the same reason as above, this will result in the erasure of marginalized people from literature. Obviously the ultimate goal should be increasing diversity of creators, and while it is improving, like all social changes, it’s a long slow march. In the meantime, I think those of us with privilege owe it to readers to provide them with positive, accurate representation. BUT when someone who isn’t marginalized creates characters that are, they owe it to those groups, their readers, the story, and themselves, to do it right. That means avoiding stereotypes and negative tropes.
First, let’s be clear; all stereotypes are bad. Yes, even positive stereotypes. No group is a monolith, and stereotypes deprive them of individualism, internal diversity, and complexity. In order to avoid stereotypes, you need to be aware of them. Some stereotypes are so old and have been repeated for so long that people forget the origins, or that they are stereotypes at all. As such, when writing about a group that you don’t belong to, never assume what you know is accurate or correct. Do research! And I don’t mean just Googling a list of common stereotypes (though that’s a start). Read articles by members of that group; multiple articles (again, no culture is a monolith). Find colleges/universities that have classes or departments dedicated to that group and ask to talk to someone there. If you reach out to individuals, always be respectful. Remember, no one owes you their time and attention, and it’s not the responsibility of a marginalized person to educate you. If they do give you some of their time and attention, recognize they’re doing you a favor, not the other way around.
Unlike stereotypes, not all tropes are bad. Some are neutral, and some are just overdone. Others though are truly offensive, hostile, and/or bigoted. The white savior, magical negro, noble savage, fridging, bury your gays/dead lesbian syndrome, and manic pixie dream girl are just a few examples. There are many, many more, so again, do your research.
Another, all too common, problem area is cultural appropriation. If you’re unsure what exactly that means, it’s the seizure of aspects from a marginalized culture by a non-marginalized people, with no regard for those whose culture is being seized. Some dismiss the idea of appropriation. They say it’s an homage or celebration of the culture they helped themselves to. Make no mistake, that’s utter bullshit. In most cases, the person doing the appropriating is part of a group that at one time actively tried, or succeeded, in destroying that culture. Black culture is the result of successful destruction. Enslaved people were often punished for practicing their native religions, or speaking their native languages. Over the course of centuries, any memory of where they’d come from was lost. As such, they were forced to creature a new culture of their own. American Indian boarding schools represent a real effort by the US Government to destroy Native American culture in the name of assimilation and “civilizing savages”. As such, avoid including any ceremonies, rituals, or religious beliefs of marginalized groups in your stories. Even if you’ve done a mountain of research, if you’re not a member of that culture, it’s unlikely you’ll have a deep enough understanding to do it justice. Some groups (understandably) actively work to keep aspects of their culture, or all of it, from outsiders. Respect that choice. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a character from that culture in your story, but don’t include any rites or ceremonies. Also, avoid using a thinly veiled stand-in for a group or culture. You won’t fool anyone.
Another invaluable tool is hiring a sensitivity reader. This is an invaluable service that not enough people use. Keep in mind that a sensitivity reader will provide feedback on problem areas. They don’t give you a seal of approval, and you should never, ever use them as a shield from criticism. As has been mentioned (repeatedly) no culture is a monolith. The idea of sensitivity readers has gotten a raw deal lately. Part of that is a knee jerk reaction to “PC culture” but it’s also a result of less than scrupulous people taking advantage of the need. So, again, do your research. Make sure the person you’re hiring belongs to the group you need help with. I know from personal experience how hard this can be. My current project, Two-Gun Witch, is set in the years just after the civil war. A concern was raised that one of my characters, an elf, seemed to be a stand in for Native Americans. While I made a concerted effort to avoid this, and included Native American characters (Lakota specifically), I recognized this as a legitimate concern. It took time, and help from a friend, but I found a Lakota sensitivity reader.
When the reader gets back to you, don’t argue with them. You hired them for their feedback, so use it. You should also be prepared that you might need to scrap the project. If your reader says the story is just too problematic, listen to them. It’ll hurt, and it will suck, but it’s the right thing to do. If you feel strongly about it, hire another sensitivity reader. If you do, however, be honest with them from the start. Explain that you had a reader look it over, what they said, and that you’re looking for a second opinion. Lying or holding back is just setting yourself up to be the asshole.
If this sounds over the top, or too much work, disabuse yourself of that idea. Writers do research. I don’t know of any who haven’t spent hours researching some minute detail that will only show up once. The characters and, more importantly, the readers who will connect with that character, deserve the same consideration.
Now, here’s the downside. You’re almost certainly going to offend and upset people, even if you do put in the time and effort. For some people, the minority in my experience, there won’t be anything you can do to not offend them. In other cases, you will have legitimately missed something. Regardless of which it is, do the right thing. Don’t make excuses, or dismiss the offense. Acknowledge that you came up short and that you’ll strive to do better next time (and actually strive to do better).
My (admittedly privileged) view is that I’d rather screw up trying to make a more diverse story than play it safe and not include any character who don’t look like me. I know I’m going to get it wrong, and I’ll accept the consequences of that. It’s just part of not being an asshole.
Note: Please feel free to comment, especially if you think I’m off base on something, or got something wrong. I don’t claim to be an expert or to know it all, and I’m always looking to improve.