A lot has happened since I began this blog series, way back in January. It’s been an exhausting nine and a half months, every single day (see here, here, and here) demonstrating the urgency behind increasing diversity and improving representation in our books and media.
In the course of doing this series, I’ve learned a lot about how to be a better writer and ally, and I’ve thought a great deal about the position (and privilege) I occupy in society and how that’s reflected in my work. If I had to summarize what I’ve learned into a single sentence, it would probably be: Stay in your lane. I resisted that idea a lot at the beginning of the year, but I’ve come to understand why it’s so important.
Because this is my last post, I want to try something a little different. To unpack the importance of staying in your lane, I’ve written a dialogue between a (well intentioned) white writer and a representation of some of the voices working hard to educate people on Twitter and other platforms. This dialogue may seem facetious, but it’s drawn from real arguments that people are making right now—like this article in the Washington Post and this article in the New York Times—and reflects a bit of my own evolution as I’ve become more educated about these issues over the past year or so.
If I had any artistic ability at all, I would have drawn some illustrations and made this into a little comic. But I don’t, so here you go. (TL;DR below.)
Well intentioned white writer:
*reads about diversity problem*
Wow. This is terrible! We need more Indigenous people and people of color represented in our literature, especially in books for children. What can I do to help?
I know! I can use my privilege as a white person to draw attention to this issue. I’ll write a book about a black protagonist who deals with racism. It’ll be great!
Huh. There’s a lot to understand about black culture and racism in the U.S. If I try to write an authentic character who speaks and acts and dresses like a black American, is that going to be problematic, since I’m…you know…not black?
*logs on to Twitter*
Oh. This is what black writers and writers of color have been saying for some time now.
But if white writers stay in their lane and write only about white characters, how can we fix the diversity problem? Our stories will continue to be whitewashed!
You know, there are plenty of writers who aren’t white who can, and who want, to write those stories. In fact, if you as a white person write a book about a black protagonist, you’re probably taking a spot away from a black author whose book would offer better representation than anything you could have written, no matter how well researched it is.
Okay, but then what am I allowed to write about?
Whatever you want.
You just said I couldn’t.
We said you probably shouldn’t write about a marginalized protagonist whose life is fundamentally different from your own. You live in a society that privileges whiteness, so it’s going to be almost impossible for you to understand what it’s like to experience the oppression of a person of color.
But isn’t it a writer’s job to imagine? Like, I don’t know what it’s like to ride dragons, but I can still write about it.
Yeah, that’s not the same thing at all. Dragons don’t exist in real life. Black people do.
Okay, well what about a cisgender man writing about what it’s like to be pregnant and have a baby? That’s an experience he’ll never have, but he can still write about it.
Sure. Anyone can write about a character who’s pregnant. It’s probably not going to be as effective as something written by a writer who has experienced pregnancy, but you could pull it off if you read about and listen to a lot of pregnancy stories.
The difference is that pregnant people don’t experience the same type of systemic oppression that black people or other minorities do. So if you mess it up, the stakes aren’t the same.
Okay, but I can’t experience everything. And as a writer, I need to represent human life in all its variety, right? Or are you saying I can only write about white people?
No, you should write about all sorts of people. The world isn’t all white—or able-bodied or heterosexual or cisgender or Christian—so your characters shouldn’t be either. But as a white writer, you have to realize that your stories are going to be filtered through a white persepective, no matter how hard you try to distance yourself from it.
We’re just asking you to recognize that you might not be qualifiied to write about certain things, and that not all stories are yours to tell. That mindset—that a writer can write about anything—is a product of colonization and cultural appropriation.
For centuries, certain groups of white people, especially white men, have been able to take or do whatever they want. Few, if any, were in a position to challenge them or point out that their writing wasn’t actually that great and that their portrayals contributed to harmful stereotypes. Instead, they were canonized and (thanks to white imperialism) taught in schools the world over, so the concept of writing whatever you want became normalized. Now, however, people are pushing back. They’re saying, “That isn’t yours. You can’t write about that.” And when white people are told they can’t have something, they tend to get angry. Because they’re used to getting whatever they want. You know the saying: when you’re used to privilege, equality feels like oppression.
But what about cultural exchange? American society has been influenced by other cultures over the years too, right?
Exchange is only possible when two parties are on equal footing. When a society is oppressed, the oppressed group is forced to assimilate into the oppressor’s culture, and the oppressor takes—and discards—whatever it wants from the oppressed group. There’s nothing equal about it.
Here’s a litmus test: if a member of the oppressive, or hegemonic, group can enact some aspect of the oppressed, or subaltern, culture without experiencing repercussions, but if a member of the subaltern group tries to reclaim an aspect of their culture and is punished for it, that’s cultural imperialism/ appropriation at work, not exchange. (For example: black women are frequently suspended from school or lose their jobs for wearing their natural hair in protective hairstyles, while white women are hailed as fashion icons for wearing dreads; and white girls can wear Native American headdresses at Coachella and football teams can adopt a racial slur as their name while actual Native Americans lose their land and are labeled terrorists for simply getting too close to the police.)
So a Native American can write a story about Native American culture, but not a white person?
In a word, yes.
What about white people with Native ancestry? Biracial folks? Who gets to decide who belongs to which community?
That’s a tricky issue. Many Americans, for example, were born to immigrant parents or to parents who belong to two different cultures or ethnicities. Feeling _____ “enough” to claim a given identity is a fraught issue for a lot of people, and we should never force minority writers to prove their “ethnic purity.” Identity is something everyone has to figure out for themselves, but, in general, if you’re wanting to speak for a certain community, that community needs to have claimed you back.
Okay, so what if I wrote about a white person who helps a black person—
NOT EVERYTHING IS ABOUT YOU!!!
I guess that’s the takeaway, huh? That white people shouldn’t center themselves in stories about racial issues, just as able-bodied people shouldn’t center themselves in stories about disability, and so on. Which means I should probably stop asking you to appease my white fragility…
I want to reiterate this point: As a white writer, you have to realize that your stories are going to be filtered through a white persepective, no matter how hard you try to distance yourself from it. That’s why, while it’s great for white authors to write characters of color, that’s not going to be sufficient to fix the diversity problem. (For an important example, see this article in Teen Vogue about the Netflix documentary about Marsha P. Johnson and why it’s critical that trans and gender-nonconforming people, especially trans people of color, “be the architects of [their] own narratives.”)
Consequently (and here’s the TL;DR),
- The only way to achieve true diversity is to regularly publish books written from a wide spectrum of perspectives and worldviews. This means we need to champion work by minority authors and marginalized voices, whether they choose to write about their personal experiences (“Own Voices”) or not.
- And while we should continue to populate our novels with all kinds of characters, putting in the work to make sure our portrayals are as accurate as possible (you can start by reading all the previous posts in this series!),
- We need to reevaluate the colonialist idea that writers can write about whatever they want. Empathy is important but not enough, and some stories and experiences simply cannot be adequately told by white, cishet, able-bodied writers. Moreover, when white authors write about marginalized communities, they’re likely taking away publishing opportunities from marginalized authors, and thus preventing diversity (see #1).
A note about defining diversity. As Justina Ireland recently wrote, there are three kinds of diverse stories: cultural stories, derivative diversity, and stories with incidental diversity.
Cultural stories are stories that belong intimately to a culture. For example: coming out stories, transition stories, stories of racism. If you were to remove the character’s identity the story would no longer make sense. For example, a coming out story.
Derivative cultural stories are stories that may be inspired by cultures but aren’t a direct correlation. i.e. Asian inspired fantasy.
Incidental diversity is when a character might be a member of a marginalized group, but the story DOES NOT rely on that identity.
ALL of these stories are what constitutes diverse media/ fiction. ALL of these stories require a deep knowledge of the culture they pull from…I think a lot of folks think writing incidental diversity is easier. It isn’t. The potential for screwing up is still there. And I am of the mind that cultural stories should only be told by members from within that cultural group. Because they matter more.
(Anyway, if you enjoy my threads give some money to this classroom.)
This is not about censorship or segregation or “cultural policing.” It’s about making sure that people of all backgrounds are represented fairly, accurately, and fully.
It’s about making good art.
I love what DongWon Song recently wrote in his essay “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Eat the Damn Eyeball“:
We talk a lot about “diversity” in fiction, but I find that term misleading. It’s not about getting some token brown people in an anthology or publishing one black author each season. Science fiction isn’t for any one reader. It’s about showing every reader that there’s room for their stories, their cultures, their selves. Fiction is a shared space where we can all sit down together and find common ground and try new things and dream of a new future, a better past.
 “Twitter’s” part of the dialogue, while my own words, was inspired by the work done by actual people, like Justina and DongWon above. Here are a few you might want to follow and support if you’re able. (Note: please don’t ask any of them to educate you personally unless they’ve explicitly extended an offer—see this thread about the invisible labor minority writers are often called upon to perform. Instead, follow and listen, and take the initiative to look things up yourself when you have a question. Here’s a great thread about the educational benefits of lurking.)
Justina Ireland @justinaireland
DongWon Song @dongwon
Dr. Adrienne Keene @NativeApprops
S. Jae-Jones @sjaejones
Fangirl Jeanne @fangirlJeanne
Ana Mardoll @AnaMardoll
Eve L. Ewing @eveewing
L.L. McKinney @ElleOnWords
As I mentioned back in January, this series is meant to serve as a general introduction. If you want to do more reading and thinking about these issues and/or support books by minority authors, and I hope you do, here are some resources to check out:
- Dr. Adrienne Keene’s Online Course on Critical Race Theory
- School Library Journal Diversity and Cultural Literacy Syllabus
- Writing the Other
- Writing with Color
- The Disability in KidLit Honor Roll
- Rich in Color
- We Need Diverse Books
Thanks for joining me for these posts! Keep writing and learning!
January: Understanding Identity and Representation
February: Acknowledging (and Battling) Colonialism, Marginalization, and Erasure
March: Writing Race and Ethnicity
April: Writing Gender
- Improving Female Representation
- Writing Transgender and Non-Binary Characters
- Gender and Sexuality Terms
May: Writing Sexuality
June: Writing Disability
July: Writing Body Diversity
August: Writing Class Difference/ Intersectionality
September: Writing Religious Difference
October: Series Wrap-Up
- Final Thoughts: Stay in Your Lane