Why I Talk About Diversity (And Something-Something Star Wars)

Two weeks ago I went to Penn State Erie because a women’s studies class was studying Blackbirds as part of a “women and superheroes” class. (Fascinating takeaways from that class: the class was evenly split on whether or not Miriam Black is a superhero, anti-hero, or something else; they correctly saw that the book was very much an “anti-romance” novel; they also saw, to my delight, that the princess in the tower that needed saving was actually big burly truck driver, Louis, and Miriam was the one who had to save him.)

Then, this past weekend I sat on a fantastic panel about diversity in genre fiction with authors Gail Carriger, Carol Berg, and Jim C. Hines, and DMLA agent bad-ass, Amy Boggs.

Oh, spoiler warning: I’m a firmly-middle-class heteronormative white dude.

Basically, I’m one of the Career Tributes in the Hunger Games. I get all the cool snacks and weapons. I’ve already got a bunch of cards up my sleeve. Hell, sometimes I don’t even feel like a Career Tribute but one of the damn Gamemakers. To carry this metaphor to its naturally absurd conclusion, the odds really are ever in my favor.

And so it’s weird to me to be invited to talk about diversity. I have almost no stakes in the game. Hell, I should probably be continuing to tilt favor toward us folks living up on Heteronormative White Dude mountain because, hey, prime real estate. My son’s a little white dude, so why not keep the deck stacked for him, you know? And in a sense, getting to be on panels about diversity and giving talks about the same feels Trojan Horsey to me — like a littler version of me is gonna pop out of my own skull and be like, “HA HA HA WHITE POWER! MEN’S RIGHTS!” and then kick over a desk before running out of the room, cackling.

Further, I don’t feel particularly good at it. Speaking about diversity, I mean. I try. I really do. But I make mistakes. And even in making mistakes there’s this vibe that I’m so brave for speaking out about it when really, it’s easy-breezy for me to talk about this stuff. I don’t see myself losing readers. I might even gain readers. Any hate mail I get is pretty tame and, honestly, fairly infrequent — and has yet to ever invoke anything resembling a death threat or a threat of rape. So, it’s not particularly “brave” of me to bullhorn my opinions from this Very Safe Iron-Walled Bunker up here on Heteronormative White Dude Mountain while those living off the mountain are catching hell even when they don’t speak up.

So, why do I do it?

Is it privilege-flavored guilt? I like to think it’s more than this, though I’ll note that — like many of my ilk — I grew up in a family that could, at times, be considered casually and comfortably racist. Where gender roles were more firmly polarized and imbalanced. (I had friends, male friends, who sometimes wore skirts and that, ahhh, didn’t go over well?)

Is it that I wanna be a white knight? Oooh, god, I hope not. That thought makes my guts curdle. I don’t wanna play anybody’s hero. I’m a shitty hero. If I’m your champion… *low whistle* then everybody’s pretty much fucked. I get this stuff too wrong too often to be a hero. I’d much rather be your squire and try to cultivate a world where you get to be knight. Or maybe I’m the standard-bearer — the flag-bearer carrying the banners for a greater ideal. Maybe mouthpiece, or ally, or pit crew. So, nope, no white knight desires, here. I’m way too introverted to wanna be a white knight.

Part of it is a whole host of selfish reasons, honestly. I could probably subsist very well on writing to white guys, but just the same, I look around at a changing world where white guys aren’t always top of the pops anymore. I look at a world that is increasingly diverse at the street level, if not yet the institutional level, and — again, selfishly! — I don’t want to talk over or around people who don’t look or live like me. I don’t want to ignore them. I want to include them. If I speak to more people (selfishness alert), my audience grows (translated: I can sell more books). Monocultures aren’t healthy. Not in an ecosystem, not in a financial portfolio, not in a group of friends or a family. Monocultures are weakness. Diversification and diversity — polyculture — is strength. It’s how we keep on keepin’ on, y’know?

Part of it is because I am racist and I am sexist. I dunno if there’s a biological component at work there, but I do know there’s certainly an environmental one — and growing up white in America, with a male identity that matches what lurks within my Iron Man Underoos, you kinda get this stuff drilled into you a lot of the time. Sometimes actively, sometimes passively, in much the same way that rape culture isn’t always overt (or has been overt for so long it feels like part of the fabric rather than as a flaw in the design). I can still feel, like a turning worm, that flinching reaction of ingrained racist, sexist bullshit — and it’s honestly pretty gross. (A good example of how this exists in a practical way is that all-too-common moment when other crappy white dudes assume you are just as crappy as they are and they find you and in a low voice say something toxic about that woman over there or that Arab guy across the room or gay marriage and you’re like, “Ohh, hey, no, I’m not on your team, you rancorous shit-bird.”)

Sometimes it’s just that once you try to embrace the duel-wielding power of empathy and logic you start to see a lot of flaws in a lot of systems and, in turn, you start feeling like that’s fucked up. The data points of rape culture. Or the fact that American prison culture is the new slavery. Or the castigating bullshit surrounding gay marriage. Or cop stops or TSA stops or anything in the news ever. You just start to see that everything is weighted for me and everything is weighted against you. It’s like, I’m born, and they give me a high-five and a soft pillow. Someone unlike me is born and they cut your hamstring before drop-kicking your ass out of the crib.

(Shit, maybe it is guilt, I dunno.)

As a writer, it’s that I wanna talk to more people. Not at more people. But as part of a two-way, we’re-all-at-the-same-table conversation. Even when I’m getting it wrong. And it always strikes me as ironic that science-fiction (HEY LOOK THE FUTURE) and fantasy (WE CAN MAKE UP ANYTHING WE WANT) are so frequently mired in the narrow Heteronormative White Dude paradigm. You can do anything you want in these worlds and yet somehow they end up always looking like the samey-samey worlds that came before them.

Which brings us to Star Wars.

I won’t go into this too deeply, and yes, I recognize that we may see more casting yet. But they announced what appears to be the primary cast and it looked a lot like the composition of, well, every other science-fiction film you can think of, which is to say one woman, one non-white guy (John Boyega rules, by the way — go see Attack the Block), and a bunch of other white lads. A major piece of pop culture like that would be improved by being representative of all the audience in potential, you know? I played Star Wars as a kid and had a panoply of roles I could comfortably drop into because damn near everyone on screen looked like me. My cousin, a girl, played, mmm, ohhh, Leia. (What, was she gonna play Mon Mothma? A Jabba slave girl?) And no, it’s not that she was unable to change gender roles and play a boy — it’s that to begin with, she had no representation on screen except for one (admittedly pretty bad-ass) woman.

And here someone might flinch and say “something-something quota” or “blah blah politically-correct,” but it’s not about mandates or forced heterogeneity so much as it is trying to speak to more people and not make your entirely made-up world look like something less progressive and less inclusive than actual reality.

Fiction, and genre fiction in particular, has a Human Centipede problem, I think. We keep ingesting and regurgitating the same stuff. Tolkien! BARF. Heinlein! BARF. You eat the same, you puke the same, and we call just scoop it up again and put it back on the plate (AND NOW YOU KNOW THE ORIGIN STORY OF TACO BELL). Anything that breaks the cycle is jarring — but, also, necessary. It was interesting that, at the diversity panel in Colorado, the topic of “blind people feeling people’s faces” was brought up (by, if I recall, Jim Hines), and how basically, that’s total bullshit. And yet you see it everywhere, don’t you? Why do we see it everywhere? Because it’s a (false) data point that we keep scooping up and barfing back.

It’s a fly that’s been in the soup so long we think it’s an ingredient, not an invader.

(That, perhaps, is an apt metaphor for a lot of this stuff.)

Now, the larger question is —

Why the hell am I talking about diversity to anyone?

Why do I get to do that?

I assume, in part, because it’s the reverse-version of that “impromptu KKK meeting” vibe I mentioned above, where white dudes feel comfortable being shitty around other white dudes. Like, sometimes the message needs to reach the residents of Heteronormative White Dude Mountain, and so sometimes that message gets carried by a fellow resident. I can use that same vibe of straight white guys listen to each other and use our shared frequency for good, not evil.

I assume, also in part, because it’s just another advantage conferred to to already-advantaged.

Mostly, my hope is that  I can make some small effort to not diminish evil — because I don’t know that I have that power — but diminish ignorance. Both in myself and those listening to me.

That is why I talk about diversity.

150 responses to “Why I Talk About Diversity (And Something-Something Star Wars)”

  1. The thing that throws me. . . if you look at the person as a whole, before you start assigning class/race/whatever labels, then diversity becomes a moot point. I think so many writers write in a world of white blandness because that’s our world view. 90% of SF/F writers are white males for better or worse. Do we owe it to everybody else to add more variety to our fiction? Probably. . .but only if it serves the story.

    That opens up the kind of stories that SF/F should be writing; cutting edge, twisting reality, expanding horizons, and making you THINK outside your box.

    • “Serves the story” is always such a weird thing, though, because it implies stories are frequently intimately bound by (and to) the strictures of race, sex, class, etc. — and, sure, they can be, but not as often as I think some folks suggest. It’s a very easy defense but is a bucket that doesn’t hold a lot of water. And I think diversity matters not because we assign class/race/gender/whatever but because those are things that are true about people and culturally affect them.

      But yeah, thinking outside the box is one part of this, to be sure.

      • Serves the story I feel is best done at a final pass/word limit area. A recent story I wrote went from passing to failing Bechdel test because of word limits and when I’d finished the story, the scene that needed to be to cut to make the story work had a really cool female character.

        Which in turn led to her getting her own story. There’s two phases where whitewashing can occur- in pre-production and in revision/editing. If they’re not serving the story, characters are easier to remove in rewrites then to add in rewrites (at least for me).

        Plus just because that character doesn’t serve this story doesn’t mean they couldn’t serve another, better story that hasn’t been told yet. Too often serves the story is used as a justification to not try instead of a valid reason for rewrites when it comes to diversity.

    • “90% of SF/F writers”

      I really don’t think that’s true, especially not now, if it’s ever been. Taking an inclusive view of the field, I defy the notion that 90% of all writers creating speculative fiction around the world are white males. That ignores the strong SF/F traditions in East Asia (especially anime/manga), magical realism in Latin America, and more.

    • What throws ME is that we will accept pretty much anything in fiction, from animated skeletons who are also detectives to vast steampunk dreamscapes with battleblimps flown by sentient octopii in jars in the background, but a woman or PoC or trans* person grabs some people’s suspension of disbelief and does to it like Bane did to Batman. That is what I don’t understand.

      Honestly, I’ll never be able to say it better and with more venom than Luke McKinney did: http://lukemckinney.net/2013/10/03/the-big-balls-of-bioshock-saviours/

      Fiction =/= documentary.

      Or to put it even more succinctly: I kind of hate that the sci-fi adventure novel I’m working on is pretty much unpublishable because one of the main characters is a genderfluid cowboy, it has an android of color and a female engineer and that’s not even a little bit theme in the book. They don’t serve the story, the story serves them. They’re just there, being people who do things. I’m already debating whether I should use a male pseudonym, and when I get to the phase where I start peddling this thing, I think I probably will. Because I have a feeling the odds are stacked VERY heavily against this thing I made.

      And that’s fucked up.

      • Actually with all the political ramblings over GLBT issues, and the media focus on that subject, I think your novel could very well get published. You can’t please everyone. Your subject matter isn’t something I would read at all, but what I write about probably wouldn’t be your cup of tea either. You have to write what is in your heart and then put it out there. You can’t worry about whether it will be publishable. Just write.

      • Wow. Thanks so much everyone. I think this is the first time in my life the comment section has made me feel better about life. I need to go lie down a minute.

        Seriously though, thank you so much.

      • I totally agree. It’s the same with fairy tales. There’s no reason why there can’t be an Asian Snow White or a black Cinderella, but people always get so upset whenever something like that comes along. They say it’s not “historically correct,” but last time I checked, neither were talking mice and magic mirrors.

        • They only get upset in one direction though.

          “We’re going to cast an Asian-American woman as John Watson.”


          “We’re going to cast a white dude as Genghis Kahn.”
          “Yeah, why not?”

    • Are 90% of SF and F writers white males? Has anyone tallied up all the published authors in these genres to see how they break down? My understanding is the SFWA is close to 50/50 with regards to male and female writers at least, though of course, there are manyf writers of both genders and all races and cultural backgrounds who are not in SWFA. Even if it’s not representative, however, I have trouble believing the number is 90% white males, whether you’re just looking at trade published writers, or at writers who self publish (not to mention all aspiring SF and F writers).

      Now if it seems like 90% of SF and F writers are white males, when in fact the population of writers is more diverse, that’s part of the problem, isn’t it?

    • So…when was the last time you asked what how having a white male protaganist serves the story? The idea that anything other white male needs to have a justification, needs to serve the story, needs to have a point, is basically the same as saying white male is ‘normal’ and everyone else is only allowed to exist if they can prove they deserve to.

      I went to school in NYC for two years, and biggest fantasies I’ve ever seen are the sitcoms set in NYC where everyone is white. PoC, women and non-binary folk to not exist as a tool for you to create “cutting edge” stories with. And you know what twisting reality is? Acting like we don’t exist.

    • “if it serves the story”

      I’ve never liked this reasoning. The story is something the characters are participating in, stuff that’s happening to them. I don’t know about you, but when I’m writing a story, characters are the FIRST element I think of. How can the story do other than serve them?

      And if all I’m coming up with out of my own brain is a bunch of people who all basically look the same, that’s pretty unimaginative of me.

    • I’m having a hard time understanding how a more diverse and realistic ensemble of characters does anything but serve the story.

  2. It’s worth noting that Oscar Isaacs is Guatamalan, so while the percentages are still skewed and the diversity of the universe could definitely be improved, the new cast members of Star Wars Episode VII are still more diverse than Star Trek or the Avengers.

      • Honestly, the only valid argument I’ve seen for the casting so far is that since the overall spine of Star Wars is a dynasty story about the Skywalker line, it makes sense that the new generation will stuck in the same mold…

        But since we’ve confirmed that the only canon bits of the galaxy are the movies, the Clone Wars cartoon and the upcoming Rebels, they aren’t stuck with Mara Jade as Luke’s love interest. They have every opportunity to introduce another female character, and she could even be *gasp* non-white!

        Clone Wars has a ton of great female and PoC characters (the viewpoint character is a teenage girl for most of the series), and something like half the cast of Rebels are female. The Star Wars universe HAS actually made great strides in diversity, they just need to expand that to the movies.

        • Right. I said on FB that the diversity in all the ancillary adjacent projects is nice, but if you’re unwilling to carry those to the bigger story, it suggests that it’s not important — it suggests that, “Oh, YOU PEOPLE get these lesser-seen stories, so go, shoo, enjoy your adjacent properties.”

          • Definitely, although I have to wonder if the Films-As-Primary-Medium is a matter of our perspective. I know a lot of kids were introduced to the universe through Clone Wars, and Ahsoka is their default protagonist.

            A friend’s daughter was confused when he showed her the original trilogy because she didn’t understand why they were fighting the clones and she kept asking where Ahsoka was.

          • I’d say less about perspective and more about audience/economics. A lot more people are going to see the films than have seen the shows or read the books. I count myself a Star Wars fan and haven’t even seen all of CLONE WARS. I certainly think a lot of folks will begin with books, shows, comics. But the films are the cultural juggernaut, here. They are the origin and the ending point for fandom.

          • While agree with the points you’re making about the “main story”, or the movies, I don’t think that the TV shows are necessarily “lesser seen” than the movies for the next generation. My son grew up with the Clone Wars, and can’t wait for Rebels to start. Ahsoka Tano has waaaay more screen time than Han Solo ever did and is more popular to that demographic. They go hand in hand with the movies. So, while we might consider them ancillary, a whole bunch of younger folks do not, and the diversity in those shows IS every bit as important. But yeah, regarding this casting announcement, I was hoping for more diversity. but I remain hopeful that this will evolve going forward. Fingers crossed.

        • The one main cast member TBD is a mixed-race woman in her 20s, so we may yet see this come true. Regardless, I’m glad to see that they’re planning to have a woman of color in a leading role.

  3. A frequently-encountered comment that makes want to RIP OUT HANDFULS OF HAIR (preferably not mine, but that’s usually what’s handy….) is “I would only add diversity to my story if there was a good reason.” When you unpack that, here’s what you get:

    1. The first task of non-white, non-male characters is to justify their existence.

    2. The first task of the writer is not to tell a story, but to explain why a character is not white and/or packing a penis.

    I have never once seen a comment along the lines of, “Damn, before I start this story, I have to explain to everyone’s satisfaction my decision to write about a young white guy.”

    • Sure seen that to hell and back.

      The first thing, not the “why’s my character white/bepenised?” thing.

  4. Chuck, you the man! The need to spread the net in our fiction applies to all writers. As a not-white, but normative male, American, I tend to mainly have non-white main characters – but, not always. My protagonists span the ethnic spectrum, and I’ve some heroes who are pure white bread. I also try to give women prominent roles in my work. I guess what I’m saying is, all writers need to try and portray as accurate a world as possible, in all its hues, genders, and preferences. Shame on Star Wars, but it is after all just a Western movie set in space, and if you take a look at westerns of the past, they were terrifically monochromatic. Keep them zingers coming, amigo!

  5. I deliberately chose my current Wip to challenge me and a lot of other people too.

    It’s set in the early 17th century. My Hero is a Morisco (Spanish/Arab). He has a hard life most of the time; not only do the Spanish dislike him, but the English don’t think much of him either, they call him a White Moor (aka White Nigger). He gets a lot of dirty work to do, spying etc.
    I can write all the crappy stuff that happens to him. My biggest problem is finding a way for him to get respect and status and maybe a girl too. My other big problem is making this entertaining.
    I hope when I’m done to have written something good and interesting,but diverse as I make get it.

  6. I’ve read a few articles recently, one which about the lack of black people in a lot of dystopian fiction (without any rationale – I mean, of all genres, dystopian fiction could really run with the themes of WHY a monoculture exists) and another where an author complaining how there’s a ‘disturbing’ trend of transgenderism in sci-fi. These seem typical of straight white male world views. The writer of the second article (I forget his name) was stating that, as a straight white male he can only write about straight white males, because that’s the group he most identified. This statement seemed to be severely lacking in something I consider pretty obvious.

    We don’t just write about ourselves.

    I’m a straight white male, but I inhabit a multicultural world, where I have friends of various colours, gender and sexual orientation. I’ve got absolutely no excuse not to inhabit fictional worlds with a similarly diverse range of characters, short of excuses that exist within the setting of the worlds I create. And I might not have experience of living outside these comfortable straight white male shoes either, but that shouldn’t mean I don’t get to try other people’s shoes on, as a challenge, an attempt to up my game, if nothing else.

    Admittedly, I live in London, and it’s a pretty liberal, multicultural city. Not everyone has the opportunities to experience, first hand, such diversity. But, with TV, film, the internet, even books, surely the only barriers you have around you are those you maintain yourself.

    It seems ridiculous to me that the fantastic setting of Star Wars is, in many ways, less diverse and interesting than life on my own doorstep.

    • So much of it comes back to WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW, which is a piece of advice that can go toxic pretty fast. Instead of using their life experiences as a well to draw water from when necessary, they use it to throw up walls and justify a limited regurgitative worldview.

      WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW isn’t a rule; it’s an opportunity to know more.

      • That said, a friend of mine was last week looking for websites or guides for how to write from the point of view of a different culture or gender. Because there’s also the genuine fear amongst some writers that, in writing what they don’t know, they might create a stereotypical character which doesn’t really speak with an authentic voice.

        I don’t imagine, however, that that’s a concern amongst most of the people who seem to be shouting down diversity.

  7. See, I’m the opposite. It deeply offends me when I see diversity for diversity’s sake. White/male privilege and rape culture to me are just phrases to assign guilt where none has been personally earned. I choose not to accept it in the same way I refuse to assign guilt to anyone else because of their gender, race, or other happenstance of birth that they had no control over.

    • It’s not about guilt. It’s about them both being real things with real consequences. Dangerous, vile consequences. Choosing not to accept them means choosing to embrace them.

      • I keep hearing that and it keeps conflicting with the definition of equality. I’m happy and even morally obligated to treat people equally. This, by simple meaning of the words, precludes me from treating anyone better for their race or gender, regardless of how others treat them.

        If you want to think that way, that’s your prerogative and your right to think and act as you believe. As for myself, I cannot morally do so until equality and unequal treatment can be logically squared.

          • Okay, I get where we’re at now. You’re probably feeling guilt in that you feel the need to make up for the actions of others. I’m feeling none because I refuse to accept guilt for actions I don’t control. You desire equality of results. I desire equality of treatment.

            I think we’re just going to have to disagree.

          • I live in a world where if not everybody is rowing hard enough, the boat still needs to get somewhere, so I’m gonna try to row harder. Because results actually matter.

            So, yes, I think we’re going to continue disagreeing, here.

          • Dig the rowing analogy. You want to row harder and I’d rather pitch the bastards who’re slacking over the side where they belong if they don’t shape up. No reason these two philosophies can’t coexist harmoniously but it just doesn’t seem to be happening. Too much “my team/your team” and not enough actual thought, I guess.

          • TMB: You do realize that, in this rowing analogy, you’re the one going over the side of the boat, right?

          • I do think it’s important to note the distinction between guilt and responsibility. I don’t make the choices I make (and without speaking for Chuck, I have a feeling he doesn’t either) because I feel bad about the actions of others or the perks I get as a (visibly) white dude. I make the choices I make because I think it’s the right thing to do.

    • What IS “diversity for diversity’s sake?” The real world is diverse. It’s a failure of fiction if it doesn’t reflect that. Just walking from my apartment to my car, stopping for coffee and breakfast, and walking from my car to my office today I saw or dealt with blacks, whites, latinos, heterosexuals, homosexuals… Hell, I’m Native American, fairly gender fluid and bisexual. I ticked off more diversity boxes in a half hour span of my life than most TV shows do in six seasons and a movie.

      • What it is is putting diversity into something for moral/political reasons rather than simply because you think it would be fun to write a gay-married asian couple. I have no issue with diversity when it’s organic, only when it’s artificially injected because the author didn’t feel there was enough of it.

        • “organic” vs “artificially injected” in a work of fiction is a ridiculous notion. I know it’s fun to pretend we snatch pre-existing tales from some conduit to Boo’ya Moon and the stories flow organically through our hands onto the paper in a hypergraphic fit, but stories are artificially structured and created constructs.

          Every character in every work of fiction you’ve ever read was artificially created with intent by someone. Choosing to write a character based on JFK or Ru-Paul or your dotty aunt is still an intentional choice you’ve made to present the world and its inhabitants. As Chuck said, white male isn’t some default nobody should have to prove their intentions were pure enough to include a woman, or a homosexual.

          Every piece of memorable fiction is political/moral. Because every piece of memorable fiction takes a stand on a side, on a message. Oliver Twist? Frankenstein? Star Trek? Hamlet? For God’s sake, SEINFELD. Science Fiction, in particular, is inherently political. The writer portrays a future they dream of, or one they’re afraid of. They champion the utopian or rail against the dystopian.

          • If you want to read that into them all, go for it. I choose to believe that plenty of them simply reflect the author’s own mind without trying to tell me how to think. If I believed otherwise I would have to stop reading on the grounds of the author being a pretentious jackass.

            And yeah, white shouldn’t be the default; not mentioned should be. If you’re injecting race into a work, it’s worth looking at why you feel the need for it to be an issue.

            tl;dr Discussion good, self-righteousness bad.

          • This is actually a response to the next post down – saying “injecting race” – are you saying white is not race? Because every choice about a character includes race, so you are injecting white into books if that’s all you choose to write. You choose each thing about character, beginning with sex, gender, race, then looks, then personality. So how can you not “inject race” when each character must be injected with race? You are ABSOLUTELY saying that white is default.

          • Well, in the case of Star Trek, I’m most assuredly not reading into it at all, addressing that kind of inequality was Roddenberry’s stated goal for casting and world building. And thanks to him, we had a strong black woman role model who inspired any number of young black girls to follow their dreams, like Whoopi Goldberg, who was excited to see a black woman on television who wasn’t a maid. It also brought the first interracial kiss on television. MLK even convinced Nichelle Nichols not to quit because her character was IMPORTANT. Star Trek had a profound effect on the civil rights movement.

            The perimeter of what is accepted and normal in society is influenced by the fiction that pushes those boundaries. Someone has to lead the way, and that is a valuable part of art.

            Beyond that, race is an issue, and it informs everything about a character. A black female character would not be the same character if she were a white male character. Those elements inform not only the way she sees the world, but the way the rest of the world sees her.

            Which is, of course, what privilege is all about. It’s not guilt, or blame, it’s acknowledgement that the system is built in such a way that it makes things easier for a certain group.

          • To your latter comment due to the limitations of the comment system.

            Plato’s Stepchildren. Loved that one. And yet, well intentioned or not, her casting was racist. For exactly the reasons you state plus the definition of racism.

            That very show was one of the bits that most formed my hatred of racism and equally strong belief in equality. The thing is, you can never have equality from unequal treatment and any choice made because of race is racist. These are simple facts based on the definitions of equal and racism. I am not being pedantic, these are not small issues and can be allowed no wiggle room.

            Further, are you aware that positions like the one you’ve taken do not help with racial hatred but in fact increase it? They create a sense of entitlement in the allegedly oppressed class which leads to hatred of the dominant class. They create hatred in the dominant class by actually and demonstrably oppressing them. There quite simply is no good way to be racist.

            I’m fully aware that you and likely most of the readers will disagree with me. I’d say it’s not your fault, that you’d been indoctrinated by charismatic speakers and group-think. I’d say that but it wouldn’t be true. You will disagree with me despite finding no fault in what I say out of your own choice and you are very much responsible for your own choices.

          • Ignoring your ridiculous “allegedly oppressed” comment for the moment…

            The definition of racism is “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” or “the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.”

            The part I’ll note is most important there is “to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.”

            To promote a wider variety of heroes in fiction, to suggest that we need better representation of the vast spectrum of people, is not to suggest that any of those people are better or worse. To acknowledge that every group of people on this planet is different, and has different experiences, etc., is not racist. It’s a fact.

            But since we’ve now reached the stage of the discussion where you declare yourself superior to our poor sheepish herd because you’re oh so enlightened, I think we’re done here.

      • I think diversity for diversity’s sake means putting someone in a role that they normally wouldn’t be in just to create diversity. Honestly I have come to hate the word diversity. It is now a politically correct buzz word that is used to justify things that in the end create more inequality on different fronts.

        • “they normally wouldn’t be in”

          What does that even mean?

          I mean, I just finished watching a miniseries about a trans woman who finds herself with parental custody of her dead ex’s kids in a small town in Ireland, and the whole point of the situation is that it’s not “normal” (whatever that means) and they have to figure out how to cope. (Also, she’s a hitwoman.) It’s a great story.

          If the author’s intent is to have diversity for diversity’s sake, and the result is awesome, who cares what the author’s intent was?

          • Well, it means that if you are writing a historical novel and you are taking pains to be historically accurate, don’t throw in a person of color that wouldn’t be in that place and time just for the sake of diversity. Or don’t put a woman in a position she wouldn’t have been in at that time for the sake of diversity.

            It also means don’t be pedantic and lecturing in your writing by pointing out all the “diversity” all over the place.

            My family is interracial. It is the least interesting thing about us. To us we are just a family. The racial aspect of it is only an issue with other people. It’s not an issue for us. We love seeing other interracial families represented in the media. We do not love when they scream “Look at the interracial family we are portraying to make everyone feel better!” in subtle or not so subtle ways.

            If you are creating your own world in a novel, then by all means put everyone in there. If you are setting your work in a definite world or time period that actually does exist or did exist, then be true to that world. If you manipulate that world by injecting someone that wouldn’t have been in that place, or held the position they are holding in your novel then be clever about it and make the story flow.

            That is what that “even means.”

          • I would argue that the example you used is NOT one of using diversity for diversity’s sake. Not at all. The story was about that particular person in that situation. It makes sense.

  8. A few months ago, I purchased and donated a box of books to a middle school in South Carolina in response to a book drive run by one of my Facebook friends, a language arts teacher who’s passionate about his work and his kids. He posted a picture of some of his kids holding the various books they’d chosen. Almost all of the kids were black. I see nothing wrong with “diversity for diversity’s sake” because hey, DIVERSITY EXISTS. I believe kids deserve to read books about people who look like them. And if some white guy is deeply offended by this, I’m not going to lose a lot of sleep.

  9. Full disclosure: I’m another occupant of HWDM.

    “played Star Wars as a kid and had a panoply of roles I could comfortably drop into because damn near everyone on screen looked like me. My cousin, a girl, played, mmm, ohhh, Leia.”

    Recently we ran into the opposite problem. We had a group of kids over, boys and girls, ranging from 7 to 11. They were playing “Frozen” and the boys ran into a problem. Their options were pretty much limited to Sven because seriously who wants to be that jerk Hans! Yet a couple of the boys fought over being Elsa. We didn’t say anything about it to the kids (but if I’m completely honest it did feel a little weird to me. Like Chuck, I know I AM a bit sexist). Also interesting is that only the girls wanted to be Ana.

    • The way our culture continues to polarize children with “girl” movies and “boy” movies and “girl” toys and “boy” toys is a nonstop source of rage for me.

      I mean, I’m talking Kindergarten and preschool here. These kids are far from hitting puberty.

      “Frozen” might be the first major exception. I see boys embracing this movie even though it has a female protagonist. I haven’t seen it, so I’m not sure why.

      Maybe if our culture wasn’t so dead set on segregating boys and girls with hard definitions of gender, and children were raised in a true environment of diversity, we wouldn’t have to fight so hard later in life to embrace it.

      • The same reason many boys can dig on She-Hulk or the Powerpuff Girls, because it’s awesome. Unless you froo-froo something up with unicorns, rainbows, and other buying-into-gender-stereotypes nonsense, a female protagonist does not make art better or worse to most males. I’m pretty sure it’s playing to female stereotypes that invokes the gender divide rather than vice versa; for the most part at least.

      • It’s not “our” culture. It’s every culture since the dawn of time. Girls and boys are different. Every study ever done proves that fact. Common sense and life proves that fact. Yes there are occasional boys who like more feminine things or girls who are into trucks, but it’s not the norm, even when kids are put in environments that try to be gender neutral. Gender neutrality and forcing gender confusion on people who aren’t confused about it causes me anger and rage. Parents taking away dolls from a girl simply because she is a girl and they don’t want her to honor who she is makes me incredibly angry.

        Even as toddlers, kids segregate based on gender. Boy babies and girl babies naturally gravitate towards gender specific toys even when they are crawling. It’s nature and it’s primal and it isn’t going away. Boys and girls are never going to lose what makes them masculine or feminine because that is fighting all of history and biology. I know it’s very hard for those who do have gender issues, but really that is so incredibly rare. The fact that it’s so rare is WHY it’s so difficult. It’s not something someone deals with on a regular basis and the majority of people will go their entire life never meeting an actual person who doesn’t identify as the gender they are born with.

        My daughter and I are girlie girls. We love pink and everything girlie and feminine. My daughter can also kick ass, and play sword fights with the boys using her pink bejeweled swords. Nobody has the right to take that away from her or me because it bothers them and they want to be more masculine. At 18 months old I took her shoe shopping and she freaked out when I put plain white shoes on her feet. She couldn’t even talk and she toddled over to the rack and pointed at the brightest, pinkest, most glitzy shoes on the shelf. She said “Dah! Dah!” When the sales girl put them on her she started clapping and jumping around. I did NOT do that. She was born all girl.

        Kids are not being forced into gender roles. The majority of them are born that way.

        • That’s interesting. When both my boys were toddlers they also chose the brightest, pinkest, most glitzy things. That’s simply because it’s the most eye-catching thing on the rack. According to you I’m wrong though. My boys must have been born “all girl.”

          I think you’re missing the point. Diversity isn’t about restricting boys from being boys and girls from being girls. It’s about recognizing people as individuals, not as harshly defined stereotypes. It’s about including a range of people in roles that mimic reality.

          I think you’re pulling the “what about us!” card. You know, the one that always gets pulled when people talk about violence against women or racism. Someone’s always gonna cry “men get abused too!” or “white people suffer racism too!” It’s like yeah, true, but it doesn’t really help us here.

          • No I am not pulling any sort of card. You said that gender “stereotypes” are a source of rage for you. You said that in kindergarten they are promoting these stereotypes, as if that is somehow being taught to them. Gender is not taught. The majority of people are born wired to certain things based on gender. It is proven by science over and over. It is proven in everyday life over and over. People who are gender confused are very rare. Yes they exist and they should not be treated badly or bullied, but you don’t deny the gender roles of every person and blame the culture as if it’s something bad for girls to like dolls and boys to like trucks because that doesn’t work for a few people.

            Boys generally will not gravitate towards something pink and girlish, even as toddlers. They just don’t., If your boys, did that’s fine, but that is not the norm.

            So when you rail with rage against all this “gender stereotyping”, I say it is not stereotyping at all. Those girls are not being forced to play with dollies. They gravitate towards them on their own. No matter how androgynous people try to make their children, no matter how much they contrive to create gender neutral environments, they will not stamp out gender differences because they are ingrained in us at every level.

            Gender is not fluid and it is wired from birth, except in a very few rare cases with gender identity issues. Every culture has gender roles, in every time period, in every tribe, every tiny swath of land in the middle of nowhere. That isn’t going away. So your rage is, in my opinion, a waste of time and energy.

          • Whimsey and Nonsense–
            Sorry, but you need to check you science. While it is true that grown men and women have ‘hardwired’ brain differences, there is no evidence that these differences exist at birth and plenty of evidence that they are the result of the brain adapting to cultural pressures.

            And while it is true that all cultures have had gender roles, these roles have varied widely. Some cultures have even had 3 or more gender roles. In many cultures, the differences between genders is very minor, while in others the difference is enough make men and women seem like different species. And gender roles are constantly changing and evolving. In the early 1900s pink was said to be the color for boys, being strong and vibrant, and blue was for girls, being quiet and demure. And as it has been demostrated that children as early as 6 months old are influenced by their parents preferences and attitudes, it seems a stretch to say that the preferences of toddlers are ‘hardwired.’

            Another example: in the mid 1800s and early women were seen as the lustful, sexually insatiable sex, driven by their emotions, and men were the logical, rational sex who had to protect women from their own immoral desires. Which is almost the exact opposite of what is believed now.

            The fact is that there is nothing universal about gender, except for the very idea of gender.

            So while gender may–MAY–have a biological or neurological function, the current gender stereotypes as defined by our culture do not.

          • Ms Mahler, I don’t have the time to cite studies for you, but if you do your research, not just read pro gender fluidity propaganda, you’ll see that studies have proven over and over again that babies and toddlers start with gender specific preferences and reactions. Even the way they approach other babies and toddlers is affected by gender. You can deny the science all you want, but that doesn’t make it untrue. I can pretend that alligators don’t exist, but alligators will still be there. Yes, the significance of colors can vary with time and culture, but color was just one tiny example, not the focus of the discussion.

            As far as women’s roles in the 1800’s… I am an expert on that time period, especially 1800’s America, and I have a degree that is focused on that subject. Women were actually considered the ones who upheld morality. For example, during the Gold Rush in California, 92% of the miners were men. The government took out an ad campaign to attract women to the gold fields to bring civility and morality to the mining camps. I could go on. Like I said… degree in this stuff. But I am too busy and I’d rather be writing. I’d love if you would cite your sources for the notion that women were lusty and sexual beings, because in all my studies I haven’t come across that concept. I haven’t seen it in literature from the time period either. I studied love letters written by couples during the 1800’s extensively, and the men were not the pure ones towing the morality line.

            I don’t even know where to begin with the statement that there is nothing universal about gender. Not even considering the science, the history, sociology, or anthropology, just look around and you can see it in both humans and animals.

            I have the feeling that you are someone who believes in gender fluidity. Am I correct? If that’s the case then you and I will probably never come to a meeting of the minds on this issue. At any rate, it’s an interesting discussion.

          • “I realize the sentiment is completely cliche but I think we’d all do better with less worrying about who we might offend, or omit, or inadvertently oppress, and more of just writing what we do know- the experience of being human.”

            Hear, hear. We should write about what moves us and compels us. The minute we start worrying about who we might offend we’re cutting off the story at its deeper roots and, as writers, we shouldn’t shy away from offending some of our readers. Sure, I have made changes when my editor felt I had crossed some particular line or another, but fear can shut down the wellspring from which stories emerge.

          • Yes, but be aware that “worrying about who we offend” and “thinking about who we include” are so very different.

            I don’t give a rat’s dick who I offend, because I do it all the time. Offense is cheap and easy.

            But that doesn’t mean I can’t try harder to read more broadly and to speak more loudly to those I had been ignoring.

            People often use these kinds of excuses to not make a better go at improving *all* aspects of their work, not just the diversity aspect.

          • Gender is indeed a learned thing. Any intro college-level cultural anthropology class or gender studies class will teach you that.

            You’re saying in a vacuum, normal toddler boys will selectively ignore the color pink. ONE specific color. If you don’t realize how silly that is, well, I’m not sure what to say. I feel like I’m arguing with someone who believes the world is flat.

          • I feel like I’m arguing with someone blinded by an agenda. I just said that color is NOT the issue here. It’s a tiny example. I’m not sure what classes you are taking, but that’s not what I learned in college. You cannot ignore biology, hormones, the way our brains are wired differently. Evolutionary theorists will tell you that you are your biology, that we have evolved to be this way or that… until it doesn’t suit them. When they want gender to be learned, all of a sudden millions of years of evolution, our animal ancestry, gets thrown out the window. I think this discussion is pointless if you’re going to start name calling and accusing me of ignorance to the level of believing the world is flat. No need to be rude now.

          • W&N–

            Regarding women in the 1800s, you are correct, and I shouldn’t try commenting on blogs after midnight. The attitude I was referring to was common prior to 1600, and at its height during the Middle Ages (source [only one I have bookmarked at the moment]: http://scproductionsweb.tripod.com )

            As far as my opinion on gender fluidity–I have a friend who often needs to remind that gender is a complex topic, and there is more that one type of gender. Regarding individual gender–a single person’s gender identity, I do not believe that is fluid, as all evidence is that an individuals gender identity is an unchanging part of them which may be influenced or fixed by the hormones they are exposed to during gestation. All evidence is also that tese hormones do not necessarily correspond with the sexual characteristics of an individual, so a person’s gender identity can be set at odds with the gender society assigns to them.

            I do believe in gender fluidity in the sense that there are a range of gender identities, not just the male/female binary.

            I do believe that gender fluidity in the sense that a persons understanding, acceptance and expression of their gender identity may change over time.

            I do believe in gender fluidity in the sense that culture gender roles can, have, and do change over time, and that due to our brain’s neuroplasticity who we are as individuals is shaped and molded by the expectations of the culture we live in.

            It is indeed an interesting discussion, but I think you and I have taken very different history and archeology classes. Just in the past 100 years in America the concept of masculinity and what it means to be a man has changed significantly, never mind the different views and concepts of gender across the world and throughout history. While the evidence of prenatal hormones determining gender identity suggests that the is a biological thing which is gender, all the evidence I have seen is that the cultural impact on gender roles and expression far outweighs any biological impulses.

            I agree with you that no one should try to take feminine things away from children who want them. Telling a girl she should play princesses BECAUSE it’s girly and she should be gender neutral is just as fucked up as forcing her to play princess when she doesn’t want to. However I have never seen any parent who embraces ‘gender neutral’ parenting try to forces kids away from anything they like. The idea behind gender neutral parenting is and always has been, let kids play with what they like, regardless of gender. And that means letting girls and boy who like dolls and sequins and pretty pretty princes to play with those things.

            What I have seen, over, and over, and over again, is people who try to force kids into gender roles. From watching the toddler who lives in our apartment building get teased and berated because he wanted to try nail polish, to my cousin who is fighting to stay in her engineering major over subtle and not-so-subtle push of some of her teachers and advisers.

          • I understand what you’re saying. Unfortunately I have seen gender neutrality pushed on kids to the point where they were not allowed to play with dolls or the boy not allowed to play with trucks or swords because the parents frowned on it. There have been schools that banned all toys except androgynous ones. That is going overboard in my opinion. Gender can be, for a very small number of people, a complicated issue but for most it’s not. My concern is that in order to protect those for whom gender is complicated, there seems to be a movement to complicate it for everyone. If that makes sense.

            You’re right about the other extreme where people berate their boy for liking a doll. That is cruel. But since gender is so tied to biology and hormones, and because the vast majority of people identify with the gender they are born with, and because of cultural expectations of gender roles, it will always be hard for people who go against the norm.

            I totally agree with you about cultural views on gender being very important. There is no doubt about that. But there are people out there arguing that biology has nothing to do with it, and that’s not correct.

            I don’t know much about the 1600s. I’m on a trip but I will read your link later. I have heard of a native American tribe, forgot which one, that had 3 genders. They accepted men who identified as women but not women who identified as men. From my knowledge that is quite rare though. The vast majority of cultures have had 2 genders and clear cut roles for each.

          • Short version of the following: Gender variance, third genders, and cultures which include more than the male/female binary are more common than most people think.

            Gender variance among the Native American tribes is far more extensive than only one tribe. Some tribes only men could adopt gender varience, some only women, and some both. Several Native America and First People’s tribal councils have adopted the term ‘Two Spirit’ for those who do not fit neatly into the heterosexual male/female binary. The idea for this term grew out of traditions of gender variance in many NA tribes, including tribes in the Plains, California, the Great Lakes, the South West and (I believe) the Iroquois confederation. These traditions did not distinguish between what is today called homosexuality and gender variance, with those who embraced a varient gender often (those not always) having a spouse of with the same sexual characteristics. Obviously details of the traditions have been lost often forcibly destroyed, but it is safe to say that tribes who included these traditions made up at least a significant minority, if not an actual majority. In one south western tribe, children were not referred to by gender until they were 5 years old, at which point they were able to indicate which gender they identified with. Third gender variants also exist among the tribes of Mongolia where some male shamans can ‘become’ women, in Albania, where women who adopt a celibate lifestyle can ‘become’ men, several African tribes, in India where the hajira traditions still thrive, in the Jewish Torah, where there are specific laws for those who do not fit in the male/female binary, and even in Elizabethan England, where occasionally two women would get married, one declaring herself a man so that the marriage could be legal (this last was most likely as much a matter of gaming the system as true gender variance, but I expect those with variant genders took advantage of the options). With all this gender variance around the world, I consider it debatable whether “the vast majority” of cultures have a strict male/female binary, or whether the wholesale exportation of European culture has made it appear that the male/female binary is normal, when in fact it is only one approach to among many.

            As far as how common gender variance actually is, most estimates I have seen range from 0.1% to 1%, though I believe those numbers are artificially low due to the cultural push for binary gender roles. Even taking the common estimates, that would mean my first high school would have had between three and thirty gender variant individuals. In other words, my high school probably had more people who don’t fit the gender binary than PoC. I’d say that’s common enough to say that during their life times most people will meet with several gender variant individuals, and common enough that most people, especially parents, teachers, and doctors, should be expected to have a basic knowledge of gender variance. It is definitely common enough that we should be able to have gender variant characters in fiction (for comparison, 0.3% of the US is blind or deaf, and there are plenty of blind and deaf characters in fiction!)

            As far as real life and raising kids, I think we are in agreement in the broadscope, even if we focus on different problem areas.

  10. What’s interesting is that the two leading male characters of yours (Mookie Pearl and Louis), I always pictured in my head as burly black men. That could be inner racism of my own that “big strong men” must be black to me or something. I don’t know. I probably need therapy.

  11. Here’s why I care about diversity in science fiction/fantasy:

    Because right there, there may be more Seanan McGuires and Kelly Sue Deconnicks out there, waiting for their inner geek and story telling awesomeness within those realms to be ignited and released upon the world.

    It’s not about meeting a ‘quota’ as some folks like to claim. And while racism definitely still exists, that honestly isn’t the biggest reason (in my opinion, anyway) scifi/fantasy stays traditionally dominated by white males like myself. It’s because it’s just been that way for so long.

    The more women, people of color, and LGBT folks that are shown an open and welcoming door to the sci-fi/fantasy playground, the more great story tellers we will get.

  12. This so reminds me of an experience I had in Japan, when my highly-privileged white WASP colleague came to me to express her shock at being snubbed by a Japanese person. She was horrified that *gasp* she had been treated in a racist manner. “Welcome to my world,” I said. “Try growing up and having that your entire life and then come to me for sympathy.”

    Yeah, I was being a dick but we never got along anyway, so no bridges to burn. Mea culpa.

    • I did an exchange in Japan, and had a similar experience. One of the professors said every year it was the same: women and men of color rolled with it, generally speaking, and the young white men were always blown away.

  13. Speaking as someone from white male hetronormative mountain myself – because we’re not subject to it, it’s easy to forget the way the world is stacked against anyone that doesn’t live here. Because some of us are equipped with empathy, we’ll occasionally talk about how terrible that is, until we get distracted by something shiny.

    That’s what privilege means. The power to forget / ignore / reject that everyone else is screwed.

    We’re going to screw up when we talk about this, because we only have the map, not the territory. Everyone else is living it, we’re just imagining it.

    That’s not to say that we shouldn’t try. Truth is, that there is power in being a storyteller and choosing the stories that get told, and the characters that live within them.

    We get to choose what heroes are. We should choose wisely.

  14. This is an interesting topic, and one I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I live in Baltimore, a very racially diverse city, but also one where racial divisions are stark (with sometimes one city block separating a white neighborhood from a black neighborhood or a black neighborhood from a Hispanic one). I have a pretty mixed group of friends, but most are straight, white dudes—that’s just the way things turned out. But none of my friends are bigots, racists, or homophobes (I wouldn’t tolerate it) and tolerance is pretty normal for upper-middle-class, educated people in a liberal city (and one of the reasons I like it here).

    In my first novel (and in the upcoming sequel) some of the main characters are black. I did that on purpose because 1) I find the lack of black protagonists in commercial fiction to be depressing and 2) I wanted the magical lodge of the “good” guys to represent the 99% of humanity while the lodge of the “bad” guys were drawn from the .01% power elites who run the banks, corporations, and governments. So the good guys (and gals) are black/brown, white, male/female, and Asian, while the guys *in power* are almost entirely white males. But while that was a deliberate choice, and a cultural commentary on what I see as a serious global problem, it also felt *organic* to the story. I am not a fan of heavy polemical fiction.

    Someone recently reviewed my novel and one of his critiques was that I used the “magical negro” trope. Honestly, I’m kind of surprised that was the first time it happened because I was expecting it—one of the main characters isn’t just black, he’s also magical (literally). I wrote the book knowing I would be accused of it, but at the same time, how can I as a white writer create a heroic, black character *without* being accused of playing into that stereotype? And since I went into the story very aware of the trope, but still used elements of it, am I insulting blacks and liberal whites (like myself) by doing so? Or am I just portraying a powerful (and magical!) black man as I saw him in my imagination—as his character *demanded* to be written?

    I am also uncomfortable when it comes to people criticizing an artist’s vision because it doesn’t include enough characters who are _____________. it just makes me feel icky. If a white, male writer writes predominantly about white, male characters I have absolutely no problem with that, in the same way I have no problem with my gay writer friends writing books about gay characters and communities, or my black friends writing about their mostly black communities. The problem isn’t with individual artists and writers—it’s about the *commercial institutions* that continue to finance predominantly white entertainment by neglecting communities of color. Why does that happen? Take a look at the executives at the major entertainment corporations and you’ll have your answer.

    All of this will change. The old, white, bigoted and homophobic guys who dominated our industries are on the way out—which is why they are putting up such a fight. Their world is vanishing and it frightens them. This problem will go away as society evolves and Father Time culls the herds.

    I think it’s probably more productive to point the finger at the corporations who choose *what* to market than to punish or shame individual artists. I know a few white male writers who are actually fearful to write about characters of other sexes or races because of the problems *that* can cause. So they write about themselves and the people they know. That’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with that. If a male Jewish writer living in a predominantly Jewish community wants to write a magical realist novel about that community, well, that’s great. If he doesn’t include a gay black female that’s not a problem. What *is* a problem is if gay black female writers can’t get their books of equal quality published and promoted.

    I’m far from a fan of the franchise Star Wars has become, and it’s become something much bigger than a singular artist’s vision anymore—it’s a cultural touchstone as well as a colossal money-making machine. And as such, I agree with critics who point out the lack of diversity. But I do not agree with criticizing individual works of art because an artist writes about a homogenous group of characters. If that is his or her world and that’s what the muses provide, that’s perfectly fine. The criticism should go directly to those who choose what is available in the marketplace.

  15. I’m so glad you touched on this issue that shouldn’t be ignored in any society that seeks longevity. You gotta give leading roles to people besides the white dude! Ok so this is not happening at the institutional level but heck what if it was happening in TV series and movies and kids could see these multicultural and gasp sometimes female heroes and be inspired to do awesome shit despite not being white or male? It’s all gotta stop somewhere and at the very least strong women like Skyler from Breaking Bad should stop receiving hate mail for displaying balls. I can now go into talking about how multicultural and female actors end up having to put up with unacceptable shit because there aren’t enough roles for them but that’s for another story, am I right?

  16. I was there, and one thing that nobody mentioned, as I recall, was that not only was the panel all white, the room was 95% white. Despite this, the discussion was very positive and engaging. Yay!

    Looking at the broader context….The conference attendees seemed to be 90% female, which is a nice reversal of what I see at tech conferences — but the conference, as is the case with tech conferences, was nearly all white. I loved the PPWC nonetheless, but the racial homogeneity felt like a missed opportunity.

    We discuss diversity, but in segregated discussions. And it’s so much harder to write diversity when we live and work with only our own tribes. Chicken or egg?

  17. This conversation gets me so excited about the fantasy novel I am writing about where the main characters are dark brown in color, though there are other races involved, but the main characters are the most advanced of the cultures. They live in a society where women tend to run things politically and militarily, but men are not treated as “inferior” – it’s just the natural way things are. Also, there’s about equal numbers of same-sex and opposite-sex relationships, and most everyone is bi and just ends up marrying who they fall in love with after likely having relationships with both sexes. There is a lot more behind all this, but that’s just a basic rundown about how things are in the world.

    What I’m afraid of doing is alienating publishers who think this won’t work because it’s so NOT what fantasy usually is.

  18. I admit that I don’t give a rat’s ass about diversity for the sake of diversity, and diversity is so often taken to such extremes that it’s no longer diversity, it’s just stupidity. Forced diversity is almost never realistic, and I want no part of it. It’s true that if you look at a crowd on a big city street, and look at the demographics as a whole, you find a wide diversity. Real life events, however, from muggings, to murder, to international finance, to war, do not happen according to percentages of diversity.

    I’m an oddball in that I never even say a person of color until I was fourteen or fifteen. I suppose I stared some that first time, but I’d never heard negative talk about blacks, probably because here were none to talk about where I grew up, not in the work places, not in the schools, not in the town. So i don’t think I grew up racist, though it is not racist to say something bad about a person of color, if that person does something bad.

    I write according to my world view, to things I actually see and do or have done. And I do not write kick ass women because in real life, I’ve never seen one, at least on a comparative basis. I’ve seen more than a dozen fights between black belt women, and untrained thugs. Only one fight lasted more than a minute.

    If I want a woman to handle herself, she does it with a weapon.

    Way back when I was fiction editor for a magazine, I got blasted several times for not buying as many stories from women writers as from men writers. But ninety percent of the stories I received were by men writers, and by buying only the best stories, that same ratio generally found its way into the magazine. That’s how it should be. When you have to lower standards or performance to get diversity, all you;re doing is reinforcing why there is so little diversity in many areas.

    There are many writers out there. Some are male, some are female, some are religious, some are atheists, some are black, some are Asian, some are white, etc., and each should write whatever the hell he or she wishes to write, and people their world according to however the hell they want the world peopled. None should tell another writer how to go about it.

    Anyone who doesn’t want to read the book or watch the movie can go do something else. How about diversity in this area. in letting writers, reader, and movie watchers be diverse in what they like, rather than trying to force diversity on everyone? Most attempts at diversity are unrealistic, and actually turn everything into same old, same old.

    • I tend to agree with a lot of what you said. I do not like when it’s forced either. I think JK Rowling did a very nice job with just putting it in there. Nobody ever made a big deal of the interracial relationship. Harry just like Cho Chang and it was a nice romantic sub plot. Then he married a white girl. But none of that was the driving force behind the story. My husband and I are interracial. Big deal. We are just an American couple like anybody else. We don’t go around making statements with our lives.

      You had a good point about 90% of your submissions being written by men. Then naturally you would publish more men. That’s just numbers.

      I have no use for white guilt and I can’t stand it when people apologize for living in an all white neighborhood. I never hear my husband’s family apologizing for living in Asian neighborhoods, which some of them do. It’s okay to celebrate who you are, whoever you are, write about what you know, and hang out with the people who make you feel most comfortable.

    • James, I’d be interested to know if you or the magazine looked into why 90% of the stories you were submitted were from men, given there’s no way 90% of the stories being written are being written by men. It seems like you might have been missing out on some great submissions. Was there something about the magazine that made it unlikely women would want to submit stories?

    • Have you ever seen a fight between two untrained thugs? It’s wholly different from a fight between two black belts. Like, you can’t even compare them. Black belts have rules, black belts have strategies, black belts FOCUS ON SELF DEFENCE AND NOT OFFENCE, while untrained thugs have the ancient tactic of stab ’em out and run. Take a good, pragmatic guess at who’s going to win in an any-gendered fight. Yeah.

      As for forced diversity, I’ve personally never really understood the concept. Perhaps it’s because I’m from immigration-happy Canada, but I’ve never been in a group setting where it was hard to find someone who wasn’t a white, straight, cisgender, male–they only take up about 13% of the population, ffs. That’s just how the world is. Sure, if you’re writing about a gated community in northern california, or a church in eastern Norway, or a country club, or where ever the hell you grew up, there’s gonna be hella whites. If you’re writing about the big city, or basically anywhere that isn’t a sub-category of the four listed in the previous sentence, there’s gonna be hella non-whites.
      What’s the use in pretending the world isn’t diverse?

  19. I’ve been reading the articles about diversity and thinking about my own life experiences.

    I feel like the reason why there are so many books with an all white cast, very few woman or PoC, is because this is the mental landscape of our media. This is what is represented in books, movies, and comics, so it is what we’re programed to see as the “default”.

    There are many people out there writing other stories, stories about women and men of all sorts of colors and shapes and sizes. Beautiful, wonderful books.

    But the people who publish books, green light these movies, they’re the ones making the decision that mostly white dudes is what is “normal” and everything else is not. So when people write stories outside of this paradigm, they’re labeled as different.

    Difference makes people uncomfortable.

    And this is why when people talk about diversity, there’s this big push back. Because they’ve been watching movies their entire life. This is what is normal to them. Why are people trying to change what they are comfortable with? People are just getting over excited about nothing. They can’t understand what the problem is, because they have always been comfortable with their level of representation.

    The answer is, of course, unless you fit society’s very thin definition of normal, you feel out of place. If you aren’t part of what is considered “normal” where you live and in your media, then you feel out of place.

    Case in point: My husband just got transferred to Puerto Rico. It’s a territory, so we use dollars and don’t need passports, but it is still a Latin American country. The dominant language is Spanish. All of the signs are in Spanish. There’s McDonald’s and Wendy’s and Walmart of course, so it’s like living in the States, but there’s this entire layer of newness that I have never experienced before. It’s beyond culture shock. I walk into a store and all I hear is Spanish. I don’t look like 90% of the people there–I am as white as paper. The people there are open and welcoming, but I don’t look like everyone else. I stand out. People notice I’m this pale white girl in a country where almost everyone has a tan because the weather is gorgeous.

    And it hits me. This is what other non-white people feel like. In movies. In books. In the world. My half-Chinese sister in law gets asked ALL the time where she’s from. It annoys her, and people take offense when she’s flip and says “California.” “No, really, where are you from?” Because now I’m on the other side, people asking me very nicely where I am from. I’m not offended, but inside I cringe a little because it’s another reminder that I don’t look “normal.” I show up and obviously don’t fit in.

    Even though the people are nice and wonderful, and the food is delicious and I love it here, it’s still sometimes like wearing shoes that are too loose. I still sometimes feel awkward when I’m out in public and I see people noticing me.

    People just want to belong. They want to sit down and watch a movie or read a book and feel like they can loose themselves in the characters. When the characters are just white straight guys, that’s a large portion of the population out there that doesn’t feel like they belong in that story.

    I’m not saying I have the same experiences or have faced the same disadvantages that non-white people experience by any means. But it has been an experience of walking two moons in another person’s shoes.

    I don’t feel like I’m explaining this properly, but I’ve tried to do the best I can.

    • “I don’t feel like I’m explaining this properly, but I’ve tried to do the best I can.”

      Actually, you explained it quite beautifully. Going through life as a woman of color I feel the way you described more often than not, and that is in my own country (US), speaking my native language (English).

  20. Okay, so I’ve been thinking about this post and how/if to respond to it. Hopefully it all sounds as good typed out as it did in my head. While I agree with the spirit of your post, Chuck, I can’t help but be troubled by the distance you put between yourself and the world of “diversity.” You talk about white, heterosexual men as some sort of gated community to which to you retreat after you’ve laid your teachings at the feet of us women and PoC. A gated community that you try to subvert by burrowing under the foundations in order to topple their structures. To wit, “I have almost no stakes in the game. Hell, I should probably be continuing to tilt favor toward us folks living up on Heteronormative White Dude mountain because, hey, prime real estate. My son’s a little white dude, so why not keep the deck stacked for him, you know?” But you DO have a stake in this, or are you suggesting that white men are OTHER, that they are not also a part of the tapestry called human kind? If that is your view, then I think you’ve bought into the erroneous and ultimately damaging mindset that white people just need to be phased out and then the world will be all better.

    As for having more PoC/LGTB characters in sci-fi/fantasy, my question there is: WHERE ARE ALL THE PoC/LGTB SCI/FI/FANTASY AUTHORS?! We’ve got Octavia Butler, awesome storyteller, black characters, speculative fiction. We’ve got some magical realism authors in the Latino community. *Looks around* I’m not seeing too many other authors who are offering their experiences/insights as PoC/LGTB individuals to the sci-fi/fantasy arena. Why? Is it because there are not a lot of PoC/LGTB READERS of sci-fi/fantasy? I have no clue, though I would be interested to see those statistics if anyone knows of any… My point is that, as an author, I write the characters as they present themselves to me. Do I INTENTIONALLY write white characters? Absolutely not. To me that would be as fake and useless as intentionally writing non-white characters. And while I agree that we writers need to stretch beyond the whole “write what you know” spiel, we still need to stay grounded in the core human experiences that make up who we each are. I’ve toyed with the idea of writing about a marriage between a Mexican man and a white woman. Totally within my realm of experience. But I would still write the story mostly from the woman’s perspective because that is the one I understand. I admit I’m frightened to write from the POV of another race/culture/sexual orientation. I’m terrified of getting it wrong or creating an unintentional caricature. I want to read about people like that but I want the creator of such stories to have had experience living that POV. So, for me the foundational problem in this issue is why are we not fighting to fill our ranks with more diversified writers? My gut tells me the answer to that is the same as why we pay athletes millions of dollars a year while most school teachers and librarians barely make a living wage.

    • Where are all the non-white and/or LGBT fantasy authors? Here’s a list for you: N.K. Jemisin, Seanan McGuire, Ellen Kushner, Ken Liu, Saladin Ahmed, Greg van Eekhout, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Catherynne M. Valente, Sofia Samatar, Sylvia Moreno-Garcia, Rajan Khanna…let me know if you need more! There are LOADS out there.

  21. Chuck – I own your Miriam Black books though I have yet to read them. I enjoy your site, and books on writing. People that I like are people that I support. I have found that on your site, and a few others that I frequent, there is a real social awareness that may, or maynot be linked the quickly changing social landscape of media. I find that sometimes it is too much. Not in that you shouldn’t be socially aware, but that you (meaning white men in general) see the world from your place in it, and it informs your opinions. That place isn’t any more, or less legitimate than mine.

    My parents were married before it was legal for them to be married in the state of VA. I have a crazy background of Jamaican/Italian/Brit to include just some of the mix. I was born in So Cal and raised in the south in the 70’s by an atheist, black Jamaican father, who was an aerospace engineer and baptist, mid western, white mother. Together my parents owned an import shop that sold batiks, rolling papers, peruvian fashion, African mud paintings, etc. Meaning, as a family, we were as diverse and out of step with the times as you could probably be in the very static environment of the barely desegregated old south.

    Despite my families at times comic levels of diversity, we were also raised with definitive ideas of good/bad/right/wrong. My family was very homophobic, despite having a gay cousin that lived with us, because his father refused to acknowledge him. My family was very classist. My father was very adamant about not associating with people from lower standing based on money and education. I remember my brother, and I being banned from watching Sanford and Son. We started calling each other “fish eyed fools”, which fell under the banner of jive/black talk. That was a no-no. My mother’s father was in the klan. He died before my parents were married. My grandmother, and mother both disliked and mistrusted Asian people, blaming them all for my Uncle Amos death in the Korean war.

    While you, Chuck, may be blessed with the trifecta of social standing being born white, male, and hetero – you don’t have the corner on decency resistant biases. And more than likely the biases that you have are ones that we all have, because they’ve been around so long that they are now woven into all of us for good or ill. Certain biases are so long standing and deep that they permeate all races, men, and women. It seems a difficult thing for anyone to write from a place of social “purity.”

    I find it hard to write a story about a black woman. It’s like there is a road block there. It seems that all stories about people, that aren’t hetero, white men, are niche stories that are more about the otherness of the character than about the story. White hetero male is the default. If there is a story about women then white hetero is the default. If you take away hetero, and male then white is the default. Anything you have to remove from the default you feel the need to explain. Once your character is not a part of the default then the otherness is in view, another aspect of the story. Once you take away the white, and replace it with anything, then the entire story changes even when you don’t want it to change. If what I say is true then bias is endemic of our society as a whole, because white hetero men and women don’t do all of the creating and consuming.

    I am reminded of the whole hubbub about the character Rue after the release of Hunger Games on film. From the book the following excerpt describes Rue – “And most hauntingly, a twelve-year-old girl from District 11. She has dark brown skin and eyes, but other than that’s she’s very like Prim in size and demeanor…” The author, Suzanne Collins, didn’t write specifically that the girl was black. She didn’t explain it, or add in anything that would connect as blackness to the reader. The result was a few fans of the book showing their asses via social media. They were operating, as we all do, from the default. These fans are young girls, the furthest from the built in bias machine. But certain frameworks have permeated society and the default is one.

    Ok, I don’t know where I was going with this. I have to stop commenting on your site after I take the ritalin. I use all my focus up before I write what I am supposed to be writing. *sigh* Well, at least you know your blog is compelling. I love sci-fi because of it’s inclusiveness – thinking Eureka, Star Wars, Dr Who, Star Trek, and Misfits. Dystopian & fantasy stories seem generally less so, but a good story is a good story.

    • Collins did indicate that Rue is black, though — or at least not white:

      “She has dark brown skin and eyes”

      The fact that fans were OUTRAGED that a black actress was cast to play Rue shows that societal bias is SO ingrained, people assume a character is white, even if it flat-out says she isn’t.

  22. Let me also take a moment to laugh at the insanity of posting a blog that sparks in the minds of your readers, who are a bunch of writers. *Imagines Chuck drinking deeply, straight from the bourbon bottle, as he combs through scores of thousand-plus wordcount responses*

  23. In the great Tattooine sandbox of life I was always Leia too. 140 different guys for the boys, and I was always Leia. #diversity

  24. I think this is one of the best posts you’ve written. And I thought that yesterday’s was pretty damn good.

  25. I don’t think of the characters in my WIP as caucasian, negroid, or oriental, black, white, red, yellow, or brown. But they each represent a different culture/race within my fantasy world. I have seen criticism of works which include a diversity of non-real-life races and accusations of closet bigotry or laziness or avoidance of real-life diversity issues. It makes me a bit fearful. If I have a lower-class, underdog character who is blue, will I be accused of racism because people will assume blue=black? Will I be accused of avoiding or ignoring real racial issues if all my races are imaginary? If my female leads are back by strong supporting-role male secondaries are my female characters strong or weak?
    I think I’ll just write. I’m sure some people will like it and some won’t.

  26. Chuck, you are awesome and you gotta keep preaching. You are good at this ally thing.

    I wish I could say the same about some of the commentators. This is how racism works. It’s not just abuse, assault, or different treatment–it’s about exclusion. Even those of us who are ‘liberal’ have to fight racist and sexist societal programming. It’s not easy. But that doesn’t make it impossible.

    Also, why is it that I only see (probably straight) white dudes complain about ‘forced’ diversity?

    • Because liberals are not racist and conservatives are? Well now that’s not a biased implication. Surprisingly, there are many people of color who are NOT liberals. Imagine that. I have a whole lot of them in my own family. I know that doesn’t fit into that stereotypical worldview you refer to, but it’s reality. I also know plenty of brown skinned people who do not like “forced diversity” and who are not for things like quotas because it insults them.

  27. I’m white, in a largely white community (which is slowly and reluctantly growing more diverse). It limits my perspective, I think, in that most of my characters are white in some form — drawn from different places or times of origin, but basically white people. Were I a PoC, I’m sure my characters would also be PoCs.

    Being white is pretty much where much the only place I align with the hetero-normative culture. I’m bisexual, poly, pagan, with mental illness. (Also dabbled in BDSM, but not presently identifying with it). Those also affect my characters and plotlines. For example, my WIP has a love triangle that is going to end as a triangle, not in coupledom. (And I think it is the simplest, logical resolution for many — through not all — fictional love triangles.)

    “Normalcy” that’s the stretch for me. I can neither manage it in life or fiction. A better definition would help, because mostly what I hear comes to “what the majority of people are or do” and I keep discovering regularly practiced exceptions.

  28. I don’t have much use for white guilt, nor do I have much use for the notion that all white males, or white people in general are privileged and all minorities are not. I am a white female who grew up in a ghetto. I had it very hard growing up, and if you want to experience racism, and violence, try being a white kid growing up in a black neighborhood. By the time I was 12 I’d had guns in my face and been held at knifepoint in racist incidents where I was hated because I was white. I busted my tail and worked multiple jobs to get through college and grad school. I got A’s in school and got many scholarships to pull my way up out of the hell hole.
    My husband is a minority who grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth. He led a privileged, well to do existence and went to the finest private schools, but he is brown, not white and an immigrant.
    As long as this “whites are racist, everybody else is downtrodden” idea exists, we can never have REAL communication about issues of race and “diversity.” (That word has become such a political buzzword, I actually hate it now.
    Assuming that all minorities have lives that suck and can’t get anywhere in life really pisses my husband off. He is very successful, highly educated, and was a military officer. He neither wants or needs pity from any white person.

    • Who said any of the stuff you are alleging? The post is about – should scifi/fantasy have a more diverse cast of characters? what does that have to do with privilege or ghettos or anything you said? your husband is a good example of why a fiction writer can realistically have minority characters in any role. we’re not talking about pity here, only literary representation.

      • Um did you read the original blog post? There was an awful lot about white privilege. Many of the comments have talked about white privilege. I was using an example in my own life about how things aren’t always a certain way. Goodness gracious. I just posted about how nice everyone has been on these comments. Apparently that was premature. I’m sorry that you don’t see how my story applies. I’m walking away now before I get snarky.

  29. This isn’t about a book, but a TV show. My Asian husband and I were very excited about agent Melinda May being a strong Asian female character on the show. Then we look at the comments on their FB page and all the Asians are going off on her! They’re saying she isn’t Asian enough and making all these rude comments. Sometimes it feels like you just can’t win.

  30. I have such respect for the people who comment on this blog. I never see people getting nasty or debasing the discussion with ugliness. Yay for the writers! I was worried to read the comments and then so pleasantly surprised at how well thought out they are. Beautiful!

  31. I enjoyed the panel this weekend. I wrote a post about all of the keynotes including you!

    Although there were white dudes talking about the importance of diversity, I felt it bears more weight coming from you. Black, Asian, Mexican, (whatever race or sexual orientation) writers talking about the importance of diversity may come off as whining. Or worse, begging.

    As a woman, I would feel uncomfortable saying, “There should be more women protagonists and men should buy the books.” Instead, I would say “We should write stronger female characters that more readers can relate to.”

    It was a great reminder to examine our power as writers to create a world where our characters are diverse and people are more accepting of race and sexual orientation. It’s a world I want to live in.

  32. I like your comments and we don’t know where all our quirks (racist, sexist, etc) come from. As a white woman, I still have a lot of strikes in my favor (not as many as a white dude) and got accused of being a guilty liberal when I did a (very short) stint as a civil rights worker in Mississippi in the 60’s. However, they can’t take that away from me and it was an important event for me even if I didn’t do much for the movement. Next question: As an old white woman, how did I suddenly become invisible?

    • Yep. When I worked at the library, we specifically had to push for out reach to the elderly, even though they were understandably a strong user of the library.

  33. How much of what’s talked about in this post and the subsequent comments stems from fear, I wonder. Not fear of ‘different,’ but fear of judgment for not understanding/portraying/espousing the very things we can’t truly grasp- the experiences of others.

    I’ve lived in Baltimore for the last 15 years, and I grew up in Vermont, but despite those often-opposing environments, I’ve come to realize more and more how very much the same we are, regardless of socioeconomic group, ethnicity, orientation- whatever. I realize the sentiment is completely cliche but I think we’d all do better with less worrying about who we might offend, or omit, or inadvertently oppress, and more of just writing what we do know- the experience of being human.

  34. Your comments about the assumed collusion in sexist/racist views made me think of this quote:

    “He was not trying to excuse himself. No, it was only his usual trick. He knew I thought he was evil, but he liked to suggest that beneath that I held a different opinion of him, that, in fact, I admired him. It was a complicated insult.”

    It’s from The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox. A great book. It won the Newberry in 1974 I think and is a mid-grade level book about the trans Atlantic slave trade. I read it as a kid and still find it very powerful. The most incredible thing about it is that it humanizes the crew of the slave ship which, on first blush, you’d think of as a bad thing. However, what it taught me as a kid is the people who do evil in this world are very rarely ‘pure evil’. They are me, human, and I am just as capable of that type of evil if I don’t guard against it.

  35. […] Diversity is always a hot topic in children’s literature. Editor Yolanda Scott shares some hard diversity lessons learned, Kate Messner urges us to voice our desire for diversity with our wallets, not just our words, while Chuck Wendig tells us why a white, heteronormative dude should talk about diversity. […]

  36. My sister and I always picked female character first when playing video games or “pretend games.” We literally played dozens of matches of some Tekken sequel as only the three female characters. When we played Mario Party or Mario Kart, Peach was the only female character, so she would play as Yoshi. Now, I know she adored Yoshi for being an awesome dinosaur (and Yoshi throws eggs so that might make her female???), but I bet if she had another choice of a female character, she would have picked that.

    When we played Star Wars, I was Leia and she was Luke. It makes sense, I suppose, since we’re also siblings, but I have no doubt that if there was a cool female character she could have been, she would have picked her instead. Like if Lando was Lana or something.

  37. One of the thoughts I had… I’ve never really settled my own opinion on the mater, is the idea of whether or not the author knows a particular group well enough to write them well / accurately. I’ll be honest, there are whole groups of people out there that make me feel completely retarded when it comes to what and why they do the things they do. Why they embrace certain things, habits or ideas. It’s not that I don’t want to understand them, its that sometimes you run into a giant brick wall called cultural boundaries. Some groups just don’t want you to understand, apparently. No mater how much they talk about how no one understands them, no mater how much others want to learn about them, the wall is very real.

    For example, I’m sure I’ll never really be able to relate to how growing up in an inner-cityscape is different from moving from country to country while growing up. (Not because my family is wealthy, I understand living hand to mouth more literally than most people are willing associate with the phrase. My father was military, I got to see a country just before it imploded into civil unrest first hand, others that where just alien. I’ve met a wide variety of people.) Still, I can’t say that I’m any closer to understanding what makes them who they are, I can’t see the world through their eyes. Research is not the same as first hand experience, but there is still so much to learn about any group of people, how much do I need to get X group right? How much do I need to know to go from a cardboard cut out of X to a character that lives and breathes on page?

    There are a lot of readers and critics that will not gloss over details, but rather latch on to them and use them as launching point for a character assassination campaign against the author because “They don’t understand group X, Y or Z.”

    That sort of makes you wonder, is it worth it? If I can write a brilliant story full of characters that feel like they live and breathe with every page turn, what difference does it make what they look like? Why does a character have to have the same color of skin as mine to feel more of a connection? Why do they need to be the same gender? I actually like to step out of myself when I read, and into the beings and world I find in the words in front of me, oddly enough its kind of fun to wear a different skin through perspective. But when that happens, its’ apparent that the reason the character is what it is, is because the author has experience living in that skin, in that gender, in that position in a particular culture.

    I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be attempted, I just don’t know the answers. I’m not sure if I can craft a believable X. If that takes away from my story, what good did it do me to try to diversify, if that effort ultimately took more away than it added?

    If your curious, I use an organic approach to building a character. I decide fundamentals about the person and then wrap them a look that draws on their personalities, the things that important to them, their personal tastes. I pick traits that suits who they are, at this point I don’t give a crap if someone is upset if I don’t have X in my story. None of the characters I needed developed into an X.

    I’ve actually had potential Agent suggest changing characters to better diversify in order to help sell the story. Not that I can say anything I have has sold… But, I can’t see that character as anything but what they are?

    • “I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be attempted, I just don’t know the answers. I’m not sure if I can craft a believable X. If that takes away from my story, what good did it do me to try to diversify, if that effort ultimately took more away than it added?”

      This assumes then that all characters must ultimately be you. Any experience outside your own then would ring false. Which we know isn’t true, of course, because by that notion, nobody would ever write fiction. But they do, and it works, because we’re writers. Or, at least, this is what good writers do.

    • “One of the thoughts I had… I’ve never really settled my own opinion on the mater, is the idea of whether or not the author knows a particular group well enough to write them well / accurately. ”

      I have to admit, I’ve always seen this a bit of a cop out. Eric Flint can write 17th century Germans, but we can’t know the people who live in our own states well enough to write them? Why is it Ryk Spoor can spend months researching nanotechnology to create believable hard sci-f, but taking the time to research and learn about the different subcultures and life experiences that surround us is so impossible?

      My suggestion: Subscribe to Black Girl Dangerous, Racialicious, Transadvocate, and other blogs and news sites written by and for other demographics. You’ll start to learn about them, you’ll begin to understand how some of them see and interact with the world, and as you learn and become familiar and comfortable, you’ll start have ideas for characters from those demographics.

      As far as getting criticized for not getting a character from another demographic ‘right’, my thoughts on that are at the comment link.

  38. A few weeks ago, a co-worker of mine asked me if I could help her with a piece of fiction she was writing. I agreed and we met for lunch one afternoon. When I asked her exactly what she needed help with, she told me she needed help “understanding the black culture”. The first thing I thought (and said) was “What culture?” The answer I got was, “well you know, what black people do, what they think.”

    It took me a minute to recover from my bewilderment, because as far as I know we don’t “do” or “think” any different that the average white person. (I think it important to note that I use white here, because she is a white woman). I am about to ask as serious question (well, it’s actually three), that I would really like a serious answer to. Ready? Here it goes…Why do people assume that just because I am of a darker skin tone, that I come from a different “culture” per se? That somehow I am “other” and need to be “understood”? Or, for that matter, why do people assume that there is this mysterious black culture that one must learn or “understand” in order to write a character that is black?

    My family and I don’t do anything different than the average family. There is no grand difference that one must understand and acknowledge…we are just like everyone else. I, personally, can’t think of anything that my family does different than the average white family, or Mexican family, or Japanese family. We come together for holidays, funerals, and special occasions. We discuss the books we’ve read, or the TV shows we’ve watched. We fuss about politics and religion, and none of us are particularly keen on spiders. Blah, blah, blah. So, again, I pose the question of what culture is there that needs to be learned that would make someone feel timid about writing a character that just happens to be a PoC?

    I guess the point I am trying to make is that there should be no difference, at least not that I see, in writing a character that is non-white as opposed to white. Of course, I understand that if one is writing a historical piece, that race along with social, political, and socio-economic factors will inevitably have to come into play. And if you are writing a piece about Scotland in the 1700’s, then the idea of PoC will probably not work with the time or the setting. The same may be said if you are writing about Feudal Japan, or the Zulu wars in Africa. I get that in those instances, I really do. But…If you are writing a modern day or even futuristic piece, then why not add a PoC or two? Because truthfully there is no real difference, other than skin tone, that I can see.

    Back to my co-worker, I finally told her, “Just write the character as you normally would and maybe put some pigment in the skin tone in the character description. If you so choose, of course. If you choose not to, please don’t use the excuse it’s because you don’t understand the “culture” because in the end, like or not, we are just like you.”

    • LittleLadyhawke, I think you gave your co-worker some erroneous information, and perhaps even did both of you a disservice.

      Yes, it’s true, not all black people live in stereotypical black communities: we don’t all like hip hop, or basketball, we don’t all use coconut-scented beauty products, or call our female friends “child”. I, as a black woman, do live life and encounter many of the same situations as my white friends (and friends of other ethnicities as well). Yet I’d been kidding myself if I believed our experiences within these like situations are all the same. Perhaps the “culture” your co-worker asked about is hard to define in so many words in this instance, yet I know without question that my race contributes to how I perceive the world, and how the world perceives me.

      To say “just write a white character and give him/her skin pigment” just won’t work in a modern-day story setting. Even something as simple as having a white character enter a swanky boutique vs. a black character doing so would likely yield different results. We all heard about Oprah getting snubbed in that shop in Switzerland, told she wouldn’t be able to afford the handbag. Freakin’ Oprah, who could probably buy the whole store!

      What would happen if a middle class black character went into that shop? Even if nothing happened and the white sales ladies were polite as can be, unless the author had gone to some effort to demonstrate how the story setting is a post-racial world, a realistic response for the black character would be her thinking along the lines of, “I was sure they were going to treat me like crap; this place must pay great commission.” Because that’s the influence the history of negative interactions between black people and white people in North America would have on her, which is something that IS different from what a white character would experience.

      That’s just one example.

      I don’t believe we live in a post-racial world yet – that people are uninfluenced by racism even if they’ve never encountered it in an overt or violent way, or that a black person is indistinguishable from a white person (or vice versa). They are different – definitely in subtle ways, perhaps in major ways as well. There’s nothing wrong with being different, and if you agree with that, I’d recommend being careful about saying things to suggest sameness where there IS difference, which, in effect, is to negate the acceptability of that difference.

      • First let me start by saying, thank you for taking the time to reply. I understand, and respect your opinion, but on some points, I respectfully disagree. I would also like to point out that at no time did I ever indicate there was anything wrong with being different. I wholeheartedly embrace differences so long as those differences are based on the individual themselves. That is to say, I see people as individuals who may happen to be black/white/brown/etc., as opposed to being a black/white/brown/etc. individual. I try to see the person first, and all other aspects are secondary. Do I always succeed? No. Do I always try? YES! But that is not really what my previous comment was about.

        For me, you hit the heart of what I was getting at when you said “Perhaps the “culture” your co-worker asked about is hard to define…” That is exactly my point. What is the “black culture” that people always refer to, but when pressed they can never define? There are stereotypes abound about black people (quite a few you mentioned above) and other races as well. The reason some authors may shy away from writing PoC characters, is because all they have to go by are stereotypes, but a stereotype is not a “culture”.

        As far as the advice I gave her, I don’t see it as erroneous. I did point her in the direction of some great authors that have done exactly what I suggested she do. I have read several non-ethnic authors, who managed to write PoC characters, without the focus being on the character’s race or “culture”. There was no racial drama, unless it served as character development or story setting. They were just characters in the book (mostly supporting characters) who helped or hindered the main protagonist. Their race was not an issue; it was mentioned and then the story continued to progress. You could have changed the big brown-skinned guy with brown hair and brown eyes, to a big fair-skinned guy with red hair and blue eyes, and the character’s personality would have been the same. Was this a generic-fill-in-the-space character? Not in the least. He was actually pivotal to the main plot of book three in the series. And eventually got his own book. Not only is this author white, but a woman to boot.

        To your example of the black woman walking into a shop, I find that a character automatically thinking “I was sure they were going to treat me like crap; this place must pay great commission.” is absolutely an unrealistic response. To me, that screams “chip on my shoulder”. This has happened to me on more than one occasion, but my default is not to walk into a swanky shop and have the fear or belief that someone will be mean to me or that they had an ulterior motive if they weren’t. And if you are the author, why write it unless it has some part in the overall story? I find it a bad move to write drama and angst just for the sake of drama and angst.

        The one comment you made that I disagree with the most, is “I’d recommend being careful about saying things to suggest sameness where there IS difference, which, in effect, is to negate the acceptability of that difference.” I will agree here in as much as there is a difference between individuals, as well there should be. To quote a song from Groove Armada, “If everybody looked the same, we’d get tired of looking at each other.” However to just accept that there are differences because of race, does absolutely nothing to further acceptance. I pose that it actually does the opposite. And no, I’m not kidding myself nor am I in any kind of denial. Because I’ve seen it done and seen it done well, I just don’t see where race should make a difference in a character in a story unless it goes towards the character’s development or is some kind of major plot point/device.

        • As a writer who frequently ‘just writes a person’ and just makes skin color a part of the character’s descrption, I agree that it can work. However as a white woman who grew up in an all-white town and didn’t actually get to know anyone who wasn’t white until I was 30, I think the reality may be somewhere in the middle.

          Last year, my partner and I spent six months rooming with an interracial couple (He’s black, she’s white). We were in Memphis at the time, and it was also my first time living in an area where race was such a big issue, not just because of mix of races, but because of how they interacted. Everyone in their own little neighborhood, and some areas were mixed but going into the wrong area could get you in trouble.

          For the most part, if I were to try write a character like Jay, I’d focus on how he was a good father, a bit pie-in-thesky, always with an idea for way to start a business and bring in good money. Funny, private, with a temper he usually did a good job of keeping under control, and very much the patriarch of his family because that was the way he and Candy wanted things.

          But there were little things. The way he looked at me one day and asked “Do you need moisturizer? You look ashy.” And I had never heard the term ‘ashy’ before and he pointed to his knee where the skin was going grey from drying out and says “that’s ashy skin. Cause it looks like ash.”
          How Candy fought and fought to find a way to ‘tame’ their little daughters hair.
          The way police, whom I had been raised to trust and go to for help, were at best someone doing something else far, far away, and often the people who harassed him if he gave Candy and her friends a ride somewhere b/c a black guy driving three white women around has to be a pimp, right?
          How when they bought a big screen TV they snuck it into their house late at night so no one would see them. (Saw Chris Rocks Blacks vs Niggas skit for the first time the other week, and apparently for many black people that’s a common thing?)

          In most situations, I think your friend would have done better to seek out someone–of any race–who grew up in the environment her characters grew up in. Is she righting characters who grew up in a small rural town? The inner city? Jamaica? Then she’d have gotten better info by going to someone who grew up there.

          But I do think there are some stories, and some characters, where race does play a part, and sometimes little details, like writing a scene where a black woman character gets ready for the day and actually knowing how taking care of black hair is different from taking care of white hair (I know those terms aren’t PC, apologies, but I don’t know better ones), can make the difference between a believable character and a token.

          (FWIW, I am somewhat projecting my own experiences there–as a Jewish woman I’d rather see Jews written like real people that ultra-orthodox stereotypes (cause even the real ultra-orthodox aren’t the stereotypes), but it definitely rubs me the wrong way when someone who writes Jewish character who keeps kosher but eats shellfish [not kosher]; and as an author who has seen other authors get attacked for ‘doing it wrong’ when it comes to writing other demographics–yes, I’m paranoid: http://whipsandfangs.jessmahler.com/?p=84 )

          • All I am saying is that in the grand scheme of things, writers should not use the “I don’t understand the culture excuse” as a reason for not having diversity in their writings. I would prefer it if it was just said that they didn’t write a PoC because they didn’t want to. And you know what? That’s fine. If it’s a good piece of writing, it won’t matter either way.

            I liked the example you used about the black woman getting ready to do her hair in the morning, and that is a prime example of what I am talking about. When I do my hair in the morning, I pull it back in a ponytail, or put it up in bun. The question I would pose, is why would a writer NEED to describe that any different than he/she would if it were anyone else. Describing exactly how a black woman would do her hair in the morning, as opposed to another woman, serves no purpose to further character development or the story. It wouldn’t make the character a token in the least if you don’t go into detail.

            Like you, I have seen it done and done well, but I have also seen it done horribly. The difference is the writer who did it well, did not focus on the race of the character, she focused on the character (much like the first paragraph you wrote about Jay). The writer who did it poorly (I mean I cringed every time the character showed up) focused so much on making sure we knew that to character was a PoC that she fell into using stereotypical language, and mannerisms that often crossed the line into insulting. She got bogged down in the “little differences” that truly made no difference, that somewhere in there she lost what could have been a good, even great character. Then she compounded it by adding another race and stereotyping them horribly as well. It got so bad, I stopped reading her books as it was an ongoing series. How she got these characters past her editor and into print are beyond me.

          • I wish there were a lot more stories where people of color are just people in the story, like it usually happens in real life. Where I live it’s very diverse and I have friends of many different races. When we hang out, our “diversity” is a non issue. Actually I rarely think about it until some random discussion comes up like this.

          • Out of context example is out of context. Sorry about that–

            The reason I used that example is in my first novel I had a character who was constantly fiddling with her hair. The more stress she was under, the more she played with it, and I actually had two scenes with her sitting at her dresser having her servant do her hair (and as a noble, just putting her hair up in a pony tail usually wouldn’t cut it). A lot of other things were going on in those scenes, but they were part of the book. I made the deliberate decision not to give the characters physical descriptions until I was done writing.

            When I finished writing and started writing descriptions for the characters, my first thought for this character was basically a black woman with lots of hair. But I looked at those scenes and had no idea if they would work for black hair. I had seen my roommate spend an hour putting her daughters hair up in various styles, only to have the hair pop out after ten minutes, I’d seen the black women around town in Memphis with fancy weaves, and hair straightened until it had less curl than mine, and I decided that I was just going to make the character a black skinned woman with long straight hair, and hey its my own original fancy world, so it doesn’t matter if she is a recognizable ‘race’ or not. Now, it’s fully possible that the way I wrote those scenes would have worked, but I didn’t know, didn’t have anyone to ask (assuming is a way to ask something like that without being offensive) and it didn’t occur to me until months later that there are tons of youtube videos on how to do have and make up and I can just bloody well look it up.

            If I had written a story about a black woman in Memphis, instead of a fae noble in a made up world, I would have done a lot more agonizing over little details like that, where just writing the scene to fit any person MIGHT work, but might not and I don’t have the knowledge to tell, and I would miss a lot of the cultural details that I saw enough of to know exist, but don’t really know (I don’t even know if I was seeing several separate subcultures for the area — black, white, latino, Christian, Jewish…(Okay, it’s the largest gathering of Orthodox Jews in the US, I KNOW the Jews had their own separate subculture)–or it was just different aspects of Southern culture. There’s a reason just about all my stories are set in some variation of the northern Appalachians!). Which is why I will probably never write a story about a black woman in Memphis.

            Obviously, my example is not going to apply to most (or possibly even any) other stories, it’s more an example of the kind of things that I and other white writers I know tend to get hung up on when writing PoC, that yes we may be over thinking things, but we’re so afraid of getting it ‘wrong’ that we can’t help worrying.

            My personal take is I’m going to write all my characters as people first, and do my best to research cultural details that I don’t know, but I would rather get small things wrong that white-wash my fictional worlds–there’s too much of that all ready in fantasy and sci-fi. At the same time I do very much agree that spending too much time on details like that is one of the quickest ways to ruin a good story or character. Checkov’s gun applies to race and culture as much as magical powers–if you include in the story it had better have a purpose, otherwise leave it out.

        • LittleLadyhawke, thank you for writing back. This is a great conversation to be having, and I think we do agree on more than we realize, not that fully agreeing is required, for I respect your opinion as well, and recognize that our respective experiences may lead us to perceive the world in different ways.

          I didn’t mean to imply you felt it wasn’t okay to be different. I was just speaking broadly on that point, although I feel there are many levels of difference (individual difference, differences between races – black people physically look different than white people as a start, and vice versa), and that acknowledging those differences, rather than trying to disavow them, is the first step in promoting acceptance. For how can a person accept something which, in his/her mind, doesn’t really exist?

          On the culture issue – yes, culture is hard to define. I think there is a such thing as black culture, but it’s not a tidy little box that all black people can be slotted into. Nor, is there only one culture. I believe culture has as much to do with geographic location (and a community’s history in that location) as it does race. Your co-worker probably would have done better to more clearly envision this black character she wanted to create – where is this black character from? What age? Male or female? Middle class? Lower class? Lives in an all-black community? Lives in a diverse community? – and then come to you with specific questions about the black experience of such a person in that location, which you yourself may or may not have known depending on your own experience.

          As for the scenario with the black character in the swanky shop, I don’t know that that reaction is necessarily one of “chip on the shoulder”. I don’t think that all black people automatically assume they’ll be treated kindly by white people – again it depends on one’s past experiences. Admittedly, I did dramatize the scenario. But as you say, the scene wouldn’t even be in the story unless it served some greater purpose, so for it to appear, something dramatic would have to happen – some sort of conflict.

          The point I was trying to make is that for many people of colour, due to the history of race relations in North America, their race is often a factor they question regarding the way they’re treated, i.e. did I not get that job because I’m black and everyone else in the office is white? Did I get a shitty table in the restaurant because I’m black? Did the car rental place “lose” my reservation for the luxury car and give me a Hyundai instead because he hates black people? Not to say that race need be the reason, only that the question of whether it is or not is something that would occur to many people of colour, which is something that a white person – and hence a white character – may not understand due to never having been the object of racism.

          I agree with you that taking a white character and changing him/her black needn’t dictate a change to his/her personality traits. What would change, at least to some extent, IMO, in a modern-day story setting, is the interactions that black character has with other characters, or at least the black character’s perception of those interactions. I agree also that race doesn’t have to be a central issue in a story featuring a protagonist of colour. Yet because we don’t yet live in a post-racial world, I believe that for it not to at least colour (no pun intended) the way this character moves through the story world and relates to others would make for rather artificial reading. (Again, I’ll make the point that I’m referring to stories with settings analogous to the present day. In stories with fantastical or otherwise made-up settings, race needn’t play a role at all.)

      • Aren’t those differences what celebrating and embracing diversity is all about? Culture is different among groups. Sometimes in big ways, sometimes in subtle ones. The story has to guide whether it’s necessary to add cultural differencess. My husband grew up in the U.S. and has very American sensibilities and ways of seeing things. His parents are traditional old school Filipino. We have had so many culture clashes over the years because there were unspoken expectations that we didn’t understand. The way I communicate as a Italian woman offends them because I am direct and Filipinos generally arent. There are so many ways we are different. To deny the existence of culture and difference makes no sense to me. Having grown up in a black neighborhood I would say there is such a thing as a black culture. But a white person probably can’t write about it without making stereotypes because they haven’t lived it.
        Now those differences do not always come into play. I teach a class for kids. We have a black family, a white family, my interracial family , and a Hispanic family in the class. In class our cultural differences are rarely evident. But when the moms and I hang out we have talked about cultural differences and how it affects our lives. If i was writing a story about my class they would all be the same but with different skin color. But if I was writing about my family then culture would be an important factor.
        I do think you have to write what you know most of the time. If you grew up in an all white neighborhood how can you have any clue about what a Latino family is like? I have always been around very diverse populations and when I stayed at someone’s house in an all white area in the Midwest it was very different for me. There was a culture to the area, and I felt like I was different even though I was among other white people.
        If you haven’t grown up around diversity I think you need to be very careful writing a PoC character because you are likely to stereotype.

        • Whimsey and Nonsense, I agree, it can be challenging for a person to write about people of different ethnicities. But not having a clue about something from personal experience needn’t be a deterrent; writers have been writing about things they haven’t directly encountered for as long as people have been writing period.

          The answer, of course, is research: read books, examine other forms of media; spend time with people of that ethnicity in their communities, engaged in their activities; get them to beta-read your work; listen, ask questions, and keep an open mind; accept that not everyone will love what you create. This last point is nothing new for writers anyway.

          • I don’t disagree with you. I don’t mean that people should limit themselves to characters that are like them. I just think that with race relations issues in America in particular being so hard at times, you have to be careful how you write your characters. Of course, I think a lot of this discussion is focusing on white people writing about PoC. I’ve seen plenty of stereotyping from people of color writing about their own race. Just throwing a whole other monkey wrench in there. lol This is also where my negative comments about writing diversity for diversity’s sake comes from. I think when people try to throw diversity in there just to have it, it can end up furthering stereotypes rather than combating them.

            I think that media is doing a far better job of representing diverse people than even just 10 years ago. I am a huge fan of Marvel movies and Agents of Shield TV show. Director Fury is black and his blackness isn’t an issue. He’s a powerful, brilliant man who happens to be black. My kids and I just watched Spy Kids again for the thousandth time. Richard Rodriguez cast latino people in the roles, but the movies are so universal and they don’t make an issue out of race. They happen to be latino, but that’s not the focus of the stories.

            I’ve considered writing a story about an interracial family, but my own experience has been so “normal” and it has been an issue only a very few times. So I just can’t find material within myself that doesn’t feel contrived. We have encountered racism on occasion, but it has been extremely rare. We have actually encountered racism from Filipinos. Some of them want their kids to look white and I’ve had them insult my daughter because she is quite brown and praise my son because he looks more white right in front of her. That has been the most heartbreaking racism I’ve ever encountered. When my girl was 5 years old she said she hated her skin because it was brown after having an encounter with Filipinos like that. I’ve had other people discuss my kids difference in skin color right in front of them. Sometimes it’s just idiotic cluelessness and not really racist on their part.

            I think my own children would benefit from seeing beautiful brown and mixed race kids just being typical kids like they are.

    • The image of that conversation makes me cringe. The arrogance that she must have thinking she could understand ANY culture in a quick lunch conversation astounds me. To ask someone to “tell me about your culture… the one hour Cliff notes version please” is so rude.

      If you lived in a bubble your whole life, it’s even worse and more insulting for you to try to write about another group of people that you have had little to no interaction with. Like I said in another post, I am a white woman who grew up for part of my childhood in a black neighborhood. Then we moved to a place that was a split between white and latino, primarily of Mexican descent. (Don’t even get me started on people who think all latinos are Mexican or that all spanish speaking cultures are the same. They are not.) With all that experience, I am extremely careful writing characters that are of another race or culture than I am. And if you don’t know that race and culture are not necessarily the same thing, then you really have no business writing about it.

      I posted earlier that I don’t like writing diversity into subject for diversity’s sake and someone asked me in an irritated tone, “what does that even mean?” Well this is a prime example of what that means. I am going to venture a guess that this clueless woman is writing diversity into her work for diversity’s sake.

      I also want to clarify that when I said there is a black culture, I do not mean that ALL black people are the same culture. I have a friend who is Creole and she is very different culturally than a black friend of mine who grew up in L.A. There are cultural differences that should be celebrated not denied. However, those cultural differences do not always come into play. In Harry Potter, Cho Chang, the Patel sisters, and some other kids that I’m forgetting the names of are just other races, but it’s not an issue. She included diversity but it wasn’t necessary to make it a “thing” in the story.

  39. Dude. Let me see if I can give some insight into diversity and critical Heteronormative crucial witness. First the problem with “show and tell” diversity that takes place in the cultural tokenism that appears to be going down in your subscription of star wars is that it doesn’t represent reality. Take power rangers for instance. Diversity and tokenism up the wazoo, but what is missing is the struggle it takes for people to reach a point where they can over come racism. What children are brainwashed into is “colorblindness” as if the historical oppression didn’t exist. Albeit, star wars does have the added both us of being future based and theoretically there could be some arguments that star wars has transcended into a post-racial society, but that would that would miss out on the racist archotypes rate are infused in to the alien species. Jar jar binks;case in point. Also, I’m a straight white dude that has workedas an activist with African American communities as well as LGBT communities. For me it’s always been the attack against one is the attack against all. From here all you need is empathy ant an eye for injustice. Ive found it important to shoot the elephant in the room in the face right of the bat by commenting on the cultural or gender defined. Half the battle is being concupiscence of what you mean to others.

  40. You know why you don’t know that?

    Because he dropped the surname “Hernandez” for his acting career.

    Which is probably why he hasn’t been typecast.

    (I–I’m half Hispanic, btw–assumed he was British after seeing him in Robin Hood.)

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