I had a huge learning experience yesterday in a discussion about diversity, and how people of colour want to be represented/respected in the writing world. After speaking out in confusion on Twitter, I was subject to the opinions of marginalized and non-marginalized writers alike. In some ways it was a public lashing, but it was the best thing that could’ve happened. It helped me gain clarity.
Though the initial onslaught of comments brought me back to the days of being bullied in school, I kept my ears open and, in the end, thanked them all—especially one woman who took the time to help educate me. (Thank you Shveta Thakrar.) If you’re a white writer including a protagonist of a different race in your work, I highly suggest reading this post by Justine Larbalestier.
Through the intensity of the discussion and my fear of being wrong/offending others, I found a profound sense of humility. I grew up in a family that holds multiculturalism sacred. Diversity is dear to my heart, but as a white writer I’m still trying to gain clarity in areas of the discussion concerning marginalized writers and the publishing industry. I understand this subject from a different perspective now.
Someone also enlightened me that being bullied is not necessarily the same as having endured discrimination (though I remain convinced it can produce a similar feeling internally, and is helpful in the arena of empathy). My father, when I told him about the conversation, said, “Huh. Who would’ve thought writers would be opinionated?” LOL! I love my dad.
But back to the discussion. Here’s my takeaway: I thought by writing people of colour as some of my main characters I was helping to support diversity, but learned that in many cases people of colour would rather write their own stories and not have another white person get a publishing deal instead of them. One person said, “The best way to champion diversity is to get out of our way.” I think there are other ways to encourage and support, but that perspective is valid to that person.
Of course, everyone’s opinion is informed by their experience, so I weigh what I’ve learned against what feels right to me. But because of this discussion, I’ve changed one of my manuscripts’ main characters from a Venezuelan immigrant to an Irish immigrant. It was never my intent to steal someone else’s story, but to get away from whitewashing. A fine line to walk. There are quite a few people of colour in the supporting cast, so I’m still writing diversity into my book. The character was never about her race anyway—her story is about overcoming patterns of disempowerment and negative body image. And falling in love, of course.
That said, I have another story with three MCs, two of whom are black women. I’ll keep them that way, because, first and foremost, they’re people. They’re the characters that fit the story: two black book-loving burlesque dancers who get together with a sexy white dragon rider and his dragon-riding sisters, and save the world.
People from all backgrounds deserve to have equality, fair representation, and a chance to show those who relate to them that anything is possible. I think this needs to happen by supporting authors from diverse backgrounds, and by including characters from backgrounds different than my own with extreme care.
Back to my hot-cheeked Twitter learning experience. There was a point in the conversation when I thought, “Maybe I don’t want to be published. There will always be people who don’t agree with what I write.” But then, instead of hiding and taking it personally, I softened. I allowed each person their point of view, and I looked for the wisdom therein. In a moment of vulnerability, by choosing humility over fear, I became stronger.