Should the Need for Diversity Become a Requirement? By Brad Windhauser
2016’s Oscar nominations generated a lot of controversy. In particular, the acting categories were deemed “too white” due to the complete lack of non-white nominees. Should the Academy have ensured that their nominations better represented diversity? I don’t want to enter this particular debate, but this controversy caused me to consider whether or not artists in general or writers in particular have a responsibility to represent diversity in their work. And if so, to what extent?
I have very mixed feelings about this.
On one hand, diversity is important. If you are not part of the majority, you understand this. You get why reading stories about white, heterosexual characters gets tiresome—what about the rest of us? You understand how validating it is to see “your” story being told, how much you can learn by having your point of view investigated, strengths explored, weaknesses examined. After all, there is value is seeing various perspectives on issues affecting your community. This is how we grow. And for those in the majority, they stand to appreciate other experiences, and in so doing, they learn to appreciate the connections that make us all human. This hopefully creates empathy.
This is why diversity within story is important, and not only in the types of stories we tell but also the characters we use to populate them.
On the other hand, if you are a member of a minority group, are you compelled to only write about your “group” because few others are? What if the story you are telling (need to tell) lends itself to white heterosexual characters? Should you change things up just for the sake of diversity?
Maybe yes, maybe no.
When you become aware of the need for diversity, you should look to include it when and where you can. This will force you to test the story to see how much the makeup of a character matters. Can that main character whom you imagined as white be redrawn as a person of color? And if changed to a person of color, how many new possibilities have you opened for this character—how can a person’s race deepen where the story can go? This opens the door to possibilities you may not have considered.
The problem with this is if this change feels forced.
If you impose diversity on a story just for the sake of doing so, the story can become about the diversity rather than the human story you are trying to tell. For example, if you make the main couple gay, does their sexuality become the story? If you make the protagonist African American, is the story now about race? Neither is bad, of course, but it does change the dynamic—if you let it. Therefore, if you are going to make such a change, it should feel natural to who these people are. If you treat elements of a character’s identity, such as their sexuality or race, as more important than their humanity, readers will too.
And, of course, if you are a member of this minority group, people may come to expect this from you. For example, as an author who happens to be gay, I wonder, if the majority of my work handles “gay content,” does this limit my audience because people assume they are always reading a “gay story”? Is there a danger in being a “qualified” author, like a gay author (or a black author or Hispanic author)? I’m proud to be an author who’s gay and enjoy telling stories that speak about (not for) my community. But my world view encompasses more than just “gay” issues, so shouldn’t my writing? Furthermore, if I become pigeonholed as a gay author, will this discourage non-gay readers from reading my stories? Sure, you can say you’d rather do without such readers (assuming they do so because they are closed minded), but would such a choice really suggest being closed minded?
As artists in general and writers in particular, I think we should be aware of diversity but I don’t think we should feel shackled by it. I could go on a longer diatribe about this particular point; instead, I’ll recommend Percival Everett’s Erasure. Aside from being one of my favorite books, this novel makes a strong case for how writers are limited—whether they like it or not—by elements of their identity. In this book’s protagonist’s case, the issue is race. I don’t have to be black in order to get Everett’s point, but that may be because the book is written so well, by an author that is conscious of what happens when “diversity” is forced on an author.
#1 by Emma Peterson on March 12, 2016 - 9:27 am
I am a black, bisexual woman who writes stories that primarily feature gay and bisexual men of various races (and occasionally species). The color of their skin is simply that: color. Like hair and/or eye color, it has no bearing on their personalities, unless dictated by plot. For me, racial diversity in storytelling has never been a “requirement.” I write about different races because the world is comprised of different races, although one might not know that to look at the bulk of M/M stories that are out there. (Then there are those stories that fetishize race, but that’s a whole different issue.) I have never felt like I was forcing diversity on anyone, nor have I ever felt like it was being forced on me when reading stories with interracial or non-white characters. If someone feels otherwise… well… the true issue at hand may not be with the writer.
At any rate, this was a very interesting and insightful read. I’m glad I found it.
#2 by Crow on April 9, 2016 - 11:12 pm
I think, to some extent, writers are and should be responsible for thinking about diversity. Crafting a story requires balancing all the features of your characters with their world, and that balancing act must be, by virtue of being a balancing act, very intentional. I don’t think any writer has to include minority characters in their work. But not including minority characters, or portraying a lack of diversity, has its own consequences: You can choose not to have gay characters, Black characters, Latinx characters, and so on. Sometimes that may even be appropriate. But maybe that alienates certain readers you didn’t want or didn’t intend to alienate. Maybe you’re adding to a body of work you didn’t necessarily want to be a part of–i.e., one that excludes and erases the presence and experiences of minorities. Or maybe you’re just plain misrepresenting the setting or population you meant to portray. For instance, I frequently see novels set in Appalachia that focus entirely on straight, white, cis characters. And yet, Appalachia is not an entirely, or really even mostly, an entirely straight, white, cis place. It just flat-out isn’t. The plethora of work that pretends it is really just paints a picture of an Appalachia that doesn’t exist.
So, should writers be shackled by diversity? No, not necessarily. Storytelling is an essentially anarchist business: there is no rule that cannot be broken. But I would highly recommend that writers consider very carefully how their work relates to the work of diversity. We all need to be conscious of the context in which we write and speak.