This is one of those posts that will probably get me in trouble, but I believe it’s an important conversation to have. I will attempt to avoid offending anyone, but that’s getting more difficult in our society (which is kind of my point). Wish me luck. *smile*
An online campaign on Tumblr and Twitter called #WeNeedDiverseBooks promotes the importance of books that portray characters of various orientations, cultures, nationalities, and abilities in children’s literature. Diverse books are important for adults too—not simply for the sake of diversity—but so that by sheer number of representations, any one type of character isn’t limited to a stereotype.
The truth is that we are all diverse. My life experience is not the same as any of you. And every one of you have different experiences from each other.
No one stereotypical character will ever represent us, no matter our color, nationality, abilities, or background. Yet stereotypes exist and will always exist.
That might sound like a depressing thought. We might think that if only we worked hard enough, shamed others enough, pushed enlightenment enough, that we might be able to avoid stereotypes.
The simple fact of the matter is that the human brain does not work that way. The human brain is lazy. *smile*
Categories Help Our Brains Process Information
Our senses bring in far more stimulation than we can process. How much do we pay attention to the color of our carpet in our home? We don’t. (Unless we hate it and are thinking of changing it.)
How much do we pay attention to the background noise of our refrigerator? We don’t. (Unless it’s making weird noises and we worry it’s about to break.)
How much do we pay attention to the weight of our clothes on our shoulders? We don’t. (Unless the fabric is scratchy and driving us crazy.)
Our brain ignores everything possible so it can function without being overwhelmed. Our brain constantly puts everything we see, hear, feel, taste, and smell into “ignore” or “this is different—pay attention” categories, and we only consciously notice the latter.
We put people we see or meet into categories too. We think young/old, male/female, tall/short, etc. We ask what people do for a living. We inquire whether we have friends, schools, neighborhoods in common.
This is not bad. This is normal and unavoidable.
In fact, brain research suggests that we can’t remember things unless we can “attach” that information to something we already know, like one of those magnetic sculpture desk toys except made of connected memories. Categories help us remember.
We will never be able to look at an unknown person and not have our brains seek to categorize them in some way. Because of that instinct to categorize, stereotypes—preformed branches for attaching similar new memories—will always exist.
The Danger of Political Correctness
Some might agree with me and then state that the problem comes when stereotypes are harmful. Great! But how do we define harmful?
Kristen Lamb wrote a MUST READ post about political correctness:
“These days, I find myself less prone to joke or make conversation with others of a different ethnicity or culture because, bluntly, it’s exhausting and I always seem to screw it up. I find myself hedging everything I say, backpedaling, and struggling to remember my proper and approved PC vocabulary.
We walk on eggshells to avoid “offending” someone. We no longer can make mistakes. We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.”
I’ve seen people say the phrase “Oh, that’s so lame” is offensive to those who can’t walk. And then I’ve seen even more people—all of whom really can’t walk—say “Don’t be ridiculous. It’s just a phrase, not offensive.”
Multiply that by the hundreds or thousands of potentially problematic words or phrases, and we don’t know who to listen to or what to think.
- Should we follow the lead of those actually with the experience (of which, as they are not a monolithic stereotype, might have differing opinions)?
- Or should we avoid attracting attention from those without the experience, but who wait, all-too-eager, to call us out on some infraction like the thought police?
We can have the best intentions in the world and still screw up. Quite frankly, political correctness has too many rules, and no one will ever be able to remember them all, especially when various interested parties can’t even agree on whether there should be a rule about something. Being unaware of all of the rules, or being unable to keep them straight, shouldn’t earn us an *-ist label or prove that we’re “insensitive.”
Most people don’t mean to be insensitive or offensive. Yet the default response seems to be to attack or judge rather than to inform or give the benefit of the doubt.
As Kristen said, constantly walking on eggshells and fearing saying the wrong thing is nerve-racking. The result is that we’re less likely to relate with others of a different culture or ethnicity. That it seems easier to avoid others than it is to avoid making a mistake.
That avoidance of diversity out of fear is the real danger.
Stereotypes are most harmful when they prevent us from making new friends or being open to new ideas. That goes for people and books.
The Danger for Diverse Books
My friend Roni Loren wrote an insightful post about whether authors are scared to write diverse books. The (understandable) answer for too many is “Heck yeah, it’s too risky.”
In an in-person encounter, we could at least apologize or try to explain our intentions. In a book, we can’t even do that. If we get something “wrong”—which as I noted above, is nearly unavoidable—we’re going to offend someone and not be able to “take our words back.”
The result? If authors don’t want to take the risk, we’ll have fewer diverse books on the shelves.
Worse, those limited numbers will mean each book with a such-and-such type of character will seem more important or be more notable. Any stereotypical aspects will stand out more, rather than being drowned out by a flood of other representations of such-and-such type of character.
Fear of being judged “wrong” in the eyes of political correctness can make us more insulated—from both a variety of people and ideas. That is harmful for all of us.
Should We Write about Experiences We Don’t Share?
Some might think it a good thing if authors aren’t willing to take those risks with unfamiliar scenarios. They might think diverse books should come only from those with the appropriate experiences. While I understand the frustration when authors “get things wrong,” I disagree with that idea in general.
I’ve been to book signings where authors are giving away free books, and the lines for the non-white authors are almost always the shortest. We all “discriminate” in our book reading. (“I don’t like that genre.” “I don’t like stories with that trope.”) Subconsciously, even though they’re not racist, the attendees see those authors and categorize their books as something they couldn’t relate to.
Would we rather that insulation of people and ideas continue? Or would we rather prod people to broaden their experiences?
If it takes reading a diverse book from a white-bread author to show people that, yes, they can relate to stories with diverse protagonists, I say bring on the diverse books from any author who wants to take on the challenge.
Roni’s post shares several tips on how to do our best to “get it right,” starting with not having “a ‘default’ that everyone who walks onto the page is white, straight, and middle-class until proven otherwise.” I hope any author who tries to show diversity in an honest, non-stereotype-driven way is welcomed.
My Choice for Diversity
As I said at the start of this post, I believe we are all diverse because we all have experiences that no one else shares. We need diverse books because they help us explore and discover various beliefs, values, and experiences—and through that exposure, we’ll learn more about ourselves and how we can relate to others, no matter our various backgrounds.
No one looking at the color of my skin would guess that I grew up as a minority in my school (the only white girl for much of elementary). The stereotypical “white” experience doesn’t apply to me any more than the stereotype of xyz ethnicity applies to any real person. The same can be said for our characters.
Heck, I write paranormal. Some of my characters are dragons, unicorns, faeries, and the like. Am I not supposed to write those characters because I haven’t experienced what it’s like to be them? *grin*
Am I not supposed to write from my heroes’ point of view because I’m not male? That’s not how my genre works. We’re supposed to be able to use our imagination to write fiction.
I write those characters with the attitude of being true to the characters. I use the same criteria when writing my human characters, whether white, black, Asian-American, Native American, gay, straight, etc.
I write books with diverse characters and don’t worry about trying to capture everything “right” because I’m not writing about any such-and-such type of person. I’m writing about a specific character, and as long as I’ve stayed true to their specific experience, I’m avoiding stereotypes.
Will I receive negative reviews for my choices? Undoubtedly. My xyz character won’t be xyz enough. Or maybe they’ll be too xyz. Or I didn’t do a good job of capturing the xyz experience because I didn’t touch on abc.
Whatever. There’s no such thing as a universal xyz experience, so I’m not going to worry about it.
I’m writing my characters’ experiences, and while I would never knowingly write anything offensive, I’m most interested in staying true To. My. Characters. No one is going to like everything we write anyway, so worrying about whether someone might not like our characters because of diversity is a dead end.
We need to stand up to the fear of accidentally getting something politically incorrect. If we don’t, literature—and our lives—will become even more insulated from people and ideas different from our own. And that would be a real dead end.
Have you participated in the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign? Do you worry about accidentally being politically incorrect? Have you ever written diverse characters? Do you plan to? Do you think political correctness can cause damage to our willingness to explore diverse friendships and characters?Pin It