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July 28, 2015

Shining a Light on Diversity Issues

Cartoon of people looking up at light with text: Shining a Light on Diversity Issues

I’m gearing up for the release of my second full-length novel, Pure Sacrifice, on August 12th. This book was difficult for me in many ways, mostly because of the revision process, but one frustrating aspect was beyond my control.

I’ve written before about how we shouldn’t assume our characters belong to a straight, white, middle-class default because that’s lazy writing:

“The fastest, easiest way to create more diverse stories is to start with a blank slateDon’t have a “default” character.”

I never force anything in my stories, and I don’t believe in quotas. Yet my stories contain diverse characters because I take the extra step of asking just one question to avoid the problem of my brain sending me Mr. Generic from Central Casting:

“Whenever a character—from my protagonists to the nameless, just-above-a-spear-carrier minor characters—appears on the page, I stop and listen.

  1. I first ask myself if this character that popped into my head feels three-dimensional, like they’re real and natural, or does the character feel like a “stock” or “default” character?
    (In my talk-to-myself brain, the latter often comes out as me asking, “Hi, welcome to my story. Who are you?” and I get a zombie-like “Uhhh” in response.)
  2. If it’s the latter, I shove them away, and I listen more until I hear a voice that feels real.
  3. Then I let them tell me who they are. *smile*

Note: There is no wrong answer because there’s no quota.”

Because of that step of not assuming, of waiting until I hear a voice that resonates, I knew my paranormal character for this book wouldn’t be white skinned. Great! Except…

The Ugly Side of Cover Design

The branding for my Mythos Legacy series depicts the paranormal character (whether hero or heroine) on my covers. So the cover of Pure Sacrifice needed to depict Markos, my shapeshifting unicorn hero. The character who is not white skinned.

(Note: He’s not African-American either. He’s a unicorn—and like all those of his race, his humanoid shapeshifted form could “pass” for black on Earth. However, by no means do I claim or label this book to be an interracial romance or anything to do with the black experience. The dichotomy of mythological unicorns being “white and pure” and their humanoid form being darker skinned is just how the character came to me.)

In the traditional publishing world, it wouldn’t be unheard of for the publisher to whitewash the cover and choose a model that “wouldn’t affect sales.” In fact, I’ve heard of several books with whitewashed covers along those lines.

Maybe having a non-white model on the cover does affect sales. Maybe it doesn’t.

(So far, my preorder sales says it doesn’t. Take that publisher assumptions! *smile*)

But one of the benefits of indie publishing is ensuring that our books meet our expectations. And I refused to whitewash this cover.

Diversity Is Needed Everywhere

While I was drafting the story, the visual inspiration for Markos was the actor Jason Momoa, who is known for Stargate: Atlantis, Conan the Barbarian, Game of Thrones, and DC’s new Aquaman.

Jason Momoa

Um, yeah, dark-ish skin and dreadlocks? There’s no whitewashing that. *smile* (And I feel compelled to ask: Besides, who would want to whitewash him away?)

However, then I ran into another problem: stock photo sites. Searching on “dreadlocks” brought up a bunch of white-skinned hipster types, while most of the dark-skinned models were posed and shot to look like drug users. Yeah, no racist assumptions there. *rolls eyes*

I searched every stock photo site. I asked a few models I’ve befriended this past year if they knew anyone. I even put out a call for a custom shoot that never came together. In short, I spent months upon months looking for an intense, sexy, non-drugged-out appearing, dark-skinned man with dreadlocks.

Nothing…until I searched “dreads” instead of “dreadlocks” on one of the sites. (And boy, is that ever a lesson on the importance of tags for our work.) There, I found one new model. Luckily, that model was perfect. *smile*

Pure Sacrifice cover

The Many Diversity Issues around Us

This problem of non-diverse cover stock is nothing new. Courtney Milan wrote about her struggles with the issue over a year ago.

One of the panels at the just-completed RWA conference poked fun at the limited stock by using one of the few interracial couple shots on the cover of their workshop handout: Celebrating the MOST used stock couple in any one genre!

(The rest of the handout by Alyssa Cole, Lena Hart, K. M. Jackson, and Falguni Kothari is great for sharing some do’s and don’ts for multicultural stories. They also include links to helpful resources, such as diverse stock photo sites. Much appreciation to them for sharing their handout with everyone!)

Sometimes we don’t see the problems around us until we stumble over them or they’re pointed out to us. That’s why it’s so important to listen to marginalized voices. It’s far easier to see what is around us (active racism, etc.) than to see what isn’t (lack of opportunities, etc.).

Yes, we need diverse books. But—as I discovered with this story—we also need diverse cover models and diverse everything else. Plus, there’s a difference between diverse characters and diverse authors.

White authors like myself can research and add diversity to our stories, but in a perfect (or perhaps, fair) world, the voices of diverse authors would be louder when it comes to diversity so they can direct their own stories. Yet too often, that isn’t what happens.

In following the #RWA15 tweets last week, I was horrified to learn how poorly some of my fellow authors are treated within the industry just because of the color of their skin. Many of the tweets about the Diversity in Romance: Why it Matters workshop were captured in a Storify by Alisha Rai, one of the panelists.

Too often, traditional publishers see black romance authors and think their books would appeal only to black women. No matter how mainstream their stories, they’re shunted to the “diverse” imprint in many publishing houses.

As a result, their books are sold on a separate shelf in bookstores and labeled African-American Romance. Panelist Farrah Rochon calls this is the most blatant form of segregation still in existence.

To add insult to injury, those imprints are often priced higher. Gee, not marketed to mainstream readers and priced higher? Yet publishers blame the authors and not themselves for “disappointing” sales. *shakes head*

So What Can We Do?

  • We can make sure we’re not lazily defaulting to stock characters. As I’ve said before, “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.” And as the panelists said in answer to the question, “Who should be writing diverse books?” “Everyone.”
  • We can research to ensure we’re not defaulting to stereotypes when we write any kind of character.
  • We can ask a member of the appropriate community to check our work for problematic elements (and if they point something out, we should listen).
  • We can boost the voices of diverse authors: link to them, retweet them, share their words, etc.
  • We can watch out for assumptions about not being able to relate to stories with diverse characters or written by diverse authors. After all, we can all relate to the human experience.
  • When we find books we like by diverse authors, we can support them: buy their books, promote their work, etc.
  • We can support diverse resources. (For example, I participated in Mosiac Stock‘s Kickstarter several months back.)

Most of all, we want to ensure that we see past any defensiveness caused by guilt, quota assumptions, or political correctness. “Diversity” isn’t a genre, so this isn’t about trying to change our storytelling as writers or our reading habits as readers.

Most stories with diverse characters aren’t (or shouldn’t be) about the diversity issue. Readers simply want a good story, and the “specs” of the characters shouldn’t affect that. As someone who writes shapeshifting unicorn heroes, I should be able to handle characters who aren’t like me. *smile*

Do you write diverse characters? Have you seen areas like the stock photo issue where more diversity would be helpful? Have you run into any problems with including diverse characters? Do you have other suggestions for what we can do to help? Are there books you’ve loved by diverse authors that you want to promote in the comments?

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42 Comments on "Shining a Light on Diversity Issues"

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Melinda Primrose

The only comment I would add is to make sure your diverse characters don’t have stereotypical experiences. Don’t just assume that every blind person is like Helen Keller, for example. Blind people have the same spectrum of experiences as everyone else. I feel reasonably certain this is true for all diverse people. I can only speak with absolute certainty about blindness, as I live it. I know my experiences differ from friends with blindness. A quick example is that I know people who are blind who aren’t afraid to travel without sighted assistance. I, however, am. Just remember that everyone’s the same when it comes to differences. We all have them.

Shauna Roberts

I write about ancient Mesopotamia. The stock photo houses have very, very few Middle Eastern–looking people. For my last book, I had to use a Persian-looking guy and a woman with curly hair (when the hero comments many times in the book on her straight hair).

For at least one of my planned Mesopotamia books, I think I’ll need a custom shoot. That’s not the total answer, either, because the ancient Sumerians had black hair and were quite proud of it. I’ll need to have the hair darkened and possibly the skin as well. I’d much rather have someone with Iraqi ancestry pose and earn the model fee.

Davonne Burns

Once again you show just how amazing and perceptive you are Jami. Thank you for this lovely post.

I’ve always been an advocate of diversity in fiction and media, but as you said, not simply for it’s own sake but because it reflects the world around us. There is a very telling gif set on Tumblr that I see sometimes where a typical white male calls an Asian female coworker ‘exotic.’ She the proceeds to disabuse him of the notion that her ethnicity is rare and that in fact they outnumber whites by quite a large margin. “So who’s the exotic one here?”

I found it amusing.

Race isn’t the only area where we need diversity. Sexual orientation and gender identity are just as diverse and just as in need of genuine portrayals. ^^

Ashley
Ashley

Whenever I hear of something like that (and I’ve heard people complain before about “stop using ‘exotic’ as the default descriptor for Asian characters!”) it just makes me want to write a story set in a culture where the blue-eyed-blonde is a rare sight and referred to as “exotic” every other sentence, just to mess with people’s heads.

Cobalt-Blue
Cobalt-Blue
I’m going to get flamed for this, but so be it: I disagree with you. A lack of diversity IS NOT A PROBLEM; except for a lack of diversity of thought, where anyone who disagrees with the diversity crowd is automatically vilified as a racist. . We’ve had diversity jammed down our throat to the point that it has become ridiculous. Heimdall, the father of the Nordic people played by a black man. Johnny Storm switched from white to black while his sister, Sue remains white. James West, a 19th Century Secret Service Agent played by a black man. These casting issues were done in the name of diversity, but make no sense whatsoever. It’s funny, I’ve never seen any traditionally black characters portrayed by whites. Maybe Leonardo DiCaprio can play Falcon? Or how about Matt Damon as T’Challa the Black Panther? Granted the traditionally Asian characters in the Last Airbender were portrayed by whites in a bad movie, but to make up for the traditionally European (except one) characters in Attack on Titan are all being portrayed by Asians. Make a character another race if it fits the story, but don’t do it for the sake of “being diverse”. Do it because it fits the character. After all of the recent race-bending issues in popular characters, I’ve gone out of my way to DEFINE my character’s race being Black, White, Asian, Hispanic, or Whatever. But I take issue with diversity for the sake of diversity, and I take issue… Read more »
Deborah Makarios

Living (even briefly) in a country where you are a minority is often a good experience too – it helps you see what you take for granted.
Another group not often represented in books (or represented in very stereotypical ways): dwarfs/dwarves. The Significant Other in my fantasy WIP is a dwarf, belonging to a race of dwarves (unlike human dwarfs IRL), but hopefully not as a hi-ho-hi-ho stereotype. More of a freedom-fighter-action kind of guy.

Glynis Jolly

Do I write diverse characters?

Uhmm… if you’re asking if I write about characters just from the Euro culture or do I put in other cultures, I do the latter. I come from a multi-cultural family. Even within the Euro culture there’s diversity. I mean, are you more likely to think of an English or Italian person outwardly showing passion, for instance? I do go further though seeing that I have examples right within my reach. My stepdaughter is half Korean and half Euro-American. She’s lived in both worlds. She’s an excellent example of the mix. The only cultures not represented in my family are the ones from the Middle East, although I did go to a high school where just under a half of the students were Jewish so I feel quite comfortable with their culture. Still, I don’t feel I know quite enough about it though.

I am catching myself shying away from issues like body shapes and sizes, and disability despite the fact that I, myself am an adequate example for all of this, and have been around all sorts of shapes, sizes, and disabilities. Should I try to incorporate these aspects into my stories? Probably, as long as I don’t go to the extreme. Why not the extreme? I don’t think these issues should ever be a major point of any fictional story.

Jordan

I just had this problem with a novella for an anthology and it drove me nuts! I grew up in a diverse city and set my latest novella there. So one of the characters was half Black, half white. When he’s introduced, I mention his skin tone is halfway between the black and white characters right there. I mention his skintone a lot. But when we actually use the words “mixed race” halfway through, most of my beta readers and editors have been totally thrown.

I was kind of upset about it, because of that whole default-white thing. In the end, I just took out the “mixed race” reference. I’m sad to see it go, and I know some–maybe a lot–of readers will default to the character being white, or “dark white.” But better than jerking readers out of the story, I guess?

Carradee
The stock photo issue is frustrating. To be fair, with the kinds of characters I write, I have difficulty finding images for most of them—even the white ones. But when I’m writing a character that doesn’t have to be white and I go looking for a stock photo in a particular position or with particular features…anything I find will usually be white. As a case in point, there’s no reason that my character Third has to be white. The story gives her reddish hair and bluish eyes, which are most likely to occur in a white light-skinned person, but it’s possible to be a non-white redhead. It’s possible to be a non-white blue-eyed person. But just try finding a stock photo with such a non-standard appearance. [sigh] So she’s ended up white. Which means her family and all multiverse versions of her are, too (which matters for the story). So I thought, “Well, characters, these other characters don’t have to be white, so maybe 2 or more won’t be…”—but all the suitable photos I’m finding are white. I’ve realized that one of them, it’s probably better if she’s white—I’d look as if I were stereotyping if she weren’t. The others still don’t have to be (skin color is the least of the discrimination they’re dealing with, so it’s irrelevant to them), but the others… There are two that I’d prefer them not be white. But I can’t find any image that’s even close. But that’s another factor that can be…difficult,… Read more »
Roni Loren

Such an important discussion. And a big one. But just to touch on the cover art part, I hope there are photographers out there who are seeing all these discussions and who will answer the call to create stock photos that better reflect real world diversity.

Honestly, this is when I’m happy that my publisher moved me to covers that don’t have people on them (the big shift post-50 Shades in erotic romance covers.) My characters can look any way I want them to. I’ve had a hispanic hero and heroine, an african-american heroine, I’m about to write a Japanese hero. I also write gay and bisexual main characters. My publisher and the covers give me the freedom to write characters the way I want to. It’s so much more interesting to have a fully realized, diverse, real world cast of characters. I want to reflect the world I live in. Having said that, if I DID have people on my covers, I’d want lots of choices in those stock photos, so I really, really hope stock photo companies and photogs start answering the call and creating real choices for book covers.

Jon
Jon

Great post, Jami,
Diversity is a word that normally covers issues of ethnicity. You’ve pointed out ways for authors to work the world around us into their books. Your ideas could be expanded to age, medical conditions and body dimensions.

I’m a bit over 60 guy. While I enjoy fantasizing about sweet young females, worlds beyond Alpha Centuri, and the shape-shifter next door, is it possible for me to fantasize about romance with a woman with grey in her hair (or fur), a limp or hips that have held up too many children and lattes? Yup.

Could Mr. Tall, Dark and Handsome be bald?

David Weber writes a best seller sci-fi series that is now about 20 books long. I am so pleased that he constantly has characters who are identified first by title (fire chief, combat engineer, Gunny) who are casually, later, referred to with a female gender pronoun. No ooh, no wow, just part of the story. For me, this is a damn good reminder that I’m still making assumptions about gender. I realize that in my mind, I’ve labeled the person male.

The more that authors can help with acceptance, the closer society comes to equality of opportunity. Just my opinion.

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[…] I mentioned last time, I’m gearing up for the release of the next novel in my Mythos Legacy series, Pure Sacrifice, […]

Ashley
Ashley
Thanks for writing this post. I stopped by to comment on your habit of “listening” to your characters and got sucked in by all the comments, which were just as thought-provoking as the post itself! So now I have several things to comment on… I am amused by what non-writers tend to assume about how characters come into being. I was recently talking with my husband about a certain character in my book, a woman who lives life pretending to be a man. He wanted to know if she’s interested in men (which would make dating rather complicated in what is essentially Renaissance Europe) or women, and I said I didn’t know, “she hasn’t told me that.” “What do you mean?” he said. “Didn’t you invent her?” Ha! If only it were so easy! (Amirite?) On the other hand, I consciously decided to have such a character because putting a man in that role (sword-for-hire), as I kind of automatically assumed it would be, put my heroine in the position of (what could be seen as, considering her later choices) always being “saved” by a man; having an openly female character felt like pushing an agenda (after all, I’m writing a fantasy epic with four female and zero male protagonists; maybe leave SOME roles for the guys?). Perhaps the funniest thing of all is that having come up with this solution I’m not planning to ever state her real gender openly – while it’s super important to who she is… Read more »
Kari
Kari

Hi Jami,

Great post! I can’t remember what got me out of the default white characters, the ones who did make sense in my first two novels given time and setting, and yeah, my inexperience. It may very well have been the next one set in a post-apocalyptic time.

I just thought “Wouldn’t some of these people be from different places?” And then they were. Same thing when I opened the door to LGBTQ characters. “Am I sure this character is Assumed Gender and Sexuality?” And then they weren’t. That simple opening of my mind, of my inner casting director, added such richness and depth to those stories and everything I’ve written since.

For me, the goal isn’t to make a point of the variety of characters in the worlds inside my head. When we read a story with a human character unlike ourselves and it’s no different from hair color, then we’re making real progress. When writers stop getting comments like “Why’d you have to make Character X gay/black/trans/whatever I’m not?”

Sure, that difference CAN be the point of a story. But it doesn’t always have to be.

Peace.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Thanks for this wonderful post, Jami! I most definitely didn’t feel “put off” by Markos not looking “white-skinned”, lol. Looking forward to reading it in August. ^^ Ah speaking of the white and pure unicorn image, the image of Black Beauty (a beautiful black horse) just came to my mind. 😀 I love your method of asking your characters who they are, where if they say “Uh…”, you don’t write about them, lol. Amen to the not writing diverse characters according to their stereotypes. I think I told you about my writing homosexual characters? Well, you know the stereotype that lesbians are very manly? Well, my main lesbian girl is actually one of the most feminine out of all my female characters! I also have a gay male character who is NOT girlish as the stereotype suggests. Instead, he is one of the manlier of my male characters. In my real life, I’ve only met one girl who I know is a confirmed lesbian, and she is somewhat boyish but I wouldn’t call her “butch.” (I heard that the word “butch” can be an offensive term, too.) I do have a female friend who is bisexual, and she is more feminine than masculine. So I guess I don’t have much personal experience talking to (confirmed) lesbians or female bisexuals, but I remember this psych study we saw in class, where they measured the level of femininity of lesbians against the level of femininity their ideal partners are. The data was… Read more »
Julie Glover

Great article! And thank you for highlighting the scarcity of diverse stock photos. That drives me crazy. I cannot understand why photographers don’t seek out more diversity in their models. It simply boggles my mind. Let’s hope it changes!

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[…] Jami Gold shines a light on diversity issues. […]

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[…] already alluded to the editing required by this story, as well as the difficulties I had with finding a cover model, but it all worked out in the end. […]

PJ Friel

Saw a link to this post in one of Jami’s other blog posts, regarding the difficulty of finding diverse stock art, so I thought I’d pop in and leave a note about a new stock art site called Mosiac Stock. Mosaic was created by a fellow author for just this very reason. She was tired of not being able to find good images for her books.

Here’s a link to their site – http://www.mosaicstockphotos.com/

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[…] I write characters of different races and appearances, and as I’ve bemoaned before, it’s difficult to find diverse stock photos. So the stereotypical “clinch” cover of the hero and heroine in an embrace would be […]

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[…] Gold mentioned this last year in her post Shining a Light on Diversity and also in her post One Step to Better Writing and More Diversity. In both articles she mentions […]

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[…] you, Devika! As you know, I’ve run into many of these same issues with my books (like the problem of finding stock book cover images), but I’ve also enjoyed many of those pros as well, so your run-down of the pros and cons is […]

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