If a tire isn’t wearing even, you might need to balance it. The mechanic puts it on a spindle and adds lead weights to it. If something’s out of whack, you fix it by shifting things around until it’s even. I’ve met people who think we shouldn’t shift things around, that it’ll work out if it was meant to. But a off-balance washing load hasn’t ever fixed itself. Somebody’s got to go fix the load in the machine. Same thing with diversity in writing or movie casting, or what have you.
We all saw how awesome The Black Panther was. For many people, it was the first time seeing African culture and style, or a movie with only two white dudes in it. I see it as the first stage of balancing, pile weight on the other side and see what happens. It’ll take fine tuning to get fiction where it reflects populations. In my area*, it’s about an even ratio of white, black and Hispanic. A story of people doing stuff ought to match that. There’s been a lot of stories with mostly white people, so it’s gonna take awhile to get to a balanced normal.
*Do not fall for not noticing other cultures and demographics. In my hometown, yes, there was one black kid, he was adopted and many grades behind me. But we played with plenty of Native American kids and probably didn't give it much thought. Maybe they did.
I love Star Trek. There’s many documentaries and interviews with people of color at NASA or even Whoopie Goldberg who cited seeing Uhura on the bridge was inspiring to them. I’ve met Nichelle Nichols, and I’m sure she’s told everybody the story about how she was thinking of quitting and Dr. Martin Luther King told her how much his family enjoyed the show and what it meant to see her there. The times a character of color is presented well are talked about with excitement.
So I think it’s good business to do so, but more than that, it’s meaningful to more people. Look at what Star Trek did for our society, and not to take away from Nichelle’s part, this simple move to a more diverse cast was something Gene Roddenberry, a white guy, could contribute to improving civil rights, representation, and equality. Modeling diversity normalizes it.
What About Backlash?
We live in a time where somebody will be mad no matter what you do. Write a story with too many dogs in it and cat people will be pissed. Represent dogs stereotypically and dog people will riot. I’m sure Mark Twain got hate mail because a black kid was friends with a white kid. Take chances, do your research, do your best and learn from mistakes.
Writing For People I Don’t know
Seventy percent of book readers are female, so as a male writer, I’m already writing for people who aren’t like me. I can do research and find out what women hate about men’s writing (boobs, way too much focus on boobs). The same thing for cultures and demographics that aren’t like me. I’ve got friends who are people of color. If I’m smart, I keep my mouth shut, listen to how they talk, the issues they’re concerned with, etc. I can also visit the Writing With Color blog which does a great job speaking to how to present people of color and how certain habits like using food names as colors (ex. Chocolate, mocha, nutmeg) may be perceived.
Here’s a link:
What Am I Doing?
I’m not very far up the writer ladder. I’ve got a few short stories out/coming out and I’m working on my book. In each project, I’ve featured people of color. I’m not comfortable writing stories like “growing up black in Harlem”, but I try to be mindful of how that might influence my characters as they do whatever funky adventure I set them on. For my book, I keep a spreadsheet, that I fill in my characters as I invent them. I graph it, and as I notice it trending to off balance, I rework the character. What I find is that it forces me to research and learn. A black wizard from Pennsylvania needed me to read Wizard of the Crow by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. I’ve got to study up on Black Creoles for my cop. Another character is a Lakota Sioux. Amazing opportunities to learn about more cultures and I think the act of investing effort will make write better characters in general.
The Many Ways To Skin A Cat
I don’t have much need for a skinless cat, but if I googled it, I bet I’d find a lot of ways to get it done. It doesn’t seem productive to criticize the methods someone else prefers, unless there’s been some solid research. At this point, I think you get the gist of my metaphor. I’d love to get to a point where nobody really notices who’s cast as who because it’s well done and fair. I know the universe ain’t fair, but wouldn’t that be a noble outcome of humankind exerting its will.