Axis of Diversity
Updated: Mar 2, 2021
One of the most impactful things Gene Roddenberry did for society was putting Nichelle Nichols on the bridge of the Enterprise. Countless statements by people of color attest to how encouraging it was to see someone like them in an important position on the ship. They went on to do great things. So I take it as proof that a white author can enact social change for the underrepresented by including them in important roles in fiction (and jobs, and art, etc).
What Do I Mean By Diversity
By the title, it can mean a lot of things. Let’s start with race. A lot of American fiction centers on white protagonists. Most of the cast will be white. Maybe there’s a single non-white character. Much like the bridge of Captain Kirk’s ship (okay, there was Uhura and Sulu).
This might model people’s existing social structures. Everybody at your birthday party is the same as you, but for the one or two friends who aren’t. Same thing at work. Which is probably where you met some of those friends to later invite to your party. Fiction has the power to normalize a different balance. Which in turn helps people visualize themselves and others in those roles.
Other Kinds of Diversity
My title implies an axis, and the prior example only focussed on race. But I was on Twitter one day, and somebody was asking for more representation of curly haired people. Is that a thing?
Yes. Black people notice that natural hair is seldom shown, let alone actually accepted in school or the workplace. Even white people with curly hair notice a preference for straight hair. So maybe we should consider diversity in hair types.
Gender and gender preference are another axis. I’m not defining it as well as the modern vernacular, but we see far more heroic male leads than female. Which is strange given that 52% of the population is female. Add to that LGBTQ+ characteristics and the combinations are more complex.
You might also consider culture and religion. A person isn’t just black. An affluent black person from Chicago does not have the same culture as a middle class black person from Atlanta. Religion adds another axis. I’ve encountered two instances where a person was from someplace that statistically would have meant they were of a specific religion, and turned out they were something unexpected. You know what they say about assumptions. I at least had the foresight to not let my assumptions influence my decisions.
But wait, there's more. What about disabilities and neural atypical people? Last week, I watched a video of an armless man holding an axe under his chin and splitting firewood, so the idea of who can't save the planet from aliens needs to change. Somebody on the autism spectrum can still cast spells and work to save humanity from zombies.
In fiction, we’re inventing people to fill roles. The hero, the mentor, the sidekick, the scoundrel, etc. We can consider each of these as attributes of the character. Having the goal of increasing diversity means reducing the predominance of certain attributes, particularly where a preponderance of prior works have already favored those attributes. Basically straight, white, males take the lion’s share of characters in published fiction.
Not All Roles are Equal
When I considered diversity in my projects, the first step was to list out my characters and their attributes in a spreadsheet. Then I could get counts and graph things. If my list includes every character, major, minor, good and bad, I could put all the women in minor roles and all the people of color as bad guys and the numbers would look like the most socially progressive story ever. But that’s not how it will be interpreted when the public sees it. Just as race, gender, preference all matter to people (and notice that the people who disagree tend to argue when favoring slants away from straight white male), We should consider what being predominantly cast in a minor, servant or villain role does to their self image.
As part of our effort to have a child, we took many steps down the adoption path. One thing we learned is the higher availability of children of color for adoption and a common issue when raised in a white family. The family would go to a restaurant or see a lawn crew, and the child saw themselves in those jobs, not the jobs of their family. Kids need to see themselves as the hero, as the president, as the good guy and actual demonstrations of such matter.
Stories are part of how we show people the world and the roles they can play in it. So part of that spreadsheet I use needs to graph things out by like a Dungeons and Dragons alignment grid:
Major Good Major Neutral Major Evil
Minor Good Minor Neutral Minor Evil
Choosing the Ratios
A simple problem for me is that as I write and need a new person to enter the room, it may be a straight white male. Pretty quickly, the story is looking like The Thing (Good movie, but literally, all men, one black guy). I accept that a draft may have some inconsiderate stuff in it. That’s why we edit, to become better than that.
I also recognize that some stories really are just four white guys. I can’t make you change your story, either. But we can pause and challenge ourselves. One author justified her story being all white people because where she’s from is all white people. Except for the little detail she missed of all the Native American people in her town. Oh snap! I don’t condone dog-piling on such short-mindedness, but you know, don’t be a dumb ass. Use your eyes and look at the people. All the people.
Personally, I aim to have less than 50% of the characters be male. Less than half be white. Getting closer to an equal percentage by race is nice, but tricky. I can also tell you I fail every time. Writing a story isn’t about metrics. And everytime I make an adjustment to a character, I risk other issues. We’ll get to those. It may also be possible to have everyone be different and seem unnatural, forced.
Caveats and Pitfalls
I think the smartest tactic a writer could have is to not talk about how they plan diversity and just do it. Nobody said I was smart. Revealing how the sausage is made invites complaining. Telling a good story that appeals to a diverse audience will get the job done. That said, there are negative tropes and traps that you can get into. Here’s a few:
I heard somewhere that “stereotypes are a first order approximation.” I suppose that’s true. But also, no demographic is a mono-culture. Black people are not all the same. Gay people are not all the same. Whatever memorable character that is set in your mind of how they are, is ultimately, just how that character is.
A simple trick is to do the opposite of what you think the stereotype is. But first, research stereotypes on the demographic. If you know what’s considered a stereotype, it’s easier to understand how much that pervades your original understanding of the people. Particularly in what may be considered offensive depictions.
This is a hard one. Adding diverse demographics to score points on a spreadsheet is a form of tokenism. You heard right, that spreadsheet of mine could lead to tokenism. Normally, we see this in the form of an all white cast and then one character is black or gay (or both for a double-score).
I’ve a number of ideas to diminish this. Make more characters not-white. Give major roles to minorities. It’s hard to be a token black guy when you are the star of the show. Treat these characters with respect and give them important things to do.
This is where the white hero ends up in the land of not-white people who need his help because they can’t do it themselves. It’s a bad look, but it’s also easy to fall into when the hero is white and other people aren’t. Which starts to sound like the answer is make everybody be white. It’s not.
Only having one MC (who’s white) can be a problem. Give them a partner of color who is equally capable of contributing. Beef up the people who need help so the hero is contributing to a solution the competent natives are handling. A simple solution is to not set the problem as a uniform community that needs the outsider to inspire and put in superhuman effort to solve. Make the people with the problem be fully realized and set the focus on them. It's their story.
Black Guy Dies First
Ice Cube was the first black man to not die in a horror movie. Because the white characters are the mains, everybody else is sacrificial, which means the black guy is gonna die. This is easy to fall into, but also easy to avoid. Make some of the main characters not be white. Kill the white guy first.
Flipping the script is needed, because of decades of negative tropes like this being built up. If a black guy can’t die first for the next fifty years, blame the writers who came before you.
Black + White
I think setting up relationships with black and white characters began as part of the civil rights struggle as interracial marriage was illegal. It’s also shorthand for “see, we can get along.” But, there are fewer instances of black and black relationships and black audiences are noticing.
I can’t tell you what to do about this. But knowing a demographic has expressed concern, means it’s something to think about and research.
Bigotry and The Struggle
Among Black authors, there’s consideration that not every story they make needs to be about The Struggle or include racism. Stories that show them how things could be better are important. As a not-Black writer, it’s potentially taboo to be writing specifically about Black characters facing The Struggle. In literary fiction, it’s not something we need to be writing when actual Black authors who live it are doing it. That’s not to say that you can’t write those characters who have experienced bigotry, perhaps even in the story. But the story should probably not be about The Struggle.
Along the lines of showing how we can be better, future or fantasy settings do not need to recreate the racism of our time. This kind of fiction isn’t escapist. It’s modeling the end goal of ending bigotry and what that can look like.
Ignore the Back Talk
There’s gonna be people tossing out SJW and Virtue Signalling which are really meant to make you stop trying. Ignore them. By all means, you can keep writing stories with all white people in it. It’s safe. Except for adding to the monotony of yet another non-inclusive book to the Library of Congress. Or you might get called out for making yet another tale of all white people. I didn’t know writing was about playing it safe.
I know black people who love Harry Potter, despite not being represented in it. It sits uneasy in a corner of their mind. Maybe they’d like that same idea written by a Black author with predominantly Black characters. But I can’t write that book. But I can write a book that if it became the next Harry Potter, tried a bit harder to represent the diversity of the readership. You can, too.
Diverse Characters Leads to New Ideas
Every time I make a character who isn’t a straight white male, I get to do research. Lt. Lavert is Black Creole. Other than a sense of what her accent sounds like, I need to research that. Rain Wanase-Rune is Lakota. What was it like growing up on the reservation? What events and celebrations were important to her? What did she give up in leaving for Houston? That’s far more complex than white woman moving to the big city, because we’ve seen that movie before.
My plot isn’t about any of those things, but it’s background that informs how the character responds and what they value. If I make a change to a character after the draft is done, I have to account for that in the writing. But that’s true of any major change. People balk at this while all other things in a story can change, race and gender are immutable. It’s data in a word processor. It can all change until I’m done with it.
Is That All?
This is a longer article, and I’ve barely introduced the subject. Not everything I’ve said is correct or complete. That’s the start of the journey. There’s untold benefits from diversifying your work. It’s harder. You’ll make mistakes. You’ll learn something.
Here’s a few handy links that’ll help: