Let me begin by saying that I am a walking example of diversity, of intersectionality. I am a queer, disabled, aboriginal, woman. These are my primary identities. I like them. I find it funny that some people think specific identities are bad things. Coming from someone else they can be. If someone identified my as “that disabled woman”, hell yes I would be angry. So when I describe myself in the terms above, people go out of their way to assure me that they only see me as a person.
Which is great, don’t get me wrong. The principle is awesome. But it simply doesn’t apply when I am self-identifying. Am I simply April? Of course. But April is made up of her experiences as a queer, aboriginal, disabled woman. So when I came across this article “The Trouble With Non-Diverse Journalists Writing for a Diverse Audience”, I was kind of surprised. I didn’t think anyone needed to be told what the trouble with that is. It was obvious to me. But I read the piece anyway because I’m interested in the topic of diversity in writing.
While the article focuses on journalists, I think it applies just as much to any writer. Ruchika Tulshyan opens with a story about her reaction to a 2010 TIME article complaining about Indian immigration to a small town in New Jersey, which included charming references such as “dot heads”. Tulshyan then moves on to a more recent piece on Shonda Rhimes in which the author refers to Rhimes as an “angry black woman.” Sigh.
Stein may have thought he was being humourous. Stanley may have thought she was paying tribute to Rhimes’ contributions to society. What they both were actually doing is perpetuating stereotypes. It’s disturbing that these articles made it through the checks and balances of the editorial process, but it doesn’t surprise me that they were written. Diversity in the news room, Tulshyan says, would likely have prevented this. The same principle exists in reading as well.
Authors often have tunnel vision about their work, and have a difficult picking out problematic aspects of their stories. You may think you’re paying tribute when your character wears a head-dress, but you are not. That’s cultural appropriation and may alienate a lot of readers. It can be prevented, however, through the beta reading process.
I encourage authors to have multiple beta readers. And here are my thoughts on who they should be:
– Ideally one person who is familiar with the genre you are writing in, and one who is not.
– Someone to focus solely on typos, spelling, grammar
– Another to focus on plot and characterization.
– If you are using any aspect of diversity that you are not a part of, find a person who is and ask them to beta read.
I’m a bit of a snob, I must admit. I totally judge people who write about cultures they have no lived in or with. And I know that’s incredibly unfair of me, and I am trying to break myself of the habit. But usually it’s obvious in the writing when someone doesn’t have a clue about How Things Work. It makes me angry because I feel like I’m being told that “This is what a [queer], [aboriginal], [disabled] [woman]’s life is like. This is what she is and this is her perspective” and no one wants to be told that.
Ultimately, if you can’t or won’t get a beta reader to ok your text from a cultural perspective or at least give you some cultural context, there is one other thing you can do. Ask yourself if you would say it to someone’s face. If your story is all about poor, black kids in the “hood” and you are not one of them nor can you find someone who is, ask yourself if you would say to a black friend that “THIS is what life is like for poor black people.”
Chances are you wouldn’t be confident enough to say it out loud, so don’t imply it in your writing.