I make it no secret that I am an advocate for diversity in fiction, whether it’s fantasy or contemporary. It’s an uphill climb for proper representation and good storytelling within the same bounded pages. My philosophy is based on the real world, where gay, handicap and people of color EXIST. I came across a few books that inspired this latest rant and set my teeth on edge, but it served as a perfect example of what NOT to do as a writer. I won’t name names, but those who follow my tweets know what book series I’m talking about. But I wanted to share my displeasure with you and let out some steam, because I’m feeling pretty class-A felony right about now.
So here’s the thing, if you’re writing a character who takes on interests/ mannerisms/ colloquialisms commonly seen in another ethnic group, then you better have a legit reason for it!
For example, if you have a white guy who does martial arts, speaks Japanese, eats food with chop sticks, and watches nothing but Kung Fu and anime, then it would probably be a good idea to have him associated with someone Asian. Not just some minor character with about two lines in the entire book, but a key contributor to the plot. Having an all-white cast is not only unrealistic, it insults the culture you’re trying to hijack.
I’ve seen this many times in several stories, but I’ve never seen such blatant exploitation of a culture put to print. In real life, if a white girl uses urban slang and dresses a certain way, odds are she has black or Hispanic friends that influence her style. She’s probably dated someone out of her race and likely has a specific preference of men she’s attracted to. Whether this is socially acceptable or not is irrelevant, but that is how it usually works out. People are influence by their environment and the company they keep.
Here’s a tip: Don’t let the media be your character research. Do your homework and talk to real people.
For the sake of ratings, the media takes a small margin, usually the loudest and most unsavory elements of a social group, and magnifies it to the extreme. Those unfamiliar with the difference take their cues from what they see and go from there. This is ignorance at its laziest.
Example: I’ve seen preppy boys with baggy pants (which is ridiculous no matter who’s wearing it) and blasting hip hop and throwing gang signs, yet they don’t have a single ethnic friend to tell them to cut that shit out. I’m not just talking about white people. African Americans have always had a soft spot for Japanese culture, rooting back to the Kung Fu, Bruce Lee movies in the 70’s. The rap group Wu Tang Clan was a big thing in the 90’s, but how many Asians had they befriended or had in their entourage?
In writing, this “culture theft” strikes a particular nerve for me, because the playing field is already racially one-sided, and taking one’s identity without the color is insulting and offensive. It’s worse than stereotyping a character; it’s putting on “blackface” for the reader. The sad part is that some authors don’t even realize they’re doing this, or try to brush it off as a non-issue because their characters aren’t using derogatory slurs. This is ignorance at its worst.
Writing a character of a different race or sexual orientation is not as hard as it seems. A simple description or a passing mention of that attribute is good enough and then keep it moving with a universal character arch. Slang and idioms are not necessary and should be used sparingly in any case. The only challenge is writing a character from another country where the speech and traditions may be different, so research is a must.
I know some authors who don’t determine the race of their characters until the end of the book, which is the best way to go about it, because race is not what makes a person, whether real or fiction. But integration without representation is disrespectful, a clear sign of a careless writer, and a surefire way to piss people off.