Going Over the Rainbow: The Diversity Dilema

GoingOver theRainbow (1)

Ever since BookCon 2014 diversity has become one of the new buzz words around the publishing industry and among writers. The #WeNeedDiverseBooks tag showed a massive outpouring of support and desire for diversity in children’s books. While at the time the movement was primarily focused on cultural diversity it has grown over the last couple of years to reflect the need for all kinds of diversity; racial, physical ability, mental illness, sexual orientation and gender identity, and not just in children’s books. While this has been needed for years and nearly everyone your meet acknowledges this to some degree, there has been some push-back. Some authors felt as though they were being forced to write characters that might not fit their stories.

Thus came the rise of tokenism, diversity quotas and many instances of misrepresentation as well meaning authors attempted to correct their lack of diversity. Others refused to add diverstiy, citing the fear of getting it wrong. While the We Need Diverse Books campaign is crucial in highlighting where the industry lacks, it has not helped authors write more diversely.

Writing with diversity is something that every author should strive for. Yet, there isn’t much out there to show you how to do so. I’ve mentioned before, there are some stories that are not ours to tell. Jami Gold had a very helpful blog post about writing more diversely and I myself have written about it in the past. Yet there still seems to be a lot of confusion about what it means and how to go about it.

Especially how to go about it.

So, to that end I’ve developed a worksheet that you will hopefully find helpful in writing more diversely without falling back on stereotypes or feeling as though you’re just filling a perceived quota. The following info graphic is a shorthand version of the worksheet and is something I hope you’ll find both useful and educational.

Diversity Graphic

The Diversity Double Check (Info-graphic text)

  • Are you part of the minority you are writing about? Yes or no?
    • Yes. Awesome. Keep up the good work. Your story needs to be told.
  • No? Do you have access to people who are part of this minority and are you willing to ask questions and do research? Yes or no?
    • No. Please reconsider your stance. Writing truly diverse characters comes from learning about others and being willing to set aside our own assumptions.
  • Yes. Good. You’re headed in the right direction. Now, is your character’s story directly related to their experience as a minority? Yes or no?
    • Yes. Please take a step back and think about why you feel qualified to write about this experience. This is not a situation where empathy can help you write authentically. In order to write this you must have experienced it.
  • No. Alright. Are they the only character in the story representing their minority? Yes or no?
    • Yes. Caution! Why is this the case? You need to have a very compelling reason for this otherwise you may not be showing true diversity.
  • No. Good. You are on your way to a diverse cast. Now, do they have a stereotypical background, occupation or role in the story? Yes or no?
    • Yes. Caution! Why is this the case? You need to have a very compelling reason for this otherwise you may not be showing true diversity.
  • No. Awesome. Last question. Do they die? Yes or no?
    • Yes. Caution! Why is this the case? You need to have a very compelling reason for this otherwise you may not be showing true diversity.
  • No. Fantastic. You are well on your way to a diverse and well represented cast.

The questionnaire worksheet was created to help you ensure your story is diverse without resorting to tokenism or filling a perceived quota. You might find the answers to some questions uncomfortable. All this means is that you’ve uncovered internalized bigotry. This is not a reflection on you, but on the culture and society in which you’ve been raised. Knowledge is the first step to overcoming this perceived default state.

Even those of us who are part of a minority often find ourselves defaulting to white straight cis-gendered characters simply because this is what we see the most. It will take work to overcome this. The worksheet will help you find ways to incorporate diversity into your story—not effortlessly—but hopefully, seamlessly.

It will start you off with big picture questions about your story as a whole, from there it will take you to character specifics to help you better grasp the ways in which to reflect diversity. Lastly, there are a couple of exercises to help you get your muse used to the idea of writing diverse characters. This is not a quick fix thing. You will have to work at this, just like any other aspect of writing. It will take practice and you are going to make mistakes. It is part of learning and being a writer. But, I know you can do it and it will be awesome.

Diversity Worksheet generic (PDF)

Diversity Worksheet generic (docx)

Do you have any questions about how to incorporate more diversity into your stories? Have you found writing diversely a challenge? What about it feels challenging to you? What other kinds of worksheets or help would you like to see from me?

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Going Over the Rainbow: Moving Beyond the LG in LGBT.

Growing up in small towns in the middle of the Midwest, I didn’t get much exposure to people of other races.  There was not a single African American at the school I went to and only one person of mixed race.  I also had no exposure to people who identified as different sexual orientations or gender identities. This meant I felt horribly out of place growing up. I was just weird. It’s taken twenty years, but I’ve finally found where I fit and understand myself. I’ve also learned a lot about others along the way.

Last month Jami Gold brought up the subject of diversity on her blog.  Diversity is a huge topic right now, and it should be. We need more diversity in every genre.  And by diversity I don’t just mean racially, but sexual orientation, gender identity, neurodivergence, physical ability, all of it. However, we need to when and how to add it so it fits and doesn’t feel tacked on. There is no quota, only authenticity.

This is a good thing when it comes to our characters, especially for characters with diverse elements, as there’s no definitive black, gay, disabled, whatever experience, and therefore there’s no “one right way” to portray those characters. There are, however, wrong ways to portray diversity.—Jami Gold, Writing Diversity: How Can We Avoid Issues?

In a follow up post, Jami also touched on research and being aware of the source of our information. There are plenty of resources on the internet but we need to be aware of who is supplying them and if they are actually part of the segment of the population they are writing about. This can make all the difference in whether or not our portrayal is authentic or othering.

Some stories simply are not ours to write.

Obviously, the most helpful thing we can do to support diversity within the publishing industry is to buy and help promote books from diverse authors. As I mentioned last time, there might be some stories that aren’t ours to tell, so we also need to encourage the success of those authors who can tell those stories.—Jami Gold, Digging into Research: Consider the Source

I write stories with queer* characters and yes many of them are not white, but their race and queerness is part of who they are and the stories are not about either. As a white person it is not my place to write a story about race or racism. It might happen in my stories, but it won’t be the focus because I have never had to deal with it the way so many others do. I cannot and will not write something when I know it is a subject that does not belong to me. No amount of creativity can replace experience with something like this.

And that leads me to the point of this post.  As a queer person I have noticed a lot of authors struggling to write authentically queer characters. The gay romance genre is stuck in the m/m cis white male, coming out trope (not that there is anything wrong with the trope, but … diversity would be nice ^^). That is only one small part of the entire spectrum. The rainbow flag is not the only flag out there. Whether you write romance or not, adding other orientations can only enrich your writing. When done properly.

Pride Flag Collage

Over the next several months I will be exploring each of the various sexual orientations and gender identities in an effort to help my fellow authors write with more diversity. I will be inviting people of other orientations and gender identities to offer their advice and experiences as well. I sincerely hope you find this of value and please feel free to ask questions.

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As always your comments and questions are welcomed below. 

*As someone who identifies as nonbinary and panromantic demisxual, I am comfortable using the term queer when describing myself or my characters. I am aware that many in the community still feel this is an insult. If you do not identify as part of the spectrum, please refrain from using the term.