In case you haven’t been paying attention over the past year, let me fill you in. There has been a rising awareness of the need for better representation of diversity in books. Just check out the WeNeedDiverseBooks site or the Tumblr and you’ll see what I mean.
This topic has been on my mind a lot lately. I spent the month of April participating in CampNanowrimo and gave myself the goal of revising my thesis manuscript.
Unlike in the real world, race doesn’t matter in my fantasy world. In my world, people only care about what caste you belong to and race has absolutely zero role in this. My two main characters belong to the middle caste and have always had physical traits that closely resembled that of Hispanics or Native Americans.
I thought I had done a good job making a diverse book.
Then I started revising and took notice of a side character. My revision came to a hard stop as I struggled with how to handle this character. This character (the best friend of my MC) is a crucial person in the plot and a badass swordsmith who can tap into magic…and I realized that when I wrote her the first time my brain defaulted her to a blond, blue-eyed, white girl. (For the record, I am not blond nor blue-eyed though I have been told that I “pass for white.” Whatever the heck that means.)
I decided to go with the idea of creating more diversity and make her look more African or Australian Aboriginal. After all, why should white be the default since skin color doesn’t matter in my world…but the caste system does, and this best friend character is a lower caste… uh oh.
Now, I was stuck on whether I should change her after all… because I just knew someone in the real world would be offended that I made the dark skinned girl and her family an inferior rank.
At this point, I did what any good writer would do. I reached out to my network of fellow writers explained my situation and asked the following three things:
1) Am I over-thinking?
2) Can the issue of how to correctly add diverse characters really be over-thought?
3) Should I leave the friend default white/blond or make her diverse?
I got the standard “reassurance” that this is my book and that no matter what I do or write someone somewhere is going to be offended.
Some people mentioned feeling the same concerns about offending people in their writings. Others supported the idea that diversity in books is always fantastic and it’s even our moral responsibility as writers to do our part to make diversity happen.
I had one suggestion to keep the character white, “othering” the white character for once.
One person approved of making the character have aboriginal physical traits… then warned to not do the Magical Negro trope.
I’d never even heard of this!
I now worried that not only would people accuse me of writing a “Black Slave” character, but they would also be offended because I wrote a “Magical Negro.” After this, I was left wondering if it was too late to go for a math degree instead of my MFA.
I was just about ready to scrap the whole manuscript.
Then I got three specific bits of advice that helped me.
Rhonda Jackson Joseph eased my worry that I was over-thinking the issue by reminding me that it’s important to have “the consciousness that says some folks should be different to give your story depth. That awareness is more than half the battle.”
Valerie Burns eased my fear about the “Magical Negro” trope, stating she “would not be offended if the [magical] swordsmith is a person of color as long as she is a badass and interesting.”
Then Danielle Hinesly suggested I watch a TEDtalk titled “The Boundaries We Choose.”
If you haven’t seen this talk, you must watch it.
Suddenly, I knew what to do.
Race doesn’t matter to my characters.
I have both “white” and “diverse” characters in all the varying ranks. It doesn’t matter in the world I created.
But the need for diversity does matter in our world.
In the end, I revised my character and I feel good that I’ve made both my fantasy world and my real world a little more diverse.
I want to wrap up this post by sharing a poem I read back in high school.
Tableau by Countee Cullen
Locked arm in arm they cross the way
The black boy and the white,
The golden splendor of the day
The sable pride of night.
From lowered blinds the dark folk stare
And here the fair folk talk,
Indignant that these two should dare
In unison to walk.
Oblivious to look and word
They pass, and see no wonder
That lightning brilliant as a sword
Should blaze the path of thunder.
It is my most sincere hope that someday people will look upon diverse books and characters and “see no wonder.”