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Diversity in Writing

medievalpoc:

elloellenoh:

I did this post for Write on Com. Figured it would be worth sharing here also.

Diversity in Writing

by author Ellen Oh

Recently, I was part of a conversation where an author said the following: “But there’s been a lot of anger from some quarters about “appropriation” and “exoticism” … I’m terrified of incurring the kind of wrath I’ve seen online, and have decided I’m not qualified to tackle diversity head on.”

Guys, if this is you, then I want to talk to you about why it is okay to “tackle diversity.” If you are the type to say, “Yes, I want to include diversity! I just don’t know how.” I want to talk to you too, because there are right ways and wrong ways to do it. But mostly I want to tell you how important it is that you all are trying. Thank you for that. Because I was once that little girl scanning through the books desperately looking for someone like me, who wasn’t a stereotype. And now I have kids who are doing the same thing. Thank you for wanting to have this conversation.

But if you are scared about being called out for including diversity in your book, then wake up and smell the diapers, children, because you are not going to be able to make everybody happy. Someone somewhere is going to be offended for something you wrote and for a reason that you never intended! You wrote a girl empowerment book? How dare you put down feminine girls! You wrote about sexual exploitation? How dare you write a slut shaming book! You wrote a POC main character? How dare you white person try and exploit minorities!

Look, I’m Korean American and I wrote a fantasy book based in ancient Korea. I studied it for 10 years on top of all that I knew from being raised by Korean immigrants. And yet I had plenty of people bash me for getting things “wrong” about Korean culture in my book – and most of them weren’t even Korean! So the one thing I can promise you with absolute assurance is, someone somewhere is going to be irate at you for writing. Whether it is the fact that you wrote a POC character or the fact that you are posing in your author picture with a hand to your cheek, someone is going to hate you for something. Listen, you are not ever going to make everyone happy. That’s just human nature. I bet someone out there is reading this post right now and pissed off at me just because they don’t like my face. What can you do? You can start not caring about making everybody happy.

Now writing about POC is a bit different in that most people are afraid of being called a racist. So they avoid diversity because of it. However, let me reassure you that by not including diversity, you are also being called a racist. Maybe not to your face, but you are. And guess what? Being called a racist is nowhere near as painful as dealing with actual racism.

Now that I have freed you from the fear of being reviled on the internet, let’s talk about a few things that you need to keep in mind:

  1. Do your research and be respectful. Don’t culturally appropriate from POC and then claim that your world is different therefore you can do whatever the hell you want with it. Call your world whatever you want, but if your world looks and sounds like China, and you even use Chinese words and architecture and terms specific to that culture, then don’t pretend it’s not China and mix us up with every other Asian culture. It just reeks of sloppy research and not giving a damn. If you want your world to feel Asian without specifically calling out a specific country, it can be done – see Eon/Eona. See The Last Airbender series.
  2. Avoid stereotypes. There are many. The magical negro, the blonde bimbo, the smart Asian math whiz, the ghetto talking black kid, the feisty Latina, the Asian dragon lady, the cryptic but wise Native American, the uppercrusty WASP, etc. Using stereotypes is lazy writing. You don’t want to invest in your character’s development to go beyond an easily recognizable trope. Don’t do this.
  3. Exotification of another culture. “But remember, there are two ways to dehumanize someone: by dismissing them, and by idolizing them.” ? David Wong. I think the context of this quote was about women and how men view them. But it works well in this context also. If you don’t include POC in your book, you are dismissing them. If you do include POC but make them exotic and other-worldish, you are going the other way. Neither is acceptable.
  4. Check your privilege. Don’t get mad that I used the “P” word. I know privilege can be a touchy subject. Asking you to be aware of your privilege is not the same as calling you a racist. What I’m doing is asking you to be aware of it. If you are a female, then you know that male privilege is very real. Take what you understand as male privilege and make a correlation to white privilege and you will see what I mean. And if it helps, read this: http://ted.coe.wayne.edu/ele3600/mcintosh.html
  5. Reach out to minorities for help.  If you know nothing about the culture that you want to include in your book, then reach out for help. Yes, you can find a lot of information on the internet, but some things you can only learn from people who live that culture 24/7.

It won’t be easy, and it shouldn’t be! You will probably make mistakes. And that’s ok! You’ll learn from them and you will fail less and less the more you try. But the most important thing is that you try. Because you are writing for kids. All our kids! And they need to see that their books can reflect their world.

What I appreciate the most about this post is how it gels with the most recent convo about cultural appropriation I had. All too often I get asks that boil down to “How can I avoid, prevent, or circumvent people calling out my writing if it’s racist?”

The answer is, obviously, you can’t. People will respond to what you write, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t control that. And if that makes you uncomfortable, well, I’ll just reiterate: being called racist isn’t comparable to actually having to deal with racism.

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