Blogging · Writing

Misrepresentation vs No Representation: Would You Rather Have Toxic Rep Or None?

Before I get into the post, I want to link to my lovely friend CW’s: she wrote a similar one a bit ago, and it’s really well written. Some of our main points are perhaps a bit too similar. That was not my intention in writing this post, and this post is in no way intentionally plagiarizing that one at all, and I let her know I wrote this post to make sure nothing got out of hand. But I realize now because of talking with her that though the idea of this post was mine from a while ago, just like many others have opinions on this, I saw her post, and then wrote this one, subconsciously included main points from hers in a way that is not just inspiration, but could be considered plagiarism. I feel terrible about this. Cw and I have discussed this, but I am putting this out there so you all know. 

To start off this post, I wanted to discuss something related to the title, but a little bit different.

I’ve seen a lot of people saying including diversity in books is a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” kind of thing. That’s so, so not true, and it hurts to read.

Why? Let me explain.

If your editor/agent/beta reader told you your book’s writing needed work or their was a plot hole THERE, you wouldn’t get angry and defensive. You’d fix it. But when it’s an issue of harmful representation, authors DO get angry and defensive.

Why is that when it comes to including diversity – i.e, you included harmful or no representation in your book-the critique becomes a problem and is referred to as an attack? You need to apologize, and fix whatever is problematic in your book.  Not yell at the people who noticed it.

The “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” attitude really bothers me. If you put the time in to improve a character arc or make your world more realistix, why can’t you put in the time to write a character of color, an LGBTQIAP+ character, an aneurotypical or disabled character, or any other marginalized character?  There’s no excuse not to include diverse characters in your book to reflect the incredibly diverse world around us, and “historical accuracy” is quite often not a legitimate one. There’s also no excuse for harmful representation in your book. Do your research. Hire beta readers of that sexuality/gender/race/etc. When there’s a problem, fix it.

Whenever you find yourself saying, “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”, please remember what I said above. Respectful representation matters.

I talked about that a lot in THIS POST, if you’d like to give it a read. This thread on Twitter (not by me) is great too. In this thread, I talk about how to not write racist books. Writers, please read and learn from it.

I, as well as the many other people wanting everyone to be represented in literature, am not saying books cannot be written about cisgender, white, heterosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical characters. I AM saying that if all of your book’s characters are like that, there is a problem. We are overwhelmed with stories about those characters. Let’s read and talk about others too.

Now on to the real topic of this post.

Since so many people have that mentality, a lot of books are written with either no representation or harmful representation.

And both of those hurt marginalized people in different ways.

I personally think misrepresentation is just as bad as none. It HURTS to see stereotypical characters more than it hurts to see none, but that’s me. Stereotypes and clichés and token characters and bad representation hurt me more than no representation. While of course I would rather have respectful, correct, non-stereotypical representation, I’d rather read a book with no representation than a book with a harmful representation of me or others.

I asked my followers on Twitter about their opinions, and received a lot of different ones that surprised me because they’re not ones I share, but ones I of course respect all the same. I ran a poll and got these results.

The question in my tweet was: Would you rather your facets of diversity be represented in a book problematically or not at all? 

30% of people chose ‘problematically’, but the majority of 70% chose not at all.

A few responses from people who chose not at all:

“Negative representation are more painful than no rep.”

“People say [misrepresentation is] for “learning” but please, the only way we can overcome and progress is by going past such stereotypes.”

“If an author cannot represent a group or people accurately, they should leave them out. It wasn’t meant to be… Some stories are not ours to tell…”

“I’d rather be invisible than insulted.”

And then people who chose misrepresentation:

“I said ‘problematically’ because historically South Asians are just erased from diversity [or] groups that white people write. So at least it’d get people talking about the fact that we’re here. I can see it being a bad choice, though, for groups that *are* often represented, just very poorly.”

“Problematically. I’m so used to stereotypes at this point that there’s nothing I can really do.”

“It was a close thing for me but ultimately bad rep sets expectations and fails to meet them unlike books with no rep at all.”

While I tend to agree with the former opinion, because that’s what hurts ME more, the latter is incredibly valid as well, and it makes me sad: It’s truly not that difficult to include diversity respectfully and non-stereotypically. Neither of these are ‘good’ options: both can hurt people of all ages in a lot of ways. Both have hurt me. Both have real-life, harmful effects. I am in no way saying that no representation or no diversity is okay, because it’s so, so not, but neither is harmful rep. Do better, authors. You can.

Books are being published more often than you realize with harmful mindsets or comments that YOU might not pick up on, but others will, and it will hurt them. We all need to do our part to prevent that. Adhering to ideas like “All Muslims are terrorists” is incredibly harmful, and is just as hurtful as misrepresentation is. Comments like that, no matter how small, HURT, and we need to stop it.

Things you should not do regarding diversity in your novel:

-include a stereotypical representation of any marginalized identity

-include a harmful representation of any marginalized identity

-mention a “diverse character” once and then never bring them up again

-include no diversity at all and make your entire cast white, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, or any other standards that have become (disgustingly) “normalized” in this world

-not use multiple beta readers OF THAT EXACT IDENTITY to critique your book (and, on this note:

-become upset when someone does critique your book for harmful rep)

-say “I just won’t write at all now that everyone needs diversity”. I’ve seen this. It’s disgusting

If you can include fairies or vampires or mermaids in your book, you can do the research to represent other identities respectfully as well. 

There is a reason people are wanting diversity in literature. In fact, there are many, but the one that stands out the most to me is so they can see themselves reflected in books. I talk about this a lot more in my diversity post I linked to earlier. If you are trying to silence these voices… It’s not okay. Wanting diversity should not be as big a deal or a controversial topic as it is. The world around us is rich and vibrant with people of all kinds, and that must be reflected in the books we read. 

And something else: In this community where more and more people are clamoring for diverse books, if you think that people calling out problematic things are “annoying” or “attacking someone” or “stirring up drama”… I’m sorry that you can’t understand that these things hurt people, and your comments make you seem like you don’t care even though you might. Criticism does not equal attacking, and discussion does not equal harassment. There is a huge difference, and I see a lot of people thinking they are the same. You need to recognize that if you get called out for something offensive, and apologize for what you said, because it DID harm someone. ❤

All this is to say, in my very long-winded way, that neither no representation or misrepresentation is okay. I AM curious to see what you’d rather read, though of course I’d rather every identity be represented AND represented kindly and we. We need to do better: as writers, by writing diverse books, as bloggers, by promoting those books, and as readers, by reading those books.

What are your thoughts? Would you rather have no representation or harmful/misrepresentation in literature of your different facets of diversity? As a writer, how are you including diversity in your book? (I hope you are!) As a blogger, how are you spotlighting diverse and #ownvoices books? (It would be great if you could!) As a reader (or blogger) are you reading diverse and #ownvoices books? (Please do!) What are a few books you feel have portrayed your specific marginalization(s) well? If you recommend them, I’d love to read them. Let’s discuss! (Let’s be respectful as well. Thinking diversity “doesn’t matter” is a harmful mindset, and you might not realize that.)

Thanks for reading!

Ava

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21 thoughts on “Misrepresentation vs No Representation: Would You Rather Have Toxic Rep Or None?

  1. Hey there,

    I think this is a great post that raises a lot of valid points, so thanks for writing it, but in my opinion I feel it’s better not to write about Diversity IF (and it’s a big IF there) a writer is unwilling to learn about group X in question or if the writer in question is unwilling to accept criticism AND be willing to change their writing and/or novel in response to members of group X raising valid concerns or criticisms. I personally feel that, as long as the writer in question is open to criticism from a member of group X and is willing to accept that criticism without hostility or getting defensive about it, there’s potential there, but this will all of course depend on the individual story and the diversity group in question.

    As a white Australian, there are just some stories I can’t write about and I think writers just have to accept that (I also feel this way about whole heap of other topics as well, but don’t get me started, we’ll be here for days), but as a white Australian, I do feel it’s my responsibility to raise awareness/draw attention to diverse authors and the #ownvoices tag. However, as a white Australian, I do feel it’s possible to write characters who are diverse, so long as I’m careful about not making the character ALL about their diversity. I prefer to focus character first, diversity second (if this makes sense?). My apologies if any of this has come across as offensive.

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  2. This was such a great post Ava! I think marginalised groups are so used to dealing with stereotypes and are so desperate to see themselves in books that some people will settle with misrepresentation just to have a chance to relate to characters for once. There has been so much progress made lately but it’s no where near what we need and *sigh*, hopefully authors will figure out that if they do diversity right, there isn’t anything to be afraid of.

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  3. This is such a great post with so much research and sources. I absolutely love the amount of effort I can see has gone into this post. I think I’ve always leant more towards misrepresentation but then again as a straight white person what would I know about misrepresentation. I mean, if you were writing a story about a gay character, for example, I’m not of the belief that means you have to be one yourself but I wouldn’t absolutely get it checked over by a selection of gay people to ensure it’s not offensive or harmful and I considered this common sense. Apparently this isn’t. So, I guess that’s how misrepresentation slips in. That, and lack of research. I hope if I ever publish a book it would have accurate representation of diverse characters and from that point of view, as a writer, I’d rather not write a diverse book at all then to have misrepresentation in my book. As a reader though, I’d almost rather have misrepresentation over none at all. It’s an interesting thing and you’ve written a gorgeous post about.

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  4. This is a difficult question, but ultimately I’d rather no representation than misrepresentation. I think misrepresentation is more harmful because then people read it and believe and it think that’s really what it’s like. And then they form completely incorrect opinions/understandings. I mean, they might already have incorrect opinions/understandings, but reading a book about it only, like, solidifies them.

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  5. First off, this was a fantastic post that did a marvellous job of describing the problem in detail without being negative or seemingly “attacking.” It was very pro-active and I love that. Now, to answer your question, as a South Asian-Pacific Islander, I much prefer to NOT have any representation at all. Stereotypes and terrible misconceptions about my race and ethnicity don’t just affect people’s perspectives as a reader, but also the real world opinions, where such misconceptions can be used against you in important situations. Such as job interviews. If there’s a misconception out there that because I’m an Indian, I’m automatically going to have terrible English and be a crook, no one will want to hire me. They won’t bother to get to know me first, or even glance at my credentials; it’s what’s been expelled out into the world that will flood their decision first and foremost. It affects you in educational institutions. Teachers will you see you as an Asian and automatically assume that you’re super intelligent in terms of math, or science. While I understand science very well, I fucking suck at math. That added, unnecessary pressure only makes it more difficult for me to be successful because my success isn’t based on my individual capabilities, but the cloud of misconception that follows my ethnicity. Don’t even get me started on the “Bollywood” mocks that seems to have made its way to Western entertainment circuits as of late. These misconceptions are perpetuated by poor and shitty representation in media, whether it be books, films, tele, etc. This is NOT OKAY. If I am invisible, then at least when I do start to take form, when my shape steps into the light, it will be MY OWN IMAGE. Not some terribly rude, offensive, and irrelevant mask that’s been forcefully placed over my face. Not being represented at all does make it to where we may be construed as non-existent, but for me personally, non-existent is much better than to be constantly questioned about my choices, intellect, etc. everywhere I go simply due to the fact that there’s these delusions out there in the world because someone was too lazy to educate themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh, this is a tough one, actually because I was about to say “no representation” but then I do kind of agree with that commenter that said at least if there is misrepresentation going out, it provokes discussion and maybe will get #ownvoices authors inspired to put out their stories and also for the non-ownvoices authors to learn how to do it better. But I mean, agh, that’s a really bad way to promote change still??? It’s always harmful to promote bad stereotypes.

    I do feel very insulted when I see minority/diversity rep that I do know a lot about (either having lived it or knowing people who have) done badly. It is super disheartening.

    And YES absolutely!! I love reading diverse books and the last few years of being a book blogger have really opened my eyes to trying to read more #ownvoices books and just being so much more aware of promoting/cheering on books that have good diverse rep.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s interesting because I’ve received a lot of comments from people with both opinions- it’s also sad to think so many people have to settle for no rep or bad rep! Yes, I see what you’re saying about the critiques that will hopefully change things, but what if they hurt marginalized readers? It’s a lose/lose situation, honestly, and it’s disappointing.

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  7. I think this is a really important topic and I’m glad you brought it up. I think I personally have mixed feelings about it myself. Because yes there are blatant misrepresentations, where I say to myself if you aren’t going to do it right then don’t do it at all, because that’s just rude. Then I find there are other times when I think some people may call it a misrepresentation, when it could just not represent them. Not all people of an ethnic group are all going to relate the same because every one is different. The same goes for people with different sexual orientations or religious view whatever it may be. No matter how you group yourself, you may not have made the same life choices or looked at something the same way. Even if they do identify in a similar way. It’s so individual, but I also think the author needs to do some research and not just use a stereotype. In the end I loved this post because it made me think and I think it’s a good discussion to have.

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  8. i’m speechless to the amazingless that is this post. really. ❤️
    “Muslims are terrorists.” what a stupid thing to say, a stupid stereotype. i’m a Muslim, i know Islam very well, and one of the BIGGEST thing Islam is AGAINST is terrorism.
    there was a book some publisher was releasing, i don’t remember when, but it talked about a Muslim who became a terrorist, and the author claimed it as his FATE? as WHAT HE SHOULD BE?! i was HURT, SAD. i couldn’t believe it. people actually thought like that? i live in a Muslim country, but i didn’t realize what some people thought of us (outside where i live), until the day i knew about that book. it’s just…mean.
    from that day, i decided i’d read more diverse books. write about MY RELIGION how it SHOULD BE WRITTEN. write about other cultures, skin colors, and about every marginalized type of human being. i decided i’m tired of being silent. i worked on several posts about diversity (i only posted some of them lately though). and i realized i hadn’t read many diverse books. so i started to read more. i read a lot of amazing novels: THE GIRL FROM EVERYWHERE, SIMON VS. THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA, EVERYTHING LEADS TO YOU, SIX OF CROWS, and a lot of other books. i requested diverse upcoming releases on Netgalley and Edelweiss (well, i can’t get a physical ARC because i don’t live in the US), and got accepted for HOW TO MAKE A WISH (which i’m super excited about) and GET IT TOGETHER, DELILAH! (which is by an AUSTRALIAN author and it looks super good).
    one of my top resolutions for the next year is to read more diverse books. and i’m determined to do so.

    xoxo

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Aww, maha! Thank you! <333 and I remember seeing that book around a while ago, and it made me so, so unbelievably upset. And I couldn't imagine how my Muslim friends (like you) felt. I'm so happy you started reading more diversely, though! I've loved three out of four of the books you mentioned, and the fourth (everything leads to you) is on my 'need to read now' tbr! Ohmygosh, HOW TO MAKE A WISH is incredible, and I hope you love it as much as I did! That's one of my resolutions as well. ❤

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  9. Such an awesome and well written post! You said everything that I felt! I actually remember you polling that question. I can’t remember what I said – I am still so on the fence when it comes to harmful rep v. no rep at all. Both suck.
    “If you can include fairies or vampires or mermaids in your book, you can do the research I represent other identities respectfully as well.”
    So well put 👏🏿 I hear about authors doing all this research when they right about mythical characters or fantasy worlds – it works the same way for diversity! Here’s the thing about diversity for me: like you said, it’s really not that hard. Of course, for some cultures, or if you’re writing about a character with a disability (invisible or not) that may require more in-depth research. But when I want to see a black MC, I’m not asking for the book to be a history on every social injustice that character or his/her ancestor has experienced. I just want an awesome, fleshed out, interesting YA protagonist – that happens to be black!
    And honestly? Getting a beta reader of the same ethnicity/race/sexuality/disability, etc. seems like a no-brained to me. Why wouldn’t you do EVERYTHING in your power to create a well-represented story? And I hate it when authors can’t take criticisms about diversity like they can with any other problem involving a book, like a boring beginning, or a plot-hole. I get that you want to defend your book, it’s something you spent a long time on. But constructive criticisms are the only way you’re going to get better!
    I’m not perfect. I’m at fault too. I became a blogger less than six months ago, and before that I didn’t even read diverse books. I didn’t even know what #ownvoices meant! I’m a POC and I wasn’t supporting enough POC authors/characters. Thankfully, the blogging and book twitter has taught me differently. I still have so much diverse reading to catch up on, but I really loved The Summer of Chasing Mermaids by Sarah Ockler! It’s about a girl from Tobago, and although I’m not from there (but my mom is from the Caribbean) I thought the representation was really well done!
    Anyway, sorry for the super long comment! Awesome discussion ❤❤❤

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  10. I think diversity in books is great, but only if it is done accurately. I think people should write what they know. Asking ALL authors MUST include diverse characters makes an assumption that they can all do it accurately, and some just can’t. I would rather read a book done well then done to include diverse characters just for the sake of being inclusion. Not all books will appeal to all people. That has to be okay.

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