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!