Happy to welcome Deborah Dixon, a passionate author, editor, and racial justice activist to talk a bit on Representation in Literature, a topic of importance and something I think many of us want to understand better so we can encourage the right sort of discussions and help bring about change. Please read on!
The issue of representation has become an important one in literature and throughout the entertainment industry. As an author and publisher of color, I am often asked to offer insight on how best to include characters of diverse backgrounds. Specifically, this means characters from minority or underrepresented groups, such as ethnic minorities, LGBTQIA+ persons, religious minorities, those with disabilities, and to some extent, socioeconomic minorities. In this article, I will use the term “minority” to refer to members of all of these groups.
First, my credentials: I am Jamaican, neurodivergent, and simultaneously a citizen of and immigrant to the United States, among other things. These credentials do matter, because the basis of a person’s regard for your opinion on these sensitive matters starts with your background. It isn’t the whole picture; not every minority person has the same breadth of experiences, and many majority members have been exposed to the problems that minority members face. Also, like anything else, background and privilege are nuanced. Even I have some sources of privilege: I am cisgender and not physically disabled.
Also valued is the nature of a writer’s privilege. I won’t discuss privilege and entitlement too much here, as there are plenty of resources on both, such as this exploration of the different elements of identity.
There are two primary reasons why representation is important: inclusivity and perception.
Seeing people who look, act, and experience life like them in media makes a person feel included in a society, and it reinforces positive views of themselves and what they can achieve in society. Also, members of other groups, especially majority groups, base their ideas of groups on what they see in the media. For example, a hiring manager who watches too many police procedurals might view candidates of minority races as having criminal tendencies.
For people who exist outside of these marginalized and underrepresented groups, it can be hard to imagine life with the experiences and hardships that minorities experience. Without those experiences, writing characters of diverse backgrounds can seem daunting.
A good start is to be cognizant of the problems that your character would face and when those problems would have to be addressed. People of minority groups are still people; we have similar needs and similar motivations. The main difference is in the ways that society and its structures are arrayed against any particular group.
Therefore, in some situations, it will be perfectly acceptable to write a minority character just as you would any other. If a character’s romantic relationships are never brought up, then their sexual orientation might be little more than a footnote. Likewise, a black student’s college career might be just like that of a white student if the college itself is diverse and tolerant.
However, if the character is placed in a situation where their identity would be a factor, then it would be irresponsible to overlook it. For example, a black character being pulled over by the police should be described as feeling exceptional anxiety over their possible treatment by the officers. Whether the writer feels that this is a legitimate fear is irrelevant; it is what black people experience, and it is a problem that we continue to battle. Any work that included a black character getting along famously with the police would be soundly ridiculed by the black community.
Also, it might be tempting to fall back on stereotypes, but these are harmful images that still negatively affect members of those minorities. Take, for example, the common use of Middle Eastern characters as villains, or the portrayal of Native Americans as oversexualized savages. If these are the characters that are being written, then we would rather not have them at all!
Remember that minority characters are not there to be “exotic” ornaments for your plot. One striking example I encountered as an editor was a white writer using an almost all-white cast who included an Asian woman as a manicurist. It was meant as a cheeky observation, but in practice, it supported yet another harmful stereotype, and it would have reinforced to readers that Asian woman are only fit to run nail salons.
Always Do the Research
There is plenty of first-hand material about the situations that minority groups face, and many companies, including mine, offer research specific to fiction writing. If you happen to know someone from the group that you are interested in writing about, then ask that person if they can offer any insight, and be prepared for them to possibly turn you down.
Finally, remember that this is a cultural exchange; you must offer something in return. Consider promoting minority authors. Don’t just tack on characters to be “diverse,” and don’t borrow elements from a group without context, such as European knights using scimitars because they’re “cool.”
For a well-known example of what not to do, observe J. K. Rowling’s approach to including Native Americans in the Potterverse. She combined the hundreds of Native American cultures into one homogenous “community,” reappropriated important cultural touchstones, and supported harmful narratives of Natives accepting white colonialism. Although she was called out on this, she has not publicly apologized or changed her approach.
The best recent example of representation being done right is a film: 2016’s The Accountant, in which the main character, played by Ben Affleck, is high-functioning autistic. While the character is written in a very predictable fashion—aural oversensitivity, emotional vacancy—Affleck’s performance provides nuance that elevates the entire story. It’s clear that he and his supporting cast did the research, and while the movie’s overall effect on the autistic community is debatable, many of us saw pieces of ourselves in its protagonist.
Although the entertainment industry at large is welcoming more content written by minority members, most stories that reach the mainstream are still ones written by the majority—white, straight people. The majority still has a much stronger voice. Use it to amplify positive portrayals of the people who need them the most.
As with anything else, when in doubt, ask.
Look for editors who specifically offer sensitivity reading as part of their processes. Many editors, like those at Shalamar, offer diversity feedback as a matter of course. Here’s an additional resource to check out if you are incorporating diversity in your work:
We welcome respectful discussion–if you have questions or comments, Debra is here to discuss!
Shalamar is a book publishing and author advocacy company based in New Orleans, Louisiana. Created in 2016 by a trio of writers, Shalamar aims to break down barriers to entry in publishing by offering accessible and affordable services to new and undiscovered writers.
Deborah Dixon is a cofounder, author, and editor at Shalamar. She has published two novels, seven novellas, and numerous short stories of her own.
She is a digital rights and racial justice activist, and her opinions on social issues, the publishing process, and Saints football can be found on Twitter at @Deboracracy.