When it comes to diversity in writing, the rule I’ve always followed is simple: you can write a POV character who is of a different race/gender/sexuality than yourself, just so long as the focus of the story isn’t about those aspects. If you’re white and want to have a black main protagonist, don’t make the story about what it’s like to be black. Have that be a secondary aspect to whatever the story’s about. Such as Anansi Boys by white author Neil Gaiman: the story centers around a black family, but the main plot centers around magic, fatherhood and brotherhood. The characters’ race isn’t ignored, but it isn’t the main struggle they have to deal with.
However, the rules seem to be changing in recent years. I’m a white, bisexual male writer who rarely finds himself on the conservative side of an issue, but lately I’ve been coming across some arguments that have rubbed me the wrong way. The pic below is from last year, but I’ve been seeing similar sentiments popping up again in my Twitter feed, liked and retweeted by people I follow:
So, the idea here is that if you’re white/straight/abled, you are being immoral by writing a story from the point of view of a non-white/LGBTQ+/disabled character. Minority writers are underrepresented, so you are hurting minorities if you choose to write a book with them at the center, instead of stepping aside to let minorities write their own stories.
Before explaining why the argument presented here is bad, it’s worth noting that the issue behind this stance is one hundred percent real: minority authors are still systematically underrepresented in the publishing industry. They are paid less and get publishing deals less often, which might be a surprising statistic to a lot of white writers, considering how much the publishing industry conveys an image of diversity.
A lot of white writers believe the deck is stacked against them. I’m sure that sounds ridiculous to a lot of people reading this, but it does make sense: on a submission page of pretty much every literary magazine, publication or literary agency, there’s a big bold section about how the publication is “especially interested in minority voices.” And if you’re a straight white author who has finally gotten to the point where you feel like you’re good enough to get published, it’s so, so easy to blame political correctness for your lack of success. When one rejection letter comes after another for months and years on end, it’s easy to interpret “we’re interested in minority voices!” as “we aren’t interested in boring white authors.”
This is a major flaw in how the publishing industry’s been acting in the past few years: they talk big game about diversity while not actually following through on it, which has the lose-lose effect of making it so minority authors still get screwed over while non-minority authors feel as if they’re the ones being ignored. But that brings me to my first point about why the argument in that tweet above is not a good one:
1) It places responsibility on the wrong people
As many of the people within that thread have pointed out, a lot of books about minority POVs are written by straight white people. Publishers use the fact that the novels they publish have diverse characters to make themselves look diverse, despite the fact that behind the scenes the industry is still overwhelmingly white, still overwhelmingly publishing white authors.
This is bad, but here’s the thing: this is not the writers’ fault.
The average writer trying to get their debut novel published has none of the power in this situation. Most of them, regardless of race, have the odds stacked against them. (Because even though the industry is disproportionately white, the industry is still competitive enough that even the whitest, straightest male author still only has <1% chance of getting accepted from any particular submission.) Writers are underpaid, overworked, underappreciated. They are likely working an unsatisfying job just to support themselves while they write on the side. It is not a writer’s responsibility to change the industry; it is the publisher’s.
You’ll see this type of logic in tons of other issues, climate change being the easiest comparison. Yes, I can ride a bike to work and never use air conditioners or take hot showers, but ultimately the actions of me — a single lone person — will never come close to making a difference on climate change.
The 1%, the corporations, the politicians — they are the ones who actually have the power to make a substantial difference. Instead they do everything they can to shift the blame on the 99%, blaming them for not recycling enough or being too reliant on cars. And on some level it’s true: we as citizens could be doing more to fight against climate change. But when Miami is underwater, it’s not gonna be the fault of some normal working class Joe who drives to work instead of taking a bus. It’s going to be because of the CEOs and the politicians who had the power to enact meaningful change and chose not to.
Telling white authors not to write diverse main characters falls into that same trap of blaming the wrong people for the right problem. It is the publishers’ fault for not taking minority authors seriously; a lone, unestablished writer does not deserve blame for a problem that has nothing to do with them.
2) It puts closeted LGBTQ+ writers into an ultimatum
I’m bisexual, and my family doesn’t know. (At least, I assume they haven’t figured it out yet. We’ll talk soon.)
Would they disown me if they found out? No. I’m privileged to be in a situation where the worst-case scenario for me coming out to my family is that it would be very uncomfortable and weird. Other LGBTQ+ people aren’t so lucky.
The idea that a straight person shouldn’t write from a queer character’s POV is understandable, but it puts queer writers into a situation where they’d need to prove their credibility before writing a queer character, even if that character’s sexuality isn’t a major part of the story. This has already happened to Becky Albertalli, who felt pressured to publicly come out after some people on Twitter criticized her for being a straight person making exploiting queer people’s stories. And if the only way for them to push back against these criticisms is to publicly come out, then we are putting them through a lot of danger and trauma that they simply don’t deserve to go through. Coming out should be a decision made entirely by the individual; it shouldn’t be forced on them by anyone else.
In an effort to be more progressive and inclusive, the desire to pressure straight writers to avoid writing queer characters ends up hurting queer writers more than it hurts straight ones. And yes, this ‘stay-in-your-lane’ type of argument is indeed hurting straight writers as well. That brings me to my final point:
3) The idea that a non-minority writer can never write a minority character well is a very regressive, reactionary take
I mean, I get it: there are a lot of examples of bad representation out there. I don’t even think I should bother writing out all the examples I can think of, because it would go on for at least another thousand words. Straight white abled writers screw up minority characters a lot, and you can see that even in bestselling, critically acclaimed works.
But the idea that it’s impossible for them to accurately reflect an experience they themselves didn’t experience? That the life of, say, a gay person is so radically different from the life of a straight person that it’s impossible for a straight person to write a gay character well? That’s not just extremely cynical; it’s a very conservative, close-minded take to have.
Because it is in fact possible for a straight person to write a gay character well, for a white person to write a black person well, for an able-bodied person to write a disabled person well, and so on. They can do it by having close minority friends in real life, by listening to their experiences, by doing tons of research, by reading books by minority authors and paying close attention, by hiring minority beta readers and sensitivity readers and taking their feedback seriously. Even beyond writing, most of these things are something everyone should be doing. We should all be making an effort to connect with and understand the experiences of those different from ourselves.
The idea that understanding the experiences of those different from you is impossible, that someone will never, ever be able to understand a minority’s point of view well enough to write a story with a minority protagonist — even if being a minority isn’t the main focus — is not only wrong; it also lets all the lazy, racist, homophobic writers off the hook. It encourages the idea that empathy is pointless, that people who are different from you are psychologically so far away you’ll never be able to reach them. It encourages privileged writers to stick to only privileged characters, to shy away from exploring anything else out of fear of getting backlash.
When people are discouraged from exploring other people’s perspectives, everybody loses.