These past few Wednesdays we’ve been talking about diversity in romance writing/publishing. In the Diversity Spotlight post I talked about the recent decrease in the number of books published by diverse writers (aka PoC). In the Diversity Reading List post I suggested some diverse authors and books to consider when looking for that next book to read, and in the Diverse Reader’s Perspective I posted an interview showing what the current state of diversity in romance writing/publishing looks like from the perspective of a diverse reader.
To wrap things up, I wanted to talk about some things you might want to keep in mind when including diverse characters in your own writing.
It’s not just skin tone
If you include diverse characters in your stories, they need to be more than just white characters with a different skin tone. Sure that sounds obvious, but I’ve read any number of stories where a reference to skin tone was the only thing that differentiated a diverse and a non-diverse character. Just like a character from a small town will have different experiences, perspectives, and behaviors than a character from a big city, the same is true for your diverse characters.
How do others react?
Every day it seems you can see examples in the news of individuals being treated differently, whether consciously or unconsciously, because of the color of their skin.
For example, two African-American men were recently arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks where they were waiting for a business meeting, without having made a purchase. As a result of that particular incident, Starbucks held company-wide anti-bias training just this week. During the training, some folks shared ways they’ve treated customers differently, such as:
“An employee said he had hid the tip jar when he saw a group of black men walk in. He became embarrassed, he said, after he gave them their change and they asked if there was a tip jar for them to leave in.”
There was also a recent incident where an off-duty police officer pulled a gun on a non-white individual he thought was stealing, but who had actually just purchased some mints in a convenience store. After that occurred, an African-American friend of mine said she now makes a point to get a receipt, no matter how small the purchase, just to be safe – something I, being white, would not have to worry about.
And let’s not forget the two women who were detained by a border patrol agent in Montana because they were speaking Spanish or the two Native American teenagers who were pulled from a college tour in Colorado after a woman on the tour called the police on them when they apparently made her nervous by being quieter than others in the group during the walk through campus.
Describing how your characters think, look, and act is important, but without showing how others react to them and interact with them, you’re only partway there.
Look, listen, and Learn
Everyone experiences the world in their own way, but for someone who is black or brown, the world can be a very different place than it is for someone who is white. Writing believable diverse characters can be challenging if you’re not diverse yourself, but it’s not impossible.
A good first step is to pay attention to the people around you and to your own responses. If you’re waiting in line at the grocery store, does the cashier treat the customer wearing a burka differently than the African-American youth or an older white woman? Do you notice that some passengers stand closer or further away from other passengers on the subway? Why is that? When you read the news, are there noticeable differences in how different races are portrayed? (e.g., a white gunman is suggested to have ‘mental issues’ while an PoC is more likely to be referred to as a terrorist).
If at all possible, talk to actual people and learn about their experiences and what the world is like for them. I’m very lucky in that my day job is in the field of diversity, working with a group of individuals who are, not surprisingly, very diverse. I have been able to pick up a lot of knowledge that I otherwise would not have known and get some eye-opening perspectives.
Unconscious-bias training can be helpful, but even more edifying is to talk with people who have been on the other end of those unconscious biases. For some interesting perspectives, you may want to check out the MSNBC Town Hall, Everyday Racism in America that aired earlier this evening.
So, do you have any suggestions to add for how to create believable, diverse characters?