Diversity, Political Correctness and The Power of Language

As some of you know I do diversity consulting for fiction (also known as sensitivity reading), and one of the things that comes up often when someone has chosen to write the proverbial Other is how that Other might speak about themselves. About their community, their culture, and yes their concerns with race or racism. Mostly the work I do is mundane, I help authors flesh out characters, I point out when their attempts at AAVE are wrong, and occasionally I have to tell them that the thing they wrote is a hot mess. That last conversation is awkward, fraught with a lot of emotions and generally not something I enjoy at all. My criticisms are of course somewhat subjective, based on my lived experience and my education. I like to think that what I do has value, and really some of the works that have passed through my hands have gone on to do well. This post isn’t about the ones where the author listened. It’s not even about the ones where the author didn’t listen. This post is about the idea that not wanting bigoted tropes to be replicated in fiction is about political correctness, censorship, or some unfathomable agenda.

You want to write a character with a different race, sexual orientation, religion, gender ID than yours? Okay. But before you set that character loose into the world, do some basic research. Do some basic work in understanding what obstacles that community faces, what narratives are most offensive to them? Are you replicating tropes that are used to dehumanize and erase members of that community? It’s easy to justify shoddy writing by proclaiming it is art. Well, okay your art is your art. Your art can also be offensive, your art can be harmful, your art can be wrong as wrong can be. You have a right to create it, you don’t have a right to never see it challenged. You don’t have a right to never have your biases questioned, or to never be told that you fucked up. The friends who might knee jerk defend you because they know you and love you, and really really believe that you’re a good person are doing you no favors when they convince you that your intent matters more than your impact.

And frankly, the person most likely to give you a pass on a slur, on using a bigoted trope instead of creating a full fledged character is probably not going to be someone that will face the impact of your art. They will, much like you, assume that good intent trumps harmful impact because they have no idea what it is to face that pain. They will project their image of you as a good person, as a person they like, over your work and they will rush to defend it without stopping to examine the reasons for the criticism. They will forget that other people, the vast majority of people reading don’t know you, and have no reason to assign good intent to such a harmful act. Heck, they may even have their own issues with the Other that your work has pandered to even if they won’t admit it. They will help you frame potential readers as being from whatever identity the two of you share, and will rapidly help you decide that the Other is a an unlikely consumer and thus not representative of the larger population. Because a huge part of the problem is the assumption that the Other does not read. Does not consume art. Does not have a right to a voice in how they are represented. Because your bigoted depiction of them is a key component of the kind of gatekeeping that locks marginalized communities out.

I’m a cis Black woman born and raised in Chicago. And while I can speak with some authority on what tropes are offensive for my community, I cannot hand out a pass for what might be offensive to a Black trans woman. Because I’m not trans. So if I write a trans character and someone from that community tells me I fucked up? I need to shut up, listen, and do my best to make amends. This is part and parcel of being a writer. I will never write anything that everyone likes, but there’s a wide gulf between “I don’t like the way your story ended” and “Your story contributes to this narrative that hurts my community.” I’m certain you can find someone to equate the two, and convince yourself that the criticism is invalid. I am equally certain the person who helps you do that is a not a true friend. Because people who love you, who really want you to succeed, they help you improve. Even when it hurts. Even when it might damage the friendship. Because true friends are honest about the good and the bad. No one who loves you, should hand you a free pass to hurt people. You shouldn’t be seeking that pass either.

And here’s the thing, there’s a million and one resources on how to not to be harmful. You can use TVTropes.org for a quick and dirty check of your character design so that you know when your bare bones character is problematic. You can ask someone you know in that community. Though if you don’t know anyone from that community, you’re not part of that community, and you’re unwilling to connect with that community? You probably shouldn’t be writing that character. Because not only are you not adding to diversity by creating a poor representation of someone else’s community, chances are excellent that your own internalized biases are about to be splattered all over the page. And while we all like to think of ourselves as the heroes of our personal stories, often we are the villains of other people’s stories. Because we hurt people even when we don’t intend to do so. There’s this weird myth that bigotry only looks like physical violence, and yes that’s awful, but deep down the physical violence is only a symptom. Bigotry, real harmful sustained across generations bigotry is much more covert. It lends itself to creating fictional characters that paint Black people as violent thugs, it lends itself to Black motherhood being depicted as loveless, it lends itself to trans characters that are villains, to killing lesbians off for loving, to disability as a burden on families, to a million and one seemingly individual stories that paint a comprehensive picture of anyone who is not cis, white, straight, and able bodied as unworthy of existence, much less of equality.

If your intent, your real and honest intent is to write a good story and depict diversity in fiction then shouldn’t you be willing to do the research? Shouldn’t you be willing to listen to criticisms? Shouldn’t you be willing to buck the system so that you’re not furthering the agenda of bigots? Writers have the power to create brand new worlds, so we should always stop and ask ourselves why we are so hung on replicating everything wrong in the old one? Yes, you have a the power to create, the power to sway your readers in one direction or another, but if you’re going to embrace that power fully, then you need to do so responsibly. Otherwise you’re not furthering the cause of improving diversity, you’re just making sure the gates stay closed and the Other remains an object for you to project onto, instead of people with agency.

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15 thoughts on “Diversity, Political Correctness and The Power of Language

  1. Pingback: Some Potential Fixes for the ‘Diversity in Publishing’ Problem — Part 3 – Indiatopia

    1. karnythia

      Whoops there’s my age showing! They started as .com & I always forget the transition to .org

  2. kusinjo

    Hi Karnythia. I loved your piece! I agree with a lot of it, and I would love to use your expertise someday, or someone like you. I am a first year university CW & Journalism major, however, I am also a mature aged student. In other words, I’m older. I have some questions for you, and they will challenge you, but I hope you can see that they come from a place of genuine curiosity and even love.

    Someday, I do plan to write characters from other ____ identities. (Fill in the blank) I have a few problems with some of your statements. I am a hetero white male. I grew up in an ethnically diverse area near Detroit, which is predominately a community of people of color. I was never raised with any racist overtones, and I never heard the N word spoken in my family circles. That’s not to say, I have never experienced racism (witnessing or receiving) I have. In fact, as a kid working in a restaurant at the age of seventeen, was the first time I ever heard the word “Cracker” being used in a derogatory fashion. The man that called me that was laughing and I asked him what it meant and he laughed again. Perhaps he knew something I didn’t, but it wasn’t until years later, that I realized he was throwing a racial slur at me. I have also witnessed black friends being discriminated against. It’s never a pleasant feeling, and I would always defend them as long as I felt my life wasn’t in danger. (Occasionally, it would be, and I knew to keep quiet. From either side.) Now today, I keep hearing that it is impossible for people of color to be racist, yet when I hear that, I keep thinking back to that moment. I was a dishwasher making minimum wage, and he was a busser, probably making the same plus whatever raises he had been given for working there longer than I. When we talked, we treated each other nice enough, so I don’t understand the sentiment of people today. It seems like they keep pouring salt in old wounds as if that is the best way to aid the healing process. The culture of victimhood that is growing in America today, is distressing. Aside from that one person, I have had many pleasant interactions with a lot of different people from many different cultures. I believe I could even write a black character, and if you didn’t know I was white, you would swear I was black. I say this because I have had some deep, hard hitting conversations with some real people, about some of the CRAP they have endured. Some of it IS racist. However, in those conversations, racism is only part of the problem, and a smaller part at that. For the people I have had these real conversations with, there is A HELLUVA lot more going on. Sorry for writing a book in your comment section, I won’t blame you if you moderate it out. My main question is this. It seems today that FEELINGS is a big thing. Discrimination in all its forms needs to end yesterday. Why is it not alright to create art depicting life the way the artist sees it, because it may hurt the feelings of someone who doesn’t see it that way? More to the point though, why is it not okay for straight white men to do it? You know, while it is true for some, their are plenty of straight white men that are not as privileged as many would think. For instance, I was bullied and terrorized by my own peers for twelve years of my life. Not one of my tormentors was ever from another culture other than my own. Thanks for letting me say my peace. You can leave the comment off if you want, but I would love to dialogue with you because I have really serious questions, and I absolutely do love everyone. I just dislike some of their stupidity. I am reaching out to you, because your post is amazing and I thought, here is a strong black woman who can possibly help me understand some things better! Thanks again!

  3. Loved your piece. I especially love your closing: the eloquent reminder of the power of art to influence thought, and your call for humanism and responsibility when exercising that power. I am eastern european, and I really don’t enjoy my nationals being ubiquitously cast as small-time crooks, sexist brutes and organized crime lords with evil-sounding accents. No huge injustice, but as a middle schooler, I was given the role of the villainous Baroness because of my accent, when all I wanted to do was sing Climb Every Mountain. Small-mindedness has long insidious tentacles.

  4. Pingback: Links of the Week 5/4/16 | Kink Praxis

  5. Pingback: Diversity links, May 6 #diversity

  6. I just shared this on facebook, I hope you don’t mind. I follow you on tumblr and twitter, you write things and I literally feel them.

  7. Joe Follansbee

    Interesting piece. Are there any other bloggers or writers who have written on this subject, specifically, sensitivity reading? I did a quick Google search and could not find any. Thanks.

  8. Pingback: Should you hire a sensitivity reader to scrutinize your novel? | Joe Follansbee

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