It was my first WisCon, a feminist science fiction convention that is held every year in Madison, Wisconsin. With my convention guide in hand, the notes section already filling up, I listened to a group of panelists discuss what it is like to read and watch things that do not have characters who represent their race, their ethnicity, or their histories, and how when they are represented in stories, it is most often in stereotypical roles. They might be most recognizable in TV and film: the "Magical Negro" or angry black woman (among many others); the geeky Asian man or the "dragon lady"; the Hispanic immigrant or criminal, or sometimes a "Latin Lover"; Arab characters are desert nomads, oil sheiks, or terrorists; and Native Americans are quiet medicine (wo)men or angry warriors. Oftentimes these characters are the villain, a sidekick to a white hero, or are in some way used to raise up a white character. Overall, these stereotypes, even when they are "positive" ones do more harm than good and create one-dimensional characters that do not at all portray the true diversity and humanity of minority groups.
In books, the stereotypical characters are still there. Or worse, minority characters are not there at all. For most fantasy stories at least, the world is based on a medieval European society. It's safe to assume that the characters, at least the humans, are white. The panelists at the convention discussed how they would like these issues fixed. One thing they didn't want was white writers to suddenly try to imagine what it was like to be Black, or Asian, or Latinx in America, but they could watch the stereotypes they put into their stories and try to diversify their cast of characters. Ultimately they called for more diversity in all parts of publishing and media. We need more writers and editors of color. We need to diversify the voices telling stories in order to have real diversity, accuracy, and honesty in what we read and watch.
The other thing that stuck out to me was one panelist saying that she imagines characters who look like herself. She said that even when a character is described one way, her mind doesn't always listen. She creates characters that look like the people she is most often around. I found that very interesting, and it helped me realize something that I could do to help the lack of diversity in my own writing.
I decided to challenge myself to try two things as a writer:
- Setting: I began to think critically about the settings I was creating for my stories. My first novel is a fantasy novel, and the world is based on, what do you know, a European society. I realized that I wanted to stop choosing the default fantasy setting. I needed to do more to understand other histories, other societies, and be more creative in the fantasy worlds I created. By doing that, I could actually create a new world with new laws and a diverse society. The beauty of science fiction and fantasy is not being bound by the rules of our own world.
- Characters: I reflected on my novel again and thought about what my characters looked like in my head. As a teenager, I had focused so much on the hair and eye color of every character and each of those features is described in detail. And they were all white. I decided at WisCon that as much as I could, I would stop describing how characters looked. Of course, sometimes it will be necessary, and if I do want to truly diversify a cast of characters, I may need to describe physical features. Celebrating diversity does not work by being "colorblind." But for most characters, I asked myself why I felt the need to say what color hair someone has or what their eye color is. Why don't I let my readers use their imagination and envision someone who looks like them, a family that looks like theirs? Overall, I wanted myself to think more critically about how I could create characters who are more relatable to more people.
I know I have a lot of growth to do yet on this topic. I am learning more and more each day about the struggles and lack of representation of not just PoC, but of the LGBTQIA+ community, and people with disabilities. I know I have a lot more to learn about how I can honor these groups in my writing without using stereotypes. I also want to do it for the right reasons. I know that I have lived a life of privilege, and trying to write about an experience I will never know isn't a solution. After all, like the panelists said, we don't need white people trying to suddenly write from Black, Asian, Native American, or Latinx perspectives and become their voices. We need those voices to be recognized, heard, and amplified as much as white voices have been for centuries. Which brings me to reading.
This year my reading resolution was to read more books written by women and authors of color. This summer a few friends and I organized a bingo reading competition for ourselves and fellow book-loving friends in order to read more books about systemic racism, feminism, LGBTQIA+ history, and books by and about people of color, transgender and queer individuals, and people with disabilities. It has been at once exciting and heartbreaking to explore works that I usually wouldn't have read. I have no good reason why many of the titles weren't on my to-read list, except that I never took so much time to find stories that offered me a look at so many different worldviews, of different life experiences, or of facing hatred and bigotry. I know that I must continue to listen to these voices, support them, and encourage others to do the same. And I do encourage you to think about what you read and why, about the stereotypes that you observe in literature and film, and I encourage you to help raise awareness about the lack of diversity in the representation of both characters and creators in our media.