I’m going to preface my opinion by saying this post is not going to be one of those blogs that vilifies the practice of diversifying characters, or claims that Black Indigenous Person of Color (BIPOC) diversity “replaces” or “displaces” white characters. Mostly because that sentiment ignores power dynamics, history, and root causes of practices that lead to poor representations in media. What I’m pointing out is the oft-appearing superficiality of the practice of creating and including diverse characters in literature. (And by diverse, I mean more than just levels of melanin—my concept of diversity includes disability, gender, and sexual orientation, among others.)
The bulk of this blog will be a vocabulary list with some definitions. The reason for this? So we’ll all be the same page. I want to make clear what I mean by diversity, and what I don’t mean by diversity. My hope is that this will help you to recognize when you see these things in literature. And, if you’re a writer, I hope you’ll be more aware of who, how, and why you’re writing. I’m going to link a writer’s diversity checklist at the bottom of this post, so stay tuned!
We’ll start with the most complicated definition. Kimberlé Crenshaw coined this term, “intersectionality,” 30 years ago, and since then its use has skyrocketed.
Many people understand this to mean multiple and inextricable identities. For example, I am white, deaf, lesbian, and these identities intersect in a way that defines who I am. I am not just white, just deaf, or just lesbian.
But this is not the necessarily correct interpretation of intersectionality. To use Crenshaw’s metaphor, intersectionality is a crossroad (literally, an intersection) where multiple identities meet. An accident occurs at this crossroad—discrimination against you based on one or more of your identities. But how do you know which identity you’re being discriminated for? Did I get fired for being a woman? For being deaf? For being a lesbian? Or for all of these identities?
This is exactly the difficulty Crenshaw is addressing with this term, deriving from a real-life situation. Black women brought a suit alleging a company’s discriminatory hiring practices. But the court ruled that because the company employed Black men, and because the company employed white women, there was no discrimination. The court claimed that Black women cannot “have it both ways,” and file a lawsuit alleging discrimination against both identities: Black and woman. In other words, you can only be discriminated against because you are Black, or because you are a woman. But the issue was that the company specifically did not hire Black women!
So, intersectionality is that place where your marginalized identities meet, thus compounding the likelihood and severity of discrimination against you. You can read Crenshaw’s article here.
Oftentimes this term is reduced down to mean something like “the practice of providing equal opportunities to members of marginalized groups and other minorities,” but that’s incredibly vague. I don’t necessarily agree with that definition.
Let’s make it more pertinent to literature. To me, inclusion means amplifying voices of diverse backgrounds, especially historically excluded voices. We should make room for them and listen to them. In literature, that means first and foremost publishing and amplifying works by these diverse and historically excluded voices. For authors—white authors in particular—it means writing (and/or drawing, photographing, or otherwise representing) diverse characters. But here’s the catch: the characters that writers decide to include must be more than one-dimensional and stereotypical! This is where, in my own reading experience, they often fall short.
Related to inclusion is representation. Most people just define this as a marginalized person or group making an appearance of any kind in media. In other words, even if it is a “bad” representation, it still counts as representation.
No. Just no. Stop it with that nonsense.
My own definition of representation is not standalone. It needs an adjective, a qualifier, to describe the kind of representation. To me, representation is not a neutral term. Neither is it necessarily good or bad. (Believe it or not, the English language contains more adjectives than those.)
Representation is how an author portrays a character or group, culture, ideology, and so forth. No group or culture [on earth] is a monolithic entity, always agreeing and existing stagnantly. Dichotomies also typically don’t exist. People can follow traditional/conservative values, and people can break tradition to create a more liberal culture, but most people fall somewhere in between. That’s what gives a person depth.
Overall, it’s not just that readers demand representation: we demand accurate and respectful representation, and that’s where the conflict usually happens. An author might believe they are being accurate and respectful, while a reader might not! The problem with a representation of a marginalized character usually lies with one of the vocabulary words further down:
Tropes / Stereotypes:
Tropes and stereotypes are commonplace, recognizable, boring, and—in the case of the latter—harmful. It does exactly the opposite of what most authors intend by inclusion and representation. Tropes and stereotypes paint entire demographics and cultures as carbon copies of each other.
Many writers are well-intentioned, but they may not be attuned to the nuances of the characters they’re writing. Maybe they haven’t spent much time talking with more than one of the person/group they are representing. Maybe they aren’t aware that they are using a stereotype or trope. That’s why research and sensitivity readers are so important.
This is somewhat related to tropes and stereotypes. Tokenism is when writers try to check off the boxes, so to speak, of inclusion. This results in having a very small representation of a particular demographic–usually a sample of one. Authors generally only include these characters to avoid being criticized for not including them, and this is the case where they often rely on stereotypes to represent these characters. Sometimes authors fetishize or exoticize their token minority character; sometimes they include a single minority character as a social commentary; it doesn’t particularly matter the purpose of the token character. The point is that tokenism merely gives the appearance of diversity.
This one generally takes two forms. First, writers and marketers hint at queer relationships that will develop in the story. The development towards a same-sex couple slowly builds–and then suddenly veers off course and one or both of the supposedly queer characters end up in a heterosexual relationship. There was never any intention to truly include a queer couple; they just wanted to expand their audience and capitalize off it.
Second is a more severe form of queerbaiting. It starts off pretty similarly as the first form. A book is marketed with emphasis on the inclusion and representation of characters on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum with the potential of a positive relationship between one or more of them, and then one or more of them is killed at some point in the story. The big deal is that the author and marketers are incentivizing queer readers to purchase the book (capitalizing off the sales), and then reinforcing heteronormativity by punishing the representative characters.
If it doesn’t sound like a big deal, imagine if this were any other minority. Now imagine it happened so often a marginalized group had to coin a term for it!
So what does all of this add up to?
Fake / forced diversity:
I agree with this definition: “Fake Diversity makes you believe a story represents diverse characters, but, in reality, still relies heavily on stereotypes and tropes for said fake diverse characters, while giving a white, able-bodied, heterosexual (usually all three) protagonist complexity and main action.”
And? But? So? Therefore?
Here’s the thing:
Author, editor, and racial justice activist Deborah Dixon points out that “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.”
In other words, encountering a character who resembles yourself–a representation that is accurate, respectful, and positive–in media uplifts you. It makes you feel good. It feels special. If you don’t believe me, find and read a book with a hero who is not like you, and compare it to a hero in a story who is like you. Which do you prefer?
So, if we want to avoid fake or forced diversity, we as writers and readers have to understand the characters and the groups these characters represent.
That’s exactly why positive inclusion and representation are so important in literature. And remember that brief discussion on intersectionality? It really does wonders in helping to avoid stereotypes. Fully flesh out your characters, give them personalities and backgrounds, while remaining respectful and accurate to their inspirations.
Have any resources to share? Questions? Leave a comment!