An article on the IO9 web site has some interesting things to say about the concept of diversity in books, and how the target shifts so significantly depending on whose perspective is involved.  M Sereno made the following comment at Book Smugglers:

What this word means for me is lingo specific to Anglophone SFF, for “outside the majority” or “from the margins” in relation to the white, cis, straight, male, Anglophone, western experience — as Aliette said, outside these axes of privilege. I use it the way I use terms like “third world” or “global South”; they are imperfect and lose a lot of nuance, they’re based on a certain frame of reference outside of which they don’t mean much. They flatten us.

(Read more in the article.)

This has a lot to do with why the term “diversity” frankly bothers me when I write, or read others’ writing.  Generally, it feels like it’s doing more to draw attention to the problem than it does to mitigate it.

When most writers, companies, organizations, etc, talk about diversity, I often get the feeling they are saying: “We have these things that White men have, but we want to offer them to non-White people too.”  Which is not the same as saying, “Here’s something for everyone”… it’s closer to “Here’s something we made for you people who normally don’t get it.”

And the problem with that is, it tends to (pun fully intended) color the offering somewhat.  Instead of being for everyone, it makes a point of being for Black people, or for women, or for LGBTs, or for seniors, etc… and suddenly it becomes no longer suited for White men.  It is still exclusionary; it’s just excluding a group that isn’t usually excluded.

A lot of fiction strikes me this way: I run across a character or set of characters, and no matter how much care goes into them, I still feel like I’m reading characters that were shoehorned in to fit someone’s idea of equal opportunity quotas.  Much like author Ben Bova’s Frank Colt character, a regular in his Chet Kinsman novels: A Black man who always made a point of mistrusting White men and expecting racist attitudes and actions directed at him… to the extent that his “angry Black man” attitude was often more uncomfortable to me than that of any other character of any other race or sex.

And I realize that those attitudes existed then, and exist now… I realize that men like Colt, who distrust non-Blacks, existed then and now… but the way Bova wrote Colt made him constantly, intentionally and vocally adversarial, even in instances when there was no need for the race issue to be brought forward (including, often, with his friend Chet).  He was racism’s intentional poster boy (pun also fully intended), and came across as a stereotype, himself.  Reading him, you just found yourself wanting to shout into the book: “DUDE!  Calm the fuck down.”  If Colt represented diversity, he was the kind of diversity that turned off people who wanted to see diversity.

When I’ve created my characters in the past, the first thing I’ve always tried to do is to allow my developing characters to “spontaneously” become any sex, race or creed that seemed likely—and even to allow them to occasionally be unlikely—just to add a different new element to the story.  It was like I was intentionally rolling mental dice for each character, so as not to end up with the same combinations of predictable characters and groups.

On the other hand, this method doesn’t automatically mean you end up with a “rainbow club,” because after all, we still see certain groups dominate certain regions, professions, interests and activities.  (You won’t see a mixed group of people at a KKK meeting.)  But I also often write of the future, and as time has progressed, many of those old regions, professions, interests and activities have seen a more diverse set of people entering into them; so that, too, has to be taken into account…

Gaylord afro wig, wet look for menAs you can see, it’s a very complicated process, and one that can come off as strained to some, bland to others, and just plain insulting to somebody, depending on their point of view.  It’s like a target that’s flying, rotating, changing color and fading in and out of reality as you aim at it.  And most importantly, if you don’t develop the proper “voices” for the characters, they’ll all just sound like they’re from the same neighborhood anyway… and your attempt at diversity results in a Minstrel show.

When it comes down to it, applying diversity to a story is necessary for realism—and asking for trouble—all at the same time.  And since real life is the biggest diversity crap-shoot, there’s just no wrong or right answer… literally anything goes.  And sometimes an author needs to embrace that randomness and just do their story… to avoid driving themselves crazy.

Finally: This is my favorite part of the IO9 article, at the end:

Also, Cecilia Tan quotes Sarwat Chaddah, who was told by a bookseller, “We don’t need your book because we don’t have any Indians in our community.” To which Chaddah replied, “I bet you don’t have any hobbits either.”

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