Sunday, August 3, 2014

On Diversity, and When to Shut Up and Listen

One of the things I love about the YA community is that they're fearless when it comes to calling attention to things that matter—things like diversity and bullying and the way we treat each other.  Having conversations about these things is important and necessary.  But sometimes it's more important to listen than to talk, and that's something I'm slowly coming to realize I haven't been doing enough of.

A few months ago, I read a blog post about non-minorities and their role in the conversation about diversity.  The gist of the post was that, while it's good that we're calling attention to these issues, non-minorities have a tendency to hijack the conversations.  Not out of malice, but because they feel like they have something worthwhile to add.  And that tendency ends up drowning out the voices of minorities.  I read the post a couple of times and—I'll admit—I didn't get it.  I was annoyed at the tone, which I felt was essentially saying that if you're not a minority you have no business discussing issues regarding minorities.  So, rather than listen, I spoke up.  My point was simply that any attention drawn to the issues minorities face is good, no matter whose responsible for drawing the attention.  As a gay man, yes it's annoying that so many gay, lesbian, and transgendered roles in Hollywood are given to straight actors, who then go on to win awards for their work, but the fact that they're drawing attention to the LGBTQ community is a good thing.

I exchanged comments with some people on that post, and I walked away feeling like I'd made my point.  Yet, here I am, months later, still thinking about it.  

I am an American white male who grew up in an upper middle class town.  I went to college, though I never graduated, and I live a comfortable middle class life.  When I write, I include diversity in my work.  I include diversity because I'm writing the world I see around me.  But am I doing more harm than good?  

Here's the thing:  I believe there's a huge difference between writing about a black character and writing about being black.  As a white male, I don't know the first thing about being black.  I didn't grow up in a black household, I didn't have many black friends growing up because there weren't many black families living in my town.  When I wrote the character of Shane in Deathday, I based him partly on a young man I worked with at The GAP when I was 16.  When I decided that Cassie in FML was going to be mixed race, I based her on a girl I very, very briefly dated in high school.  But neither of those characters deal with their otherness.  They are characters of color as seen through the lens of a white male character and as written by a white male author.  They don't speak at all to the challenges of growing up black or mixed race, and they shouldn't because I don't know the first thing about those issues.

For a while I labored under the false notion that being gay gave me insight into what it's like to be a minority.  And, in a very small way, it does.  I've been afraid of holding my partner's hand in public, I've felt the stares of people who thought I deserved to burn in hell.  I've worried about walking out of a gay club and being assaulted.  But at the end of the day, I can still pass as a white male.  When I walk into a store, no one instantly looks at me and flags me as a thief.  No one has to know that I'm gay unless I want them to, and that means that I don't have to worry about discrimination unless I want to.  Most minorities don't have that option.  I can wait to tell people I'm gay until they've gotten to know me as a person, whereas most people instantly judge a person of color immediately based on the color of their skin without bothering to understand them as a person first.  

I can write about being gay because I am gay.  I get it, I've been through it.  And I can write minority characters into my novels because South Florida has a huge Hispanic population and because I have Jewish friends and black friends and Asian friends.  But I can't write about being any of those things because I'm not Jewish or black or Hispanic.  Maybe, if I did a lot of research and talked to a lot of people, I could learn to write about what it means to be black, but why should I?

That's the point the original blogger was trying to make.  There are so many minority writers out there writing about what it's like to be them and to live their lives that adding my voice to their discussion needlessly draws attention away from theirs.  As writers, we should celebrate diversity by writing about the world we see around us.  But if we want to understand what diversity really means, we should look to those who really know rather than trying to add our voices to a discussion that we can't ever truly understand.

I wish I could find that blog post because I'd go back and tell her that I probably still don't fully understand all the points she was trying to make—hell, I'm probably still getting some of it wrong even now—but I'm ready to shut up and listen.


  1. I think it really hinges on intent. If you're borrowing from another culture (or from the other's experience, whatever it may be) out of convenience, or because you think it might sell, or really for any disingenuous reason, then you're full of shit and it's appropriation.

    But if you're writing out of love, or curiosity, or because you fill your stories with characters who are like the diverse people you know in real life, then your only obligation is to get it right. My personal belief is that every writer has a right to write whatever they want, but if they publish, they have an obligation to do the necessary work to get it right, and they must remain aware that some people might get offended anyway.

    I'll email you some examples when I have time.

  2. First, I'd like to say I love, love, love everything you've written here, Shaun! As both gay and black I sometimes feel an obligation to write characters who're in the midst of what it feels like being black and gay, which together can mean greater complications than I may feel is necessary to discuss in every novel I write. Something that broke ground for me was when I questioned: what would happen if I wrote a white boy who was gay as a black author? What if THAT were my debut instead of what I'm currently writing (which I hope to be my debut)? My personal opinion is that no one would bat an eye or cite diversity or anything of that nature. There would simply be observance of the story for what it is--a story. But then no one bothers to examine the fact that, as a black boy, what do I know about growing up white. Just because I grew up watching Friends? Frasier? Doug? Each representation of white reality I've witnessed or seen portrayed does not clue me anymore into how white boys or girls are raised than The Cosby Show, My Wife and Kids, or The Proud Family clues you into what it means to be black. That particular revelation helped bring diversity into greater perspective for me.

    But I must say I am humbled by this blog post and I am quite glad you've dared to write characters of color as protagonists/narrators for your stories because I'm always appreciative of a book written from the POV of a PoC who simply lives life. Because I am not, every waking moment of my day, thinking about my differences from humanity. Or even my similarities. Sometimes I'm just me.

    P.S. I'm ecstatic for The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley. It's precisely the sort of LGBTQ YA book I've been waiting to read!

  3. Thank you for this, Anthony! Writing diverse characters is such a tough issue. At one time, I considered writing a story from the POV of a Native American boy because for the longest time I'd been told my great-grandmother was a full-blooded Blackfoot Indian...of course, I didn't know at the time that all those stories I'd grown up with were wrong...but even when I didn't know they were made up, I decided not to because just having Indian blood didn't mean that I had any understanding of what it meant to grow up on a reservation or to be part of that culture. I didn't want to appropriate someone else's culture and struggle for my own work. If I was going to do it justice, I knew I'd need to really do my research, visit a reservation, get to know the Native American people, and the truth is, there are already so many great Native American writers that it would be better to point people to their stories rather than add my own.

    When we write gay characters, the stories don't have to be ABOUT being gay, but at the same time, being gay does color how we see the world. And that's the point of view that we can bring to stories that no one else can.

    And, seriously, the wait for Five Stages to come out is agonizing. I don't think I've ever been more excited for anything to come out. I was so afraid that there wouldn't be an audience for Drew's story, but the more I talk to people, the more I realize that there is, and that makes me so freaking happy and hopeful for the future.


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