I need to make one thing clear:
As a woman of colour, I really don't care if one of your characters on the planet of Zong in your book, has brown skin.
Well firstly, my brain rarely retains the different skin colours of characters...but this isn't the important point here.
What is important is this:
A brown alien that lives in a world where human races don't even exist does NOT represent me.
I've never read a book set in a different world and thought:
'Finally, an elf that actually looks like me. I no longer feel my culture and race are excluded from literature. I feel totally represented.'
The reasons for this are simple. Race is not just about skin-colour. Race and ethnicity are linked to culture and when you remove this culture aspect, you end up creating characters that are simply a way for you as a writer to say, 'Look! My book is diverse. I represent different kinds of people.' Creating a cast of characters who all speak and behave like white people, but are coloured differently, isn't real representation. In fact, I'd be wary about doing something like this.
It's not that there's anything wrong with giving characters different skin colours. For too long, the default race of most characters in books has been Caucasian. So it's good for children to read books about mermaids with tawny skin or black princesses with big-ass curly hair.
But will I get offended if your cyborg is a default white? No.
Will I feel represented if your cyborg has skin the colour of freshly-brewed mocha? No.
Would I feel represented by an Arab cyborg, with existential problems who befriends a Christian white girl from East London? Hell yeah... someone write this book please.
So I don't think writers should be bullied into a situation where they feel like they have to represent everyone in every book they write. Especially if this 'diversity' involves flat secondary characters that hover around a white protagonist. Diversity done the wrong way is at best, pointless and at worst, offensive or annoying.
I'm sure you've watched movies and series where the cast of characters all seem to have a very constructed, racial symmetry. It's as if all the writers have this weird minorities list and are like:
One black character- tick!
One Asian- tick!
One gay man tick!
One lesbian woman- tick!
One kid in a wheel chair- tick!
One overweight man- tick!
An overweight woman who is trans, black and in a wheelchair- TICK!
This is what you call overkill...
Do we need diverse books? YES, YES, YES.
Is this the right way of going about it? I don't think so.
Diversity in books is not a black and white topic and I truly believe that there are times when a story needs to exclude someone. The cast in The Book Thief are German and white. Could Markus Zusak have added a brown character?
But the question we should ask ourselves as writers is:
'What would doing so add to the story?'
If the answer is simply, 'more diversity.' I don't think that's enough.
When I first wrote The Tressians, I gave zero thought to the race of my characters. And I'll admit it, I did default to white. But I had to change that, not just because I didn't want my characters to be all white, but because it would have been bad world-building. My characters are the descendants of immigrants escaping the US in the very distant future. It wouldn't make sense to have an all white cast. Not everyone in the US is white. Likewise, sexuality comes into play in the sequel, but again it's linked to the world. Things wouldn't make sense without it.
This sort of thinking should also apply to white characters. If you specify that they're all white, there should be a reason. If however, race and skin colour etc. are not relevant to a story or would affect it in some negative way, I personally don't mind if the writer doesn't go there, is vague or defaults to any skin colour that pleases them. I don't believe in forcing these things onto stories.
As for representing minorities, real representation is what we see in Khaled Hosseini's Kite Runner or Angie Thomas's The Hate you Give. It's in stories that explore different cultures and ways of life. It's not in simply labeling characters as brown or black. Some stories require diversity, others not as much. The focus should be on producing more stories that engage with the lives of minorities instead of forcing us into stories where it doesn't even mean much for us to be there in the first place.
Diversity is a hot topic in publishing these day, so what does everyone else think? Do you get excited when you read about coloured characters in books? Do you feel represented? Or are you ambivalent to the whole thing?
Again, see you all next Tuesday! Remember to subscribe on your way out :)