The “Other” Experience: Representing Diversity

I came across a now-deleted post on Reddit the other day, entitled simply, “The Trans Experience”. By the time I clicked on it, the original post had already been removed, but there was a reply that, I think, beautifully encapsulated the struggle some authors face when trying to include diverse perspectives and representations in their work, and what to do – and what not to do – when doing so. There’s a part of me that wishes the comment had been its own post, because it really made a lot of sense.

The comment was quite long, but in summary, it more or less posits the following: do include trans characters in your books; do not attempt to write the ‘trans experience’. Over the course of several paragraphs, the commenter, a stated trans man, quite eloquently points out that diversity and representation of trans people is sorely needed in literature, but when a cis-gendered person tries to write a novel about being trans, and the experience thereof, they are – even if inadvertently – causing more harm than good to trans authors and the trans community. There are elements of being trans that are difficult, if not impossible, for a cis person to truly comprehend, and therefore put across correctly in a story. Instead, the author points out that you should instead focus on aspects of their personalities that are universal – happiness, sadness, life and death – and have the fact that they are trans as more incidental.

Whilst this is a great perspective specific to the context of the trans community, it can easily be widened to incorporate writing about any community the author is not necessarily a part of. I think many authors are very much aware that there is a distinct lack of representation in literature, with what seems to be the vast majority of stories focusing on straight, white male protagonists, but the answer isn’t to try and overcome this by writing stories about the experience of those other groups. A white author might recognize the deficit of black characters, but trying to write a black character from the perspective of their struggles as a black person could go disastrously awry. No white person can ever truly know what it’s like to be black, and it would be incredibly difficult to come across as authentic and genuine.

When I started writing The Redemption of Erâth, I was heavily influenced by The Lord of the Rings, which, for all its fame and importance, is hardly the most inclusive of novels. I also wanted to write characters my then-young son could identify with, so I chose – perhaps subconsciously, even – to make the main protagonists young white males (well, I don’t specify their skin color necessarily, but that’s what I had in mind). I even killed off the only important female character as a plot device to kick off the rest of the series. But as I continued writing, I realized that this didn’t have to be the limit of the characters, and I started introducing far more diverse characters, including stronger female characters, different ethnicities, and even ages.

Of course, The Redemption of Erâth is high fantasy, and there are arguably only the limits of my imagination when it comes to the characters that appear within it. When it comes to my young adult/contemporary fiction that I write under my real name, I found myself in a different boat altogether: my first novel deals with teenage depression from the perspective of a young woman, which is – as a man – a perspective I have limited experience with. In writing from a female perspective, it was tempting to try and shove in as many ‘female’-centric characteristics as possible: dealing with boys, dating, periods, etc. But I soon realized that this kind of writing came off as ‘man tries to write women, fails successfully’.

Instead, I found myself following the above Redditor’s advice years before I ever saw it, and focusing instead on the emotional and human characteristics that are universal to all people: depression, sadness, death and loss, and all the things that affect all humans equally. When I had several female friends beta-read it, I specifically wanted them to see if it felt authentic from a female perspective, and to my astonishment, they universally said ‘yes’.

I took this concept further with my second novel in this genre, featuring both gay and black characters; again, not because I’m trying to force diversity into my stories, but because that’s who these characters are – how they appeared to me, and what their personalities were crying out to me to be. And again, I found myself wanting to write forced passages on racism, sexism and misconstrued sexual identity, and I had to stop myself. I don’t know anything about those concepts, except perhaps as the subconscious perpetrator of racist and sexist ideologies (I don’t think of myself as racist, but I know I’ve definitely said and done racist things without realizing it), so I tried hard to focus on the aspects of being human that transcend sexuality, race, and gender.

I have yet to see how successful this approach is, as this second novel is yet to be published, but I think it’s allowed me to write a story that deals with tragedy, love and loss from the perspective of people, rather than ‘black’ or ‘white’ or any other kind of separator of humankind. And if it turns out successful (to be determined by my readers, of course), then I would like to think that this could be a valid way of writing representation overall.

I think the lesson here is that we can all do better at representing minorities and traditionally unrepresented communities in our writing, and it doesn’t have to be in a way that singles them out – in fact, it’s probably better to write in these characters in an inclusive manner, to make them a part of the story and therefore a part of the world, just as they are in real life. I don’t know what it’s like to be gay, or black, or trans, but I do know that if I was, I would want the same acceptance that I already enjoy as a straight white male. It isn’t fair that there are entire groups of people who are ostracized and isolated because of some characteristic that they don’t even have control over, and I think the world – both in literature and in real life – needs more acceptance, rather than more divisiveness.

What are some of the best instances of minority representation you’ve seen from non-minority authors? Are there examples that make you grind your teeth at how stereotyped the characters are (Stephen King, I’m looking at you)? Let me know in the comments!

Wearing White Shoes

This post discusses subjects such as racism and misogyny.
If this triggers you … you probably ought to keep reading.

I read an article last week published in the New York Times by poet and essayist Claudia Rankine. With the provocative title of I Wanted to Know What White Men Thought About Their Privilege. So I Asked., she discusses her experiences as a black woman traveling for work and observing frequent – and yet often unintentional – racial bias against her from white men. She recounts one instance in which two white men cut in front of her in line, only for one to comment to the other, “You never know who they’re letting into first class these days.” Another in which a group of white men again try to cut in line, and juxtaposes the actual response of both passengers and crew with the reader’s imagined response had that same group of men been women, or black.

Her article is well-written, thoughtful, and, I suspect, more carefully and deliberately worded than anything I could hope to achieve. Or would need to.

You see, I had never heard of Claudia Rankine. In fact, I originally started this article slightly differently: “… a poet named Claudia Rankine …” was how I was going to introduce her to my readers. I might have even published this post with this phrasing, had I not wanted to know if she had a doctorate or not. A very short Google search revealed more of you probably know of her than don’t. And after having read one essay of hers in the New York Times and spent all of three minutes looking her up, I’ve come to start to realize the extent of my whiteness. I probably will never fully grasp it.

… white privilege is … the simple fact that I don’t have to consider everything I do or say through the filter of my skin color.

You see, the very fact that I’ve never heard of a prize-winning, Yale-teaching poet is itself an aspect of this whiteness. Had she been white, or a man, might I have heard her name a little louder? Might I have inadvertently paid more attention?

Moreover, the fact that I can write and publish my own thoughts on prejudice without fearing insult or injury to my readers is symptomatic of the same thing. As I read Rankine’s article, it occurred to me that she was able to craft her language in such a way that sold a message – and sold it well – without once making me feel guilty – and therefore more likely to disengage. Engaged readers are the key to spreading a message, and I suspect – as she may do – that the New York Times has a lot of white readers.

Of note – although I didn’t spend more than about twenty minutes looking into it, I couldn’t find a demographic split for the New York Times by race; gender, income, age … but not race.

In a dextrous and subtle way, Rankine was able to open my eyes a little more to just what being black means – and to the fact that they’ll never really be fully open. In doing so, she helped me to recognize the way in which my own behaviors – both learned from and encouraged by (typically white) others – are affected by the simple fact that I’m white.

It also made me want to consider my own position on disparity and privilege, because as a white male it’s not something I often think about. My thoughts here are in no particular way well-educated, backed by research or experience, but they’re still my thoughts, so here goes.

Actually, back up a second. Read that last paragraph again.

What if I were black? How might readers’ opinion of my lack of evidence be different?

I believe I’m starting to understand that this is really what white privilege is. The simple fact that I don’t have to consider everything I do or say through the filter of my skin color. I just don’t have to worry.

But to really get it, to understand, it takes a good deal of empathy, and it’s incredibly hard to empathize with a feeling so alien that to you, it doesn’t even make sense. How can I ever understand what it’s like to live every waking moment being first and foremost judged by my skin color? How can I comprehend the conflict of wondering if my successes are going to be judged as leniency for the sake of political correctness, my failures as expected because I’m black?

I want to try something for a moment, and I’d like you to try it with me. I’d like you to close your eyes, clear your mind, and try to remember the scariest, most terrifying thing that’s ever happened to you personally. Try to picture it, remember it, and let that old feeling flow through you. It might not be comfortable, but hold on to that thought.

Got it?

What was it? Was it something physically harmful, like a car crash? Was it a painful accident you thought you might not recover from? Or was it a threat from another person – explicit or otherwise?

The Italian Dolomites, where my ten-year-old brain thought it was going to die.
Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Pexels.com

My answer came to me easily: climbing in the Dolomite Mountains in northern Italy, hanging on to a rope and nearly falling off a cliff. I’ll never forget just how close I felt to death – the surge of adrenaline, the churn of my stomach, the powdery dryness of my hands.

This experience reeks of privilege, when I think about it. The privilege of money. The privilege of travel. The privilege of being able to have such an experience in the first place. And the odds are, if I weren’t white, I probably wouldn’t have had that opportunity.

But what about you, reader? If you’re black, or asian, or female … what was your most terrifying experience? I wonder if it involves someone threatening or hurting you for your perceived identity – your appearance, as it were.

Here’s the thing: I wonder if segregation might almost be impossibly connected to how humans perceive each other. It’s really, really difficult to comprehend that we share the planet with eight billion other individuals, without finding some way to distinguish between them. The first, simplest way is gender – penis or vagina, two choices. Suddenly you’ve just eliminated half the world as people you have to identify with. Next up – skin color. Man, it’s so easy to just ignore everyone who isn’t the same color as me

Human society is built on these premises – despite promises of equality for all, humans are not all equal. There are rich humans, poor humans, white and black humans, gay humans and bisexual humans and hip-hop humans and death metal humans. We pretty much have to break down society into digestible numbers in order to have one at all.

The problem, perhaps, arises when one group begins to dominate the others. When men dominate women, white people dominate black people; even able-bodied people dominating disabled people. To truly live in a fair and equal world, we need to understand that we are different – but that those differences can’t continue to be leveraged to control or manipulate our positions in society.

There have been times when I, as a white male, have walked through predominantly non-white neighborhoods and felt afraid. I felt out of place, a minority, and in danger because of the color of my skin. I’ve experienced a little taste of this. But I knew that I’d soon be in a place where I would certainly feel much safer: somewhere surrounded by white people.

But this little taste helps me understand that some people in the world feel that way everywhere. I get a little scared when I get pulled over by a cop. I have a little taste of what it might feel like to be black and get pulled over by a cop. I get a little scared walking to my car at night. I have a little taste of what it might feel like to be a woman walking to her car at night. My female colleagues carry their keys between their fingers every night, and we don’t even work in (to me) a particularly unsafe area.

How do we teach our children to understand each other?
Photo by Bess Hamiti on Pexels.com

When we teach children about empathy, we often tell them to ‘walk in another’s shoes’. But I don’t know if I’m terribly fond of that analogy; the only shoes that really fit you are yours. Instead, I think we should teach children to ask questions: why does this person feel this way? What might make me feel the same? And most importantly, how can I tell them that whilst I can’t know how they feel, I understand that they do.

At the end of Rankine’s New York Times article, it struck me that, in writing about her experiences with confronting racial bias, she didn’t really come to a conclusion as to what could be done to solve it. I wondered if she’d had to edit it for length, or if she simply didn’t have a solution.

But now it dawns on me that perhaps there isn’t a fix. Perhaps society isn’t broken, just … off-balance. I once witnessed gender bias first hand at work. Afterward, I was talking to the woman who had been essentially dismissed by a male colleague and she voiced her frustration about it.

I don’t know why she thought to share it with me specifically; perhaps she needed to vent, or perhaps she thought she could trust me. But when she was done, I realized that as she’d been speaking, I’d already begun building defenses for our male colleague. I’d started thinking up reasons other than gender bias for his behavior. And somehow in a moment I realized that none of that mattered, because she still felt slighted as a woman. He could have had the best intentions in the world for interrupting and dismissing her, but he was only able to do it at all because he was a man.

So I just said, “That must really suck.”

I realize it isn’t terribly eloquent, but I’ll never forget her reaction: all she said was, “Thank you.”

Empathy isn’t about feeling the same as someone else; it’s about acknowledging that they feel that way in the first place. It’s about understanding your part in how they feel, intenional or otherwise. I believe empathy is a sorely-needed key to unraveling racial, gender, and all other forms of bias, because it allows to realize that understanding others comes not from shared experiences, but from shared emotions.

Of course, none of this changes who I am. I’m still a middle-class white male in rural northern New Jersey, and I will continue to benefit from that identity for the rest of my life. I will benefit from it not because I want to, but because society will offer me help in ways that it simply doesn’t to others. I will get fewer speeding tickets; I will make more money; I will never wonder if I was endorsed for or denied a promotion because I’m not white. All of this will happen whether I ask for it or not, unless we start to recognize what equality really means.

Equality does not mean women should be paid more because they are women; it means they shouldn’t be paid less for equal work. Equality does not mean colleges accepting lower grades for minorities to boost their campus diversity; it means accepting students based on the merits of their work and individuality, and not their skin color.

I don’t know if we’ll ever live in a truly equal world. I doubt I can do a whole lot to change that. But if I can recognize my own biases and privileges, and not shy away from it under the guise of white guilt, then at least I can understand my part in the world’s inequality – and maybe make the world better for just a few people.