Authors Still Have To Do Better About Diversity, Even When It’s Hard

Douglas Blaine has a response to Pam Noles’ essay Shame.

He writes:

For a brief time in the third grade of the Catholic school I went to in Kansas (from what I hear not the same as Catholic school back east) there was a girl named Rochelle Ramsey that I was good friends with the left as mysteriously as she arrived. Maybe her family couldn’t afford the tuition”“mine couldn’t 3 years later”“maybe “˜the powers that be’ encourage the only family of color that school had ever seen to find a better place to integrate. All I knew was that my friend was gone.

He then, after summarizing, goes on to say:

So one thing come out of all that: where in all my experience am I supposed to reliably concoct a speculative fiction story that involves people of other (real) races?
Oh sure, you hear folks bather about doing research for a book, but I seriously doubt that they intend for one to “˜go live among the black people and learn their ways’. If I chose to write a story containing a more multicultural cast I would be at best able to call someone black at the onset, maybe a remark about brown eyes or crinkly hair and then I would be done. Every word out of his (sexist post later) mouth would be either as white as I don’t know how not to be or ridiculously contrived. I don’t (can’t) do this for the same reason I don’t write legal thrillers or romance or business books: I know nothing about the true subject.

Sorry Doug, you don’t get off so easy. I hate being confrontational, but this is a cop out. I appreciate your thoughts on this, but I really think you’re wrong and would encourage you to read on here, realizing that I’m not yelling or criticizing, but trying to explain.

Let’s extrapolate your argument a little. What if I were to say the following:

Oh sure, you hear folks blather about doing research for a book, but how am I supposed to reliably concoct a story that involves a scientist, I have, after all, never even been in a lab or met a scientist. How can I even begin to imagine what someone who does math for a living thinks like.


Oh sure, you hear folks blather about doing research for a book, but how am I supposed to reliably concoct a story about being an astronaut, I’ve never even been a test pilot, I can’t even begin to imagine the stress of flying a craft into the upper atmosphere or what it is like being weightless.


Oh sure, you hear folks blather about doing research for a book, but how am I ever supposed to write a story with a woman character. I’ve never had a period or breasts, what the fuck do I know about being a woman?


Oh sure, you hear folks blather about doing research for a book, but how am I supposed to know what a white man thinks like? I’m multiracial and grew up outside the US, I can never get into an American’s head

The argument, when other elements are swapped in instead of minorities, becomes ridiculous.

This is how you do it.

You give it your best, honest, empathetic, attempt. And you’ll probably screw it up. The first time, the second time, the third time, just like anything new element you try to add to your fiction. You’ll research, and talk, and ask questions, and just like any other character that you are not (which is most), if you are committed to it, you just might nail it and you will certainly be a stronger writer for it.


If we can’t bring diversity and get into the eyes of someone other than us in a story, what’s the point of writing about dwarves and aliens. Doug says

submit this is one of the underlying motives of authors for creating new races. We can invent elves and dwarves and the like and say they like fried chicken and watermelon without coming off as totally inept asses.

But that’s just the point, if we can’t get behind the minds of other humans what’s the point of even badly portraying aliens or fantastic creatures if its just going to be a way for us to lazily discuss ‘otherness?’ The using creatures as a short hand for otherness becomes 1) laziness, and 2) insulting. Why are weird looking creatures always going to be the stand in for otherness, and good looking white people the heros? That adds up to a bizarre mass, don’t you think?

Don’t get me wrong, using aliens as a shorthand is great, just ask anyone who was so struck by the black/white white/black episode of Star Trek, but having Uhura on the bridge and treated as part of the crew is just as damn important. Having a green monster as a stand in for the other is just, simply, not enough.

You’re going to have to try harder.

I don’t (can’t) do this for the same reason I don’t write legal thrillers or romance or business books…

Maybe, but are you saying you can never have love in your SF story, or a world with a functioning economy? Come on…

For those who feel similarly, and want more pointers or to dig into this further, you need to read Nisi Shawl’s trans-racial writing for the sincere. Here is a relevant snip from here opening about all the same arguments used above:

I wonder sometimes what kind of career I’d have if I followed suit with tales of stalwart Space Negroes and an unexplained absence of whites.
But of course I don’t. I boldly write about people from other backgrounds, just as many of the field’s best authors do. Suzy McKee Charnas, Bruce Sterling, and Sarah Zettel have all produced wonderful transracial characters, as I show in examples below. Before getting into their work, though, let’s discuss how to prepare for your own.
If you want to go beyond the level of just assigning different skin tones and heritages to random characters, you’re going to have to do some research. Because yes, all people are the same, but they’re also quite different. For now, we’ll set aside the argument that race is an artificial construct, and concentrate on how someone outside a minority group can gain enough knowledge of the group’s common traits to realistically represent one of its members.
Reading’s a very non-confrontational way to do this. Be sure, though, if you choose this route, to use as many primary sources as possible. If researching a story about first contact between a stranded explorer from Aldeberan and a runaway slave, for example, you’d do much better to read The Life & Times of Frederick Douglass than Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The latter is an important and moving book. But not only is it a work of fiction, it was also written by a non-slave; therefore it’s a step further removed from the authentic experience you need.
Websites on minority culture abound. Any half-decent search engine will bring up a freighter’s worth of URLs on African-Americans, for instance, and at least a line or two on lesser-known groups.

She even does workshops on this.

We’re writers. It’s our job to get into other people’s heads. There is no excuse not to.

31 thoughts on “Authors Still Have To Do Better About Diversity, Even When It’s Hard”

  1. Well said, Toby (and I narrated your Original Source Creativity essay yesterday, so what good timing, too). And thanks for the workshop link. Just ordered Ward’s book based on her workshop.

  2. I appreciate the extended discussion on what may be the only real post I have ever made on my half-assed blog.
    I have some immediate thoughts for a return reply, but nothing I feel confident with composing at the moment. I don’t normally get to type out my feelings on these matters and more than one close friend has told me they hated me when we first met (including my wife) so I’d rather not damage any tenuous internet link I might have with a total stranger.
    By and large I agree with you for not letting me (or anyone I suppose) off that easy. The part of me that resists needs more time to cook up an argument more palatable than apathy and laziness.

  3. In any case, you can do research. I recently reviewed a book by male writer in which a friendship between two women was central to the plot. He wrote to me afterwards saying he was relieved I thought the characters worked, though he had made sure he got several women to read the book in manuscript before finalizing it. If you care enough you can find ways to get things checked out.

  4. Very good post, Toby. I have one tiny quibble, and that’s with the “you’ll probably get it wrong,” line. I think if you write honestly, both emotionally and imaginatively, you can’t go wrong. I can read a book about a female character written by a man and say, “Oh, he’s got it wrong.” But you know, I can’t account for every experience of every woman. That male author may have completely hit the nail on the head for a different woman than myself. Same way with characters from other races. There are so many different parts of the world to grow up and different experiences. You could write a black character who grew up in a white suburb and talks, walks, dresses, and acts like a white person, and it would still be true, because there are millions of people with that exact experience. What you want to research is not some universal experience of being “another color” but the unique experience of YOUR character, no matter what race they are. That means that good writing is more important than actual empathy or being sympathetic to a certain type of worldview or politics. And good writing is easy, right? Right?

  5. Catherine, good point, by wrong I was trying to get at that writers in first draft or their first attempt by nature probably fail. It’s okay, it’s nothing unique to trying to be a good writer…

  6. Although I have not had big sales (only ‘for the love of’ markets so far) I take pride in the area of research and trying to understand the diversity of people. I have received ridicule by some who have said, “Why are you worrying about what the hours of an accountant or a secretary are? They aren’t going to matter on this planet or in this system!” But if I don’t have a good grasp of what someone is doing now, how can I truly let my imagination wander and get somewhere else. Research gives me a basis and people simply amaze me. Thank you for posting this. I feel relieved.
    H.A. Handy

  7. Toby,
    Great food for thought. this contest was linked to on Neil Gaiman’s blog and I thought it particularly appropriate here, given this post and your recent post re: Pam Noles.

  8. Toby, I think I love you. I had my own thoughts in here, but it makes more sense to post them either to my blog or to Douglas’s. So maybe I’ll do that instead.

  9. I know what it’s like to grow up Catholic in a mostly-Protestant part of rural Minnesota, or Protestant in a mostly-Catholic one. I know what it’s like to grow up as part of the Mormon minority in some parts of the Mountain West; and probably what it’s like to grow up as part of the non-Mormon minority in others. I grew up as part of a rural Jewish minority (in Ulster County, NY). Which also gives me some idea of what growing up on a generation spaceship might be like — everyone knows who your parents and grandparents were, for example.
    I would have to work at understanding a character who grew up in the suburbs. (Though I do at least know there are different kinds of suburbs.)
    I would find it very hard to write from the viewpoint of a righthanded person.

  10. Happened to see a press release today about a book for writers that grew out of the workshop by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward: “Writing the Other: A Practical Guide. (http://www.aqueductpress.com/). The editorial matter on the website seems relevant enough to this discussion to include here since the thread is already long: “During the 1992 Clarion West Writers Workshop attended by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, one of the students expressed the opinion that it is a mistake to write about people of ethnic backgrounds different from your own because you might get it wrong, horribly, offensively wrong, and so it is better not even to try. This opinion, commonplace among published as well as aspiring writers, struck Nisi as taking the easy way out and spurred her to write an essay addressing the problem of how to write about characters marked by racial and ethnic differences. In the course of writing the essay, however, she realized that similar problems arise when writers try to create characters whose gender, sexual preference, and age differ significantly from their own. Nisi and Cynthia collaborated to develop a workshop that addresses these problems with the aim of both increasing writers’ skill and sensitivity in portraying difference in their fiction as well as allaying their anxieties about “getting it wrong.” Writing the Other: A Practical Approach is the manual that grew out of their workshop. It discusses basic aspects of characterization and offers elementary techniques, practical exercises, and examples for helping writers create richer and more accurate characters with “differences.””

  11. Erm…Philip K Dick has several stories with ‘ethnic minority’ characters. In fact I would go as far as to say that most of characters _aren’t_ WASPs. As for specifically black characters, take a look at The Ganymede Takeover, Dr. Bloodmoney, Counter-Clock World…I could go on.

  12. There’s a fundamental difference between the races of Earthsea and the genders, though. Men are men and women, women in Earthsea as on Earth. But the black and brown and white people there have nothing to do with their counterparts here, culturally speaking. Vetch isn’t African (or African American), Ged isn’t Native American, Tenar isn’t European.
    My personal (as opposed to political) objection to the bleaching of Earthsea — quite apart from the fact that the story was botched, horribly — was that I’ve known Ged for more than 30 years now, intimately, and he neither looks like that nor acts like that. That was a story about somebody else altogether.
    (FWIW, Le Guin’s books are full of people of pigment: in The Left Hand of Darkness, everyone is brown except Genly Ai, who is black — and from the anglophone parts of Earth: his name is Henry, a thousand years of sound-changes later.)

  13. But the black and brown and white people there have nothing to do with their counterparts here, culturally speaking. Vetch isn’t African (or African American), Ged isn’t Native American, Tenar isn’t European.
    Right, but we still get to see POC, which is why it rocks. It doesn’t have to map to our world, just seeing an acknowledgement that POC exist and can be characters is awesome.
    (FWIW, Le Guin’s books are full of people of pigment: in The Left Hand of Darkness, everyone is brown except Genly Ai, who is black — and from the anglophone parts of Earth: his name is Henry, a thousand years of sound-changes later.)
    One of the reasons I love her 🙂

  14. This might be a bit on the side of Douglas Blaine’s post, but relates to the “shame”-article. I find it hard to accept the supposition that people writing about “white” fantasy heroes and “all-white fantasy worlds” are excluding black people or other people of colour. Most fantasy authors write about people period. It does not matter what skin colour those people have. The bottom line is that people are not really that different, unless we choose to see them that way.
    The feeling of loss at not finding some character with brown or white skin is the product of a perverted society. Race should not be seen as something of inevitable relevance. To berieve authors of the possibility of creating a universe where race does not matter will almost certainly strenghten the conception of different colouring as a problem.
    Needless to say, I support the endeavours of authors who want to deal with racial conflict, but it should not be proposed as a necessity in fantasy literature and other genre fiction in the way Pam Noles does.

  15. I don’t know if it’s got something to do with how my Firefox handles the link, but I couldn’t get to Shawl’s essay via the link provided. However, this one worked for me.

  16. Svein Angelskaar:
    Actually – no. It DOES matter. Thinking it does not matter is part of being white and having the correspondent white privilege.
    It only “makes no difference” if you are part of the default race/gender/faith. It makes a hell of a lot of difference when you’re a minority who never sees him/herself represented.
    By saying “it makes no difference” you are in fact saying that there is no racial discrimination, all people are the same, and therefore skin colour does not matter. Well, that is the way things should be, but aren’t. And by pretending that they are, you are ignoring the implicit and explicit racism that people of colour have to deal with every day of their lives.

  17. First off, I wanted to both congratulate and thank you, because before I ran across the Shame essay by accident, I had barely thought about the issue of race in sf & f, apart from a passing fancy. Definitely something I’m going to be doing a lot of thinking (and perhaps working) on in the near future.
    It’s not quite the same level, but I’m Jewish and whenever I read about Harry Potter’s Christmas presents, I have to stop for a moment and wonder about where all the Islamic kids go to school. There’s that weird jolt when you suddenly realize you’re in a world where literally no one does not wake up at dawn to open stockings, and somehow nobody’s noticed.

  18. I agree that a writer can scarcely ignore racial and cultural diversity when writing–nor should he or she. But there’s another difficulty in SF…and that’s when the readership does not recognize a racially diverse character cast because of the readership’s own preconceptions of what it would look like. Even with explicit descriptions, artists may illustrate characters as white when they aren’t, and readers may read them that way (whether due to cover illustrations or just inability to imagine a dark-skinned person as the spaceship captain.)
    Writers are defined, and their work defined, as much by their skin color as you’d expect in a race-sensitive society. Some writers, expected to have persons of color in the story, have them…and these characters are recognized. Others, not expected to have persons of color in the story, have their characters’ skin color mentally changed by everyone from the editor to the eventual reader.
    I don’t suggest that writers who’ve been misunderstood that way revert to snow-white writing. Instead, I think readers might open their eyes and take the hints these writers give them. No, “bronze skin” does not necessarily mean a deep tan on a white guy, Doc Savage stories to the contrary. (If you sense a tiny bit of frustration, you’re right. I once had a conversation with a college student that went like so: “Why don’t you ever write about persons of color?” “I do–” [Listed books and characters, including protagonists].” “Why didn’t you SAY so?” “I did. Look here–” [pointing to specific pages.] “Oh. Well, they’re not listed as ethnic fiction…and it wasn’t obvious…” [Refrained from pulling out rapidly thinning hair until later.])
    This makes it tough to write about a setting in which race is not as problematic as it is now…if you don’t have race as a problem, then at least some readers will not recognize that other races are “there” even with strong clues.

  19. Great response. A psychology professor at U of A recently shared that Adam Beach (one of the Native American actors from Smoke Signals) was being considered for a part on Grey’s Anatomy. Ultimately he was not chosen even because the producers thought that America would find a Native American doctor unbelievable. It’s interesting to note that Evan Adams, Mr. Beach’s co-star from Smoke Signals is now a medical doctor in real life.
    Fictional and non-fictional portrayals have a huge influence on the public, and have the power to transform or just leave things as they are in a sorry heap in a corner of the room.

  20. Wow, just given this link by my author Mother-in-law. I have to agree with Pam on this. Me? I’m, just so you know, a WASPy-WASP.
    I grew up in the USAF, and grew up surrounded by people from every possible ethnicity or ethnic combination. Maybe it’s the military thing, but we were all so homogenized that when any of us would encounter a racist white kid, we’d at least be shocked, but often we’d hit him in the face. However much I’ve learned about ongoing discrimination in the military as an adult, as kids we didn’t know it existed. Here we were from dozens of races and cultures, but we were all Americans, going to the same schools, overseas in alien countries, speaking the same language (somewhat – we didn’t care. We knew who we were), and we’d all back each other up if one of us got into trouble. As a result, when I finally lived in my first civilian community as a 16-year-old, and found four black kids at my school, it was shocking. Lot’s of Mexican-Americans (although a number of their ancestors were there from the late 18th Century – this was S. California, so technically, they were true Californians), a couple smoking hot Indonesian girls who lived across the street – alas, they were the daughters of Christian missionaries, while I was a budding young sinner – but everybody else was redneck white. And they said ‘nigger’ every other word. This was pre-rap culture, when ‘Nigga’ as a term of respect hadn’t yet reached the popular vernacular.
    I wrote multiple races into my novel in key roles without even thinking about the issue. Just shut my eyes and pictured them, and then went to work. To answer Douglas, I didn’t write ethnically. Shit, what’s the point of that? You’re writing an Armenian? Know something about where they came from and what their history was, then write somebody believable. Same with any other group. Christ, in 2008 almost everybody is from somewhere else! This is one of the biggest advantages a writer can have! Nothing creates cooler story ideas than global diaspora!

  21. I ought to mention that while I agree with Pam overall, the nerd in me has to speak out. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is set in the fictitious white-bread town of Sunnydale, not the real-life town of Sunnyvale, CA.
    Just had to bring that up, as a Californian.
    Sunnydale is like the white-bread racist towns I first lived in before moving to Los Angeles. Joss Whedon should have had a lot more Latin Americans, but other than that, he pretty much got it right. There were no African-Americans. Probably why the local kids used the ‘n’ word all the time. Dumbasses.

  22. We’re writers. It’s our job to get into other people’s heads. There is no excuse not to.

    I half agree with you. I certainly agree that it’s possible for a writer to write about someone very different, and that it’s a very valuable learning experience to do so. I also think there are quite a few writers who can do it and do it well (you’re proof of that).
    However, some folks (including some writers) just aren’t empathetic enough to pull it off. Different people possess very different levels of empathy, and I’m willing to believe that there are writers who are very good at writing what they know but aren’t empathetic enough to write about people who are ‘too’ different from them, no matter how much research they do.

  23. I’m planning on doing a story where a black woman solves mysteries. It’s really fun to try to write this way. If you try really hard, you can _feel_ like another person. Or at least you can convince yourself that you feel that way. I don’t know how other people _really_ feel, but it is fun.
    I liked how you said we can fail. That’s important to encourage one to do something new.
    The other day, I almost got my nails done.

  24. I think one of the other huge issues here is the idea of being called a racist or some such when you are far from it and trying like hell to be accurate and sensitive. One should try, at any rate, to be inclusive in some capacity.
    However, its a bit disingenuous for POC to say white people should include POC in their novels even though they don’t “know anything about them”, for a couple of reasons. One reason is that many POC mean “black” when they say there need to be more minority characters in books. This really isn’t fair – they are being exclusionary and will complain about the work when there isn’t a black character. Another reason is what Tobias said above about writing Americans. While I understand he was being rhetorical based on the statements made by Doug, the fact is that there is no writing “Americans”. any group of Americans written about would be as diverse as any other group of Americans around – in my building alone are at least four different groups of people who, if you were to put them in a story, would require the exclusion of some other group because they are so diverse – and they are all white. And no one would complain about how you wrote a bunch of white people, which leaves you more freedom to be creative and give them patois or dialect or whatever other vocal patterns and physical attributes you feel are necessary.
    Which brings me to my next issue with this. Some places are white. Some are black. Some are xenophobic and exclude the “other”. Some are inclusive but not many minorities want to go there. (There was a real life court case brought by a black man who was gay – the gay bar he went to didn’t have enough black patrons for him.) If the place you are writing about is exclusively one color for some reason (Crystal Rain comes to mind), how could you be wrong for making that choice?
    I think it is a good idea to write all different colors and cultures in your work that are applicable to the world you have designed. If I were to write about my neighbors, and my neighborhood, everyone would be white. I could certainly make someone a different color, but then the dynamic would be different and the story would no longer be about my neighbors. Which would be fine if I was writing some speculative fiction about a POC or whatnot moving into the neighborhood and if anyone even notices or cares. When Lando Calrissian showed up in Star Wars, it didn’t make people say “Look, diversity.” It made people say ” There is one black person in the Universe – are there any more anywhere? And what race is that? Are the white people American/European? Is Lando African or Jamaican or something else? Why doesn’t he have some sort of accent to indicate where he’s from?” etc. It was great, but it was distracting. IOW – Lucas Did It Wrong, he should have had a planet of Landos, or show more races, to integrate with the rest of the universe.
    Which brings me to my last point – it can be just as harmful to your work to include the incongruous minority which pulls us from the story or other work just to include a POC as it is to not have one/many/any at all. More than research, you need a reason (except for universes that are just populated by other colors and races and whatnot.) to have a POC or many POC in the novel, even if it is just a reason you know that you never tell. For instance, I am making a main character in my graphic novel black because he works with an Android who is subjected to racism (or is that specieism?) for being an Android. He willingly partners with him because he feels he can help with the Android’s feelings hatred, etc, from other people. But he could have just as easily been black or Hispanic or Asian for no reason because we have those races here on Earth and they really do exit in most/all walks of life. But if I set it in space, and his partner was black, I really think it would jar the reader and make them feel like I was forcing the multicultural issue, unless I’m a damn fine writer.
    So, yeah. This is a BIT more complex than you are making it sound. Other than the anxiety of getting it wrong, there is the anxiety of getting it right even and still being called things you aren’t, just for trying. And some people won’t even appreciate the trying. For some people, that stigma is not worth the trying.

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