I grew up in a tiny Midwestern town where the only people of color in my school were the Ahmeds. Everyone else was some flavor of European descent. The Ahmeds were Muslim, but I didn’t learn this until some time late in high school. No one ever talked about the family’s religion, just as no one ever asked why none of the Ahmeds were ever around for lunch (they very quietly went off to pray to Mecca at noon, as is the custom of that faith). Since nearly everyone in the school had been raised in some form of Christianity, it never occurred to us to consider that someone might not be.
This is relevant to my work in fiction. I’m sure you’ve heard the catch phrase, “Write from life.” Well, even if a writer isn’t consciously drawing upon their own life experiences, that’s how creativity works. The worlds and stories in our heads are cobbled together from what we are exposed to, day after day. When we people our inner worlds, the characters are drawn from what is most familiar to us — at least, that’s our default if we don’t make an effort for it to be otherwise.
If, like me, you happened to have grown up in predominantly white, predominantly Christian Middle America, where a person could stand out simply because they dressed differently, that means your default inner world isn’t a particularly diverse one.
That is not to say this diversity is lacking due to a conscious decision to exclude other races or religions or lifestyles. It’s simply human nature. We default to what we have always known — the people, roles, and situations we have consistently been exposed to.
TV reinforces most of the things I grew up with — over and over again, the situations portrayed on television feature predominantly white, predominantly Christian, predominantly straight male protagonists. Are the writers of your favorite show being intentionally racist and sexist when they pen episodes where women and people of color are consistently cast in minor roles — or where they only appear as victims or villains? Not necessarily. They’re just parroting back the world they have been exposed to themselves, a world reinforced by other writers doing the exact same thing.
It’s a vicious cycle, and it’s one that needs to stop.
The world we live in today isn’t the whitebread Middle America I grew up in. Especially because of the advances in media communications, we live in an increasingly global society. Straight, white, European men are only a small part of that. When I grew up, race was an issue of black people and white people — we didn’t even know what to do with the Ahmeds! They didn’t fit the script, so we treated them as outliers. We really had no clue. And maybe at that time, we had some excuse. But these days, with the wealth of races and cultures people are exposed to? We have to think differently.
And some of that must start in the stories that we tell.
Again, I’m going to stress that this is not about conscious racism, sexism, and exclusion. It’s about a quirk in how humans order our world in our heads, and how everything we subsequently imagine is then shaped by that order.
Humor me for a minute. Imagine a little scene — let’s make it a bustling cafe. Picture the tables, the chairs, the counter, the sign with all the prices and names of the drinks.
Now populate it with characters. People sitting at the tables. People standing in line. People behind the counter. Imagine the scene as clearly as you can.
Now … take a look at the scene you have built in your mind. What color are the people? If they’re all the same color as you (or nearly all of them), ask yourself why. And if your answer is something like, “There’s always more white people in places like this,” really give that answer some thought.
Is the person serving behind the counter a girl? Why? What narratives have you been consistently exposed to that make women your mental default for a service position? I’m sure you weren’t thinking about it that way, but that’s how these persistent narratives get insidious. We don’t see them as necessarily sexist or stereotyping. We see them so often, we simply view them as normal.
Speaking of “normal” — what’s everyone wearing? What kind of diversity (or lack of diversity) do these outfits suggest? Dig deeper into why this would be your default choice. And then ask yourself — is it a truly accurate portrayal of people these days, or is it merely the projection of the same old stereotypes we are all exposed to through mainstream media, day after day?
The only way to change that default so it more accurately reflects the diversity that truly exists in our world is to change the narratives. To be conscious of when we are defaulting to an assumed projection of how the world looks, as opposed to how the world — right now as we are living in it — actually is.
And you might ask — if you’re writing fiction, why is it important to accurately reflect this part of our world?
Maybe you can get away with not changing the narrative if you’re writing high fantasy in a setting specifically built upon white European culture — but I think, even in that circumstance, it is crucial to ask yourself why that white European basis is important to the story. If the only reason is familiarity, then maybe you should rethink that.
The genre I’ve chosen is called Urban Fantasy — although there’s magick, the stories don’t take place in Middle Earth or Westeros. Urban Fantasy happens right here — preferably in a big city that becomes something of a character itself. An important part of any city is its diversity. To make that setting genuine in fiction, you’ve got to capture that diversity.
That means white people and black people, brown people and yellow people — straight people, gay people, Christian, Sikh, Jew, transpeople, differently-abled people — all the exciting and varied flavors of humanity peopling our world.
If we are serious about telling stories in books, on TV, and in the movies, we have to stop recycling the same worn, paste-board cut-outs we’ve been fed over and over again. They no longer show things as they are — assuming generously that they ever did. If all we ever do is repeat the same tired narratives, those stereotypical defaults living in so many of our heads will keep us blinkered to the world as it really is.
And the real world is pretty damned amazing.