Writing diversity without propagating oppression

I was shocked when I realized that my FMC was, in my head, a young, Caucasian, blonde girl with a slender body. The main underlying theme of my novel is about prejudice and oppression! It’s amazing how the media brainwashes us to immediately think of that sort of character in a leading role.

I’m appalled at my own reaction to this realization. When I realized what my mind had voiced, I immediately started trying to justify my FMC’s whiteness “it would be too complicated to make her of any other race”. Then I thought “I can just make one of the side characters of another race.”

Yes. I, Nasim Mansuri, a mix of South American, Persian and ‘American’ blood, am scared to make my characters diverse because it would be too complicated.

And obviously this wasn’t a conscious attitude; as soon as my brain was able to coherently form those thoughts I just knew I had to make my FMC something other than white. Because if I’m having these subconscious attitudes towards diversity in media, then imagine how ingrained it must be in our culture!

It made me remember something I read about in tumblr some months ago, about the Netflix show Orange is the New Black. I don’t actually watch this show, but tumblr was quoting Jenji Kohan, the creator, on why the FMC in that show is white:

“You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals. But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories. But it’s a hard sell to just go in and try to sell those stories initially. The girl next door, the cool blonde, is a very easy access point, and it’s relatable for a lot of audiences and a lot of networks looking for a certain demographic. It’s useful.”

I’m not even going to start on the complexities of our society and why it was necessary for Kohan to need a ‘Trojan Horse’ to get her story across to her audience. But the fact that it’s necessary is sad.

And why? Why is my gut reaction to shy away from writing a character that is anything other than white, because I think she’ll be difficult to write? I’m a complete collage of races; I should know that this isn’t difficult at all, especially with the knowledge and resources I do have thanks to my background.

Looking at my reluctance to write an African American or Asian FMC, though, I partially understand. I don’t think I would dare to write a character from a culture so different from my own without the appropriate research. I’m terribly afraid of not accurately portraying the character and her family. And I don’t think that just Googling stuff is enough research in this case. We’re all still ignorant about so many cultures even though we often interact with them every day. And a poorly written PoC character can certainly cause more harm than good; the last thing I ever want to do is end up propagating the same stereotypes that ignorance and racism have been shoving in our faces for centuries.

So instead, I’m going to do a bit more research and create a mixed-race character. Hopefully my grandma will be able to share her experience as a Latina girl in the 1950s, and I’ll be able to touch on more of the prejudices that existed during that time.

I’m sick of only reading books with Latinas as main characters that solely revolve around the fact that they’re from Mexico/Cuba/etc. So I’m going to write a funny, kinda crazy Science Fiction novel with a possibly half-Ecuadorian (?) girl who has to solve a mystery and the plot doesn’t center on her heritage, even though she does suffer prejudice because of it and it’s one of those subtly dystopian things. Because we need to become used to the idea that main characters with diverse backgrounds are normal.

And I’m sure there are books out there with mixed-race main characters that have a plot that revolves around something other than their heritage, but frankly, I can’t think of one (I know many people envisioned Katniss from The Hunger Games as a Native American, which I think is awesome, but sadly since that was never explicitly stated… yeah, my brain immediately imagined her white. Hollywood I hate you), and I think that’s evidence enough of the fact that there simply aren’t enough novels like that. If there were more of them, I would have stumbled upon them and I wouldn’t have to be perplexed at the way my brain works right now.

I’m hoping that  I’m not more ignorant than I’ve already discovered I am, and I hope I haven’t offended anyone with said ignorance.

What’s your experience writing diverse characters? Do you have any good books to recommend that have a plot that doesn’t solely revolve around a PoC MC’s heritage?


If you’re looking for helpful resources when it comes to writing diversity in fiction, this thread is amazing and covers so much.

Also, in case you’re like me and spent years trying to find out what these acronyms are… MC: Main Character, FMC: Female Main Character, PoC: Person of Color (yes I know most people know this, but I didn’t until recently! PoC made me think ‘Pirates of the Caribbean, so I hope I can’t be the only one out there).

And a confession: I did kinda edit this post.

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4 thoughts on “Writing diversity without propagating oppression

  1. Hi Nasim.

    I am writing a trilogy of novels set in Chicago Black Belt in 1926 and most of my cast (including my two main characters) are PoC. And you know? I understand your hesitation completely. I was very worried myself when I started the project, but the story faschinated me so strongly I just had to write it. And in order to write it, I had to research a lot.

    I’m not African American. Hell, I’m not even Amercian, and that scared me a lot at the beginning, especially when I discovered that some things which are granted in American culture are completely alien to European understanding. It was a terrible discovery. But you know? Researching was fantastic. I learned a lot of things, I met so many fantastic people and I really think these four years of reserch and writing enriched me as a person.

    I really hope I’ll do justice to all the cultures and ethnicities involved.

    Your story ideas sounds fantastic,, I really hope I’ll have the possibility to read it – need a beta reader? 😉
    Can’t say my story doesn’t have anything to do with my MC’s heritage, because it does. But you know, there’s a reason why I wanted my two MCs to be Lakota, and to live in 1920s, so I think the setting and their culture should have a relevance in the story. This said, I’ll say I also have an Italian-American character and his heritage also has a relevance 😉

    Like

    • Wow, I think it’s amazing that you’ve invested so much time in research (I think I also thought that Europe and North America had rather similar cultures until I met more and more Europeans… and WOW, things are so different when you look closely). I’m gradually realizing the full extent of what it takes to properly write this novel and the prospect is both daunting and exciting… once I’m done with my first draft, it’ll probably take me years before I’m satisfied with the product.

      I have distant memories of meeting some members of the Lakota tribe when I was about four years old (if I remember correctly), so your story has also sparked my interest! And while I did say that I would love to read stories that don’t focus solely on the MC’s heritage, I don’t think it’s possible to write a story WITHOUT mentioning it… and repeatedly so, especially when it’s set in a society or time with so much ingrained prejudice. In fact, glossing over it would be a disservice to the culture and end up spreading ignorance! We have to tread carefully xD

      When I’m done with my first draft and enough editing to make the whole thing coherent, I’ll make sure to contact you 🙂 I’d also love to read your novel sometime if you’d let me!

      Like

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