I was reading old posts of my new favorite blog and I came across this post Against Tokenism. Reading this and thinking about the recent kerfuffle over the multiracial Spiderman (I would link to some of the stuff, but I don’t really want to give it any more credence/support), I can not help but think a little about race and multiculturalism in my own writing.
Like Jo Whittemore, I can not stand a token character of color. I would really rather not see a character of color in a piece, if that character is going to be two dimensional, kind of like this guy. Such a character always feel exactly as she suggests, forced and distasteful in a way that jars me out of the story.
As I read these pieces, I had to turn to think about my own writing. As an author, I can not imagine writing a world that is not populated by people of color. Even in a Regency romance (yes, I said it) that I wrote in my youth, I had to insert characters of color into the landscape (trying as I did to imagine how and where they would fit “authentically” into such a world). At the same time, as innate as it is for me to write and imagine characters of color, I still have to be vigilant so as to not fall into a sort of tokenism of my own.
The world I am writing now is diverse. Panteria is comprised of people of all races and cultures from across the globe bound together by the fact that they are all shifters: were-leopards to be more precise. I hope that I have conveyed this diversity persuasively, so that when I describe a Asian, African, or European character, those characters meld harmoniously into the world rather than sticking out like sore thumbs. Yet, even in with this amalgamation of cultures, I am not really concerned with articulating the uniqueness of the individual cultures, but more with understanding how all of these cultures come together and merge with shifter culture to create something that is uniquely Panterian.
Nate and Larissa’s human friends are equally diverse. Nate’s friend Eric is Chinese and Larissa has a friend, Miko, who is Japanese. I don’t really make a point of mentioning that in the novel, but that is who I picture these characters to be. I don’t throw them in for the point of diversity; however, in the end, their ethnic heritage doesn’t really inform their characters too much and perhaps that is problematic too.
Which raises the question of how we define diversity in literature. Is it the mere mention of a caramel complexion, almond shaped eyes, or kinky-curly hair on a character that plays a major role? Or do thoughtful representations of cultures and/or experiences have to play substantively into a work (such as the incorporation of Chinese history, Hindu religion, African American folk-lore, etc…) in order for it to be considered diverse? If it is the latter…that makes me wonder…. Along those lines, I will be interested in seeing how Miles Morales character is developed. Is his African Latino heritage central to who he is and how he will become Spiderman (if it isn’t, I will wonder why the emphasis on his dual heritage at all), or will it be just a gimmick to attract fleeting attention or to pay lip service to the notion of diversity. Will he live in and protect a world that is more diverse, or will he be a lone dark figure, pun intended, in a largely white world.
In the end, I think that I will say that being a person of color that is also author does not absolve me of being thoughtful about the way that I represent diversity in my fiction, nor does it make me innately adept at creating diverse worlds. If anything, seeing how frequently attempts at diversity fail, authors of color should be all the more vigilant about how we approach the issue of diversity to make sure that we don’t repeat the same errors we abhor.