Representation Issues

Any demographic attempting to write from a different demographic is a sticky situation. Someone is inevitably going to be offended, regardless of the writer’s intentions, because readers are not psychic and writers are not omniscient.

For example, in Colossus, Monica, whose mother is Black, has a deleted scene where Rhodes asks her what they might want for dinner. Rhodes knows how to cook almost anything. He’s expecting her to request something fancy. Nope. She requests catfish. When he sneers at the suggestion, she counters with fried chicken. A Black character requesting fried chicken is problematic due to the stereotype that Blacks like fried chicken, and will inevitably offend someone. What that reader is not inferring: I wanted to focus on Southern comfort foods. The hostages have eaten nothing by oatmeal for several days; She wants something greasy and associated with family memories. Hence, catfish, fried chicken, okra, collards.

Another example is actually quite humorous. I used to follow a write who had written a book based on a family road trip. The book was non-fiction, not fictionalized at all. One reader did not appear to know this when she gave him a one-star review based on the fact that his wife was obsessed with shoes. She said it was stereotypical and offensive. He broke the rules that writers are not supposed to respond to reviews by pointing out: It’s non-fiction. That’s my wife. She’s obsessed with shoes. I don’t know how that conflict ended, but it was truly absurd.

When I started writing, I didn’t think anything of demographic representation or diversity. That is only something brought to my attention after I started reading Nan Monroe’s blog (which focuses largely on female representation), and followed a few writers who wrote pep-talks for the April Camp NaNoWriMo, from a group We Need Diverse Books (@diversebooks). I believe the emphasis is on encouraging non-WASP writers and spreading the love for existing diverse writers, but they also discuss representation of non-White characters by White writers, female characters by male writers, and LBGQT characters by cis-gendered writers.

I don’t like to get into or follow debates, or discussions concerning specific people/events (topics, yes, but I don’t stay informed enough to discuss people or events), but if you do, I recommend following Katherine Locke (@bibliogato) and Justina Ireland (@tehawesomersace), who post/Tweet frequently on current issues in writing.

I tweeted Justina Ireland not long ago asking, basically, How do we know if our representation is offensive? I know what is OVERTLY offensive, but if it’s ignorant or mis-guided, it’s likely to go right over my head. Justina’s answer was brilliantly simple: Have a wide range of beta-readers.

I have Black friends, but they’re the kind of friends who crack Black jokes or are so thick-skinned the fried chicken scene above would never occur to them as offensive, so finding someone to read it with possible offenses in mind was a bit of a challenge. I don’t usually pre-select my beta-readers – I generally either ask who is willing to read – but now I will have some friends in mind to ask specifically with issues or race and gender in mind. Take some time to consider who would be willing to read your material and who would recognize potentially-offensive material.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s