Why It's Important to Do Research When Writing Diverse Books
I’ve talked some about how I want to see more diverse books, some reasons why diversity is important, and about places where readers and writers can find more information about diverse books. But writing, editing, and even talking about diverse books isn’t necessarily easy—there’s a lot of research involved. I’ve rounded up some reasons why doing research, listening, and thinking critically are important steps in writing diverse books.
The usual disclaimer: This isn’t an easy or fun topic to write about, but it’s important. This isn’t meant to be a complete list of reasons, but hopefully there are some helpful tidbits to consider here that will help you as you write or read diverse books (and other media). Always feel free to sound off in the comments with your thoughts and anything we’ve missed!
Why it’s important to do research when writing diverse books:
To confront implicit bias
Daniel José Older’s video about what it means when we italicize words in languages that aren’t English points out how silly it is that “standard” style is to italicize words that aren’t English. Many people have written about how what many people think of as “correct” grammar can other Spanish and languages that aren’t English, implying that they are less than and suggesting that English is somehow the standard and other languages are the deviation, even if explicitly, the author or editor believes that the languages are equal. This is just one example of the types of pervasive implicit bias that we (and our style guides) may have. Having implicit bias doesn’t mean that someone is a bad person, but it does mean that we should all be thinking critically about why we believe certain things are “correct.” Pretty much everyone has some sort of bias they need to reckon with, whether it’s assuming that “standard” style has no implicit bias, or whether it’s something less subtle. (Sidebar: FYI, as far as I’m aware, most U.S. trade publishers use the Chicago Manual of Style as the default style guide, and the typical reading of the style guide is to italicize non-English words—at least for now. But I’d love to see publishers become aware of some of the issues associated with that practice.)
Unfortunately, with so few books and media featuring diverse characters, it can be easy to form biases about certain languages, cultures, religions, sexual orientations, gender identities, disabilities, and underrepresented groups without realizing it. Whenever we have a strong reaction to something featuring characters who are from a different background than we are, it’s worth asking ourselves where that reaction comes from and whether it could be coming from implicit bias. Here’s a great video about implicit bias, internalized racism, and acknowledging and overcoming both. There’s also the Implicit Association Test that Harvard University created, on online test which we can take to start to recognize own biases.
To be aware of offensive language and microaggressions
This conversation between Janet Mock and Stephen Colbert about the language used to talk about gender identity underscores some of the complexity and importance of language. They also discuss how some folks may find it uncomfortable to continue learning about language, how it changes, and what it does—but Janet Mock underscores why it’s important to use languages thoughtfully and respectfully. (Sidenote: Janet Mock’s memoir, Redefining Realness, is amazing and I highly recommend reading it.)
Language evolves over time, and everyone has different reactions to terms and labels. Unless you’re a part of a community, you may not know what terms are considered offensive, what terms are respectful, and what normalized terms are actually slurs. But there are resources that can help. For example, GLAAD has an amazing media reference guide that lists offensive terms that should be avoided. And paying attention to the conversation online, especially respecting #ownvoices (#ownvoices is a hashtag created by Otherbound author Corinne Duyvis “to recommend kidlit about diverse characters written by authors from that same diverse group”), is extremely important. I’m hoping to see more and more books from #ownvoices in the future.
Microaggressions and erasure are other missteps that may not be immediately obvious unless you’re from a particular background or community. Here’s a post about microaggressions the disabled community encounters, and here are some microaggressions (and not-so-micro aggressions) the trans community faces. This “Bisexual Makeup Tutorial” video talks about microaggressions, bi erasure, and stereotypes that bi women have unfortunately grown used to.
To avoid perpetuating stereotypes
This video of Indian people reacting to Indian stereotypes in U.S. media points out some specific examples of harmful stereotypes about an underrepresented group, and how those stereotypes are perpetuated by representation in TV and film. (And please tell me that you’re watching Aziz Ansari’s show Master of None. If you haven’t seen it yet, stop everything and watch it now. The episode “Indians on TV” deals with representation in the media, but the whole show is a must-watch.)
One of the reasons why diverse media is so important is that it gives people an opportunity to learn about people who come from different backgrounds or identities. But whether you’re writing or editing (or commenting on) something with diverse characters, it can be easy to stumble into stereotyping. But in order to recognize, understand, and unpack harmful (negative or positive) stereotypes about communities that we aren’t a part of, we have to actively seek out information about stereotypes that exist. No matter what your background or personal experience is, if you’re an author committed to writing diverse books, you’ll most likely eventually write a character who doesn’t come from the same background that you do—and you’ll probably need to do some research (or at least some critical thinking) to make sure that you’re not perpetuating any stereotypes.
To avoid cultural appropriation
It doesn’t feel good to learn about cultural appropriation, but as a writer, it’s an important issue to be aware of so you can avoid it. Folks who are much smarter than I am have written plenty about the differences between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange. I especially think this article about a white feminist who came to understand that her dreadlocks were appropriative is a good entry point if you’re confused about what cultural appropriation means and why it’s problematic.
Because the conversation about diversity is not just “political correctness”
For some, it’s easy to write off the diversity conversation as political correctness. This video is a quick primer on why that’s wrong, and the YouTube description links to dozens of resources, including YouTubers of color, examples of diverse representation in media, census information that shows how diverse the United States really is, and more.
Also, Writing with Color has a great post about how diversity exists in the real world, and there’s no such thing as “gratuitous” diversity.
Because you, as a writer or a reader, can help
The video above is a thought experiment that came as a result of Feminist Frequency’s series about Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. Since the series talks so much about problematic representation and harmful tropes in video games, Feminist Frequency made the video above as an example of what positive representation of women in video games might look like (watch this video for more about that). I’m including it here because it’s really disheartening to learn about bad representation, stereotypes, and implicit bias. But it’s nice to imagine a world where good representation is easier to find. The good news is that you have the power to help!
If you’re a writer, you can change representation in media by writing diverse characters. And if you’re a reader, you can help too, by reading diverse books, spreading the word about diverse books (particularly #ownvoices) and demanding better representation in media.
No one is perfect—everyone has something they can learn. The important thing is to be open to learning and correcting assumptions and biases that we may not be aware of having. It’s impossible to not make mistakes, but we should still try to create and support books and other media featuring diverse characters. (Remember, if you need a few reasons why diverse books are so important, I listed some in a previous post).
Writers, what sort of research have you done when writing diverse characters? What blogs, hashtags, or books have you found most helpful or inspiring? Readers, what is some of your favorite media with good representation of underrepresented groups? What should we all be adding to our TBR (or to-watch) lists?
Every weekday in November, we’ll be including a super special writing prompt at the end of all our blog posts! Check out today’s: