Racial stereotypes stem from the fact that there may be many people of a culture/race that portray a certain characteristic. The "smart asian" trope? My old roommate was a straight A student, didn't have friends because she never stopped studying, got top marks in COLLEGE ORGANIC CHEMISTRY both I and II, had strict parents who demanded she get perfect marks, cried/whined for months when she got a B+ on an exam...
Stereotypes DO exist, yet we're screamed at to stop portraying them in fiction. So then writers might try to write something completely on the opposite end of the spectrum. That's pretty transparent, though, so not a good idea either.
Hm, so how about we write an "Americanized" asian girl who... eats with chopsticks, has some asian artwork all over her house, and gets awful grades.
Then you get people yelling STAHP THAT'S JUST PILING ON SUPERFICIAL TRAITS TO MAKE THE AUDIENCE KNOW "LOOK MY CHARACTER IS ASIAN. SHE'S ASIAN BUT NOT A STEREOTYPE. LOOK!!!!!"
Some other people are shouting: WRITE MORE DIVERSITY. IT IS CRITICAL. BUT NO TOKEN BLACK CHARACTER.
Someone else is screaming: YOU AREN'T ASIAN. YOU'LL SCREW IT UP AND NEVER UNDERSTAND OUR HARDSHIPS. STICK TO WRITING WHAT YOU KNOW BECAUSE YOU'RE GONNA BE OFFENSIVE NO MATTER WHAT.
And by now, writers, you are banging your heads against the wall because it's like: Yeah it's a good thing to write more diverse casts, but I'm going to screw it up or accidentally write an offensive stereotype.
Unfortunately, I don't think there's any way to actually write a diverse character (race/disability/sexual orientation/gender) with a diverse trait you yourself don't have--you're going to offend SOMEONE. You try to write more cultural traits into a character, and suddenly you're accused of stereotyping. You don't write enough cultural traits, and you're just writing an white-washed character and you just threw on the label of some diversity without actually including it. As authors, we just can't win.
But I still strongly believe we need more diversity. I just read a post about a three-year-old Aboriginal girl who wore an Elsa costume and got told by an adult woman and her two daughters that "black is ugly". This was told to a freaking THREE YEAR OLD who then went home in tears. There are countless stories like this, and I'm sure many of you have faced some kind of prejudice or snide comment about your race/gender/disability/whatever it may be.
So how can we include realistic diversity without pissing off (too many) people? (because someone's always going to be pissed. I say it's better to put forth an effort to understand another group of people and get a few details wrong than to just shy away from the topic altogether).
Let's go back to the Asian girl trope. First off, since "Asian" is an umbrella term (there are Japanese, Cantonese, Cambodian, Indian, Pakistani, Filipino, Sri Lankan, Chinese, Korean, etc.), I'm going to just pick Chinese for this example since that has so many well-known stereotypes.
So the definition of a stereotypical Chinese would be my roommate. Extreme smarts, she shops at Chinese markets, eats with chopsticks, watches anime, has all the asian "gear" like phone charms and stickers and cute pens and stuff. For the sake of this example, she is now a fictional character in a fictional novel. She exists and she's a stereotype, so now what? How do I make this come across as unoffensively as possible? Stop her from being a stereotypical token asian character added just to push diversity?
The key is don't make her the only Asian in the entire cast! This goes for all token POC characters. (or whichever diversity issue we're talking about.) They're at risk to being the token character when they're the only one. Let's give our Asian chick a friend--another asian chick. who's not top of her class. But she still likes watching asian dramas and eating chinese food and buying all the cute asian gear. She loves shopping and is in a sorority, goes to parties, loves to dance and learn how to do new hairstyles and braids and stuff.
Culture exists on a spectrum. You'll get extreme examples like my roommate, and you'll get people in the middle like Asian character #2. When you include a wide variety of perspectives, personalities, and cultural nuances among several characters, you'll actually be including diversity within a culture. That's awesome! That proves you know that my stereotypical roommate is not the sole definition of "ASIAN GIRL". There are so many TYPES and personalities and experiences of asian girls.
One huge point to keep in mind: Don't create two characters who are COMPLETELY OPPOSITE IN EVERY SINGLE ASPECT, on two opposite ends of the spectrum in EVERY way. That's just poor characterization and it becomes obvious that you're trying to shove in our faces that "LOOK I MADE A STEREOTYPICAL CHARACTER AND THEN A COMPLETE OPPOSITE CHARACTER TO PROVE I HAVE DIVERSITY!!!" That's not a great way to go about it. People and personalities and cultures and disabilities and whatever exist on a spectrum. Rarely will you find two people on opposite ends in every aspect of their lives. It will feel too contrived in your story to have characters like that. Most people can find something in common with each other, even if it's a miniscule detail.
Focus on the commonalities! That's the whole point of adding diversity--to prove POCs or people with disabilities ARE STILL PEOPLE LIKE EVERYONE ELSE. They have dreams and fears and desires. They have similar needs: food, love, attention, inclusion, etc.
In the mad rush to include diversity in your story, don't lose sight of the point: non-white/cis/healthy people are human beings too. They're just as deep and complicated as the white/cis/healthy characters, as meaningful and powerful and memorable. That's why we should include diversity, not to focus on the thing that makes them different, but rather highlight what makes them the SAME.
So even if you have a small cast of characters and can't include multiple characters of the same race/disability/whatever, write with that point in mind. It'll definitely help to have another well-rounded character(s) to show the spectrum of people, but it's not always feasible in the story. Either way, focus on developing a PERSON, not a race, not a disability, not a gender. Yes, all those things will definitely play a role in how that person was shaped, which will demand a LOT of research from you before you sit down to write them, but the multifaceted, 3-dimensional person with a damn good story to tell is the most important thing for me.
So in summary:
1. Groups of people, races/cultures/religions/disabilities/genders/sexual orientations/etc. are not all exactly the same within-group. They exist on a SPECTRUM. Write spectrums of people, not only the extremes.
2. If your story allows for it, write multiple characters of that diversity group (and write them on a spectrum of varying characteristics, lives, and personalities!).
3. The point of including diversity is to show that they are human beings, just like any white/cis/healthy character. They have goals, dreams, fears, likes, dislikes. Don't focus on what makes the character fit the diversity group. Focus on what makes them human beings. Above all, write well-rounded, multi-faceted people.
4. That's not to say disregard their diversities. Do your research on them! And not from other fictional books. Talk to people of that group. Read blogs written by them. Ask questions and try to understand them as people and how their experiences in diversity shaped them.
writingwithcolor.tumblr.com is a FANTASTIC resource for starting your research and getting a feel for the dos and don'ts of tackling different races in fiction. So check that out! You'll get varying opinions on the same topics, so that's cool too.
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