Why I Write Diversity (With Bonus Poop Metaphor)

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Yesterday, John Scalzi wrote a post on Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is.

The post garnered much comment and many responses. (For ex: one great post on how John’s metaphor could do with some expansion). A lot of people made horrendously stupid remarks on that post that John promptly deleted, but there’s a lot of 101 level stuff going on in the comments of the kind that I get way too weary to engage with after a while.

But something that I think is worth my time is a number of straight white dudes saying, well, okay, I’m playing life on Easy Mode. I recognise that. Now what should I do? Sometimes the question came across as disingenuous, but often I read it as sincere. Because after all, working out what you can do can be overwhelming. As a lady with a lot of (straight, white, cisgendered, able-bodied, middle-class, educated) advantages myself, I often worry about what I can do to make life better for players who don’t share my lucky breaks.

Many good suggestions were made as a response to this: vote for politicians who want change for good; donate to groups that help (such as QUILTBAG support groups and the like); spread awareness of the issues (awareness itself, a very good thing to raise!). My favorite response along these lines was a comment by Mary Anne Mohanraj, upon whose brain I have a massive crush.

I thought about one thing I do, and one argument against it from people much like me that’s been bugging me lately for years.

So, hi, my name is Karen and I’m a novelist. I write young adult fantasy and science fiction, and I deliberately include people of various ethnicities, sexualities, cultural backgrounds, wealth levels, religious beliefs and ability levels in my work. I deliberately address things I think are wrong with the world in my fiction. My shorthand for this is “writing diversity”.

Writing diversity was a choice I made, because it would have been hella easier not to, and if I weren’t friends with certain people or didn’t read certain blogs or didn’t watch certain media products or a number of other things, I probably would have done just that. I’ve read the work I wrote as a teenager. It is a White European Fantasyland spectacular! And it probably goes without saying that in attempting to write diversity, I have occasionally made spectacularly bad choices that have really hurt and offended some readers.

Occasionally, other similarly privileged writers or would-be writers who don’t write diversity, encountering the notion that they could attempt to, like, try, will get upset. “But it doesn’t matter what I do!” they argue. “If I write diversity wrong, or write it in a way that you people don’t like, you will yell at me! And if I don’t write diversity, you will yell at me! I’m damned if I do, damned if I don’t!”

This argument, to me, smacks of a lack of understanding about the intention behind the action. Let me be clear, why you write diversity has little impact on how what you write affects your readers. They’re not able to see inside your secret soul. You can presumably be a festering bigot and still write diversity really well and inspire people to improve the world. Or you can be a really great person who has fucked up and written something horrible and hurt people badly. The wider effects of your work don’t depend upon your intentions.

But your intentions may alter your expectations, and I think that’s where the “damned if I do, damned if I don’t!” argument misses a crucial point. So I want to talk about intent for a second.

Speaking of my own intentions, I’m not attempting representation of characters who help display the actual diversity of the world so that people will be nice to me. I’m not including discussions of -isms because I expect my readers to respond, “Oh, she has successfully ticked off the -ism list and is therefore shielded from all criticism upon those grounds!”

Because one, lolno, and two, that isn’t the point. If you’re writing diversity because your intent is to be awarded cookies or brownie points or whatever the hell people imagine they’ll be collecting, ur doin it rong. If you’re writing diversity because your intent is to do what you think is the right thing, but you also expect you’ll get to munch on delicious praise cookies and never ever have to deal with people pointing out that you’ve made some offensive mistakes along the way, ur ALSO doin it rong.

The intent behind my writing diversity isn’t that I want credit for trying to be a good person. It’s that I am trying to be a good person.

Wait, okay, time for some SEMANTICAL DISCUSSION! I know, are you on the edge of your seat? For extra fun, I am going to use a metaphor employing poop, because that is how I roll.

I think that “be a good person” is a deceptive phrase. To me “goodness” is not about being, but doing. Goodness is not a destination, where once I get there I can sit down, cross my legs and say, “Hey, I’m good forever. I WILL NEVER LEAVE GOODNESS TOWN.” Goodness is a journey, where sometimes I travel happy and have a great time – and then sometimes I walk right into a pile of cowshit.

Goodness is a continual process of action where I strive, and often fail, to do the most ethical thing or things in a given situation as often as possible. I don’t think I can achieve a state of goodness and then stop. I believe that it is my obligation as a human being who wants to make life better for other human beings to do good.

Oh, and what is “doing good” in my perspective? A big part of it doing my best to fight inequalities of power and to increase the general lot of humanity – politically, socially, medically, environmentally, and any other -lys that come to mind.

I want to do good things, and I assume you (you-as-writer) do too.

(If you don’t, then I don’t really care about anything you have to say on this topic. Citing “damned if I do, damned if I don’t” as a reason not to write diversity is particularly unlikely to elicit my sympathy, because it implies that you would do it, if only you were rewarded appropriately. Ignoring the stunning power imbalances and incredible diversity of our world is not a good thing – in fact it contributes to endorsing those power imbalances and dismissing that diversity in favor of an entirely fictional and harmful construction of “reality”. I am not going to waste my time listening to people who want me to excuse their contributing to the badness of the world, especially when I have most likely heard and decided against every argument they would make multiple times before. Oh, and this is the point where I note that comments on this post will be screened.)

Anyway, you, writer you, have decided that instead of ignoring the badness, you are going to include diversity in your writing. Yay for you! And yes, when you get it wrong for some readers – spectacularly, harmfully wrong – they may point that out to you and you may feel bad. You may feel that you have been kicked out of Goodness Town! But you were never actually there, because Goodness Town doesn’t exist.

Instead, what has happened is that while traveling along Goodness Road, you have encountered some cowshit. Some people are now avoiding you because you smell atrocious and are making their lives more unpleasant. Some people have been avoiding you all along, because past experience has taught them that people who carry your brand of backpack are way more likely to stink of cowshit. And eventually someone else points out, kindly or otherwise, that, hey, you smell atrocious*! You should probably do something about that stench!

And no, it’s not fun to realise you are coated in cowshit. As someone who has frequently dived into a big pool of it, I honestly empathise with your sadness and shame. If you want to sit down and cry because you got cowshit all over yourself and made other people suffer your stink, that’s okay. Just make sure that you sit at the side of the road, out of smelling distance, so you’re not blocking the way for other travelers. And under no circumstances should you insist that others should halt their journey and listen to your Tragic Story About That Time With The Cowshit, It Even Got In Your Hair. They’ve got better things to do than listen to your sobbing. Cry, and then go and find a hose.

It’s important that you continue along Goodness Road, even if you are going to be forever more known to some people as “That Cowshit Traveller”. Because you’re not traveling Goodness Road so that you can avoid people pointing out the times you step in cowshit. You’re traveling Goodness Road because you want to do good.

tl;dr, without poop metaphor: It is important to me to write diversity because that is the good thing to do, not because I am trying to collect praise or ward off criticism. Sometimes I screw it up and people point that out. When this happens, I generally have a (mild) anxiety attack, which sucks. After I recover, I work harder at getting it right.

Because I may be damned by others if I do. But I’ll damn myself if I don’t.

* Some people have no sense of smell, and will tell you that you don’t stink at all. It is generally a better idea to take the advice of the people who are waving their hands in front of their noses.

My thanks to Willow, Jen, and Betty for pre-reading this sucker. Jen, I promise I am done with that paragraph now. No! Wait! Now.