“You didn’t do enough.”
Great words, aren’t they? I could apply them to so many things… but today, it’s all about diversity. So let’s talk diversity. When have you done “enough?”
To use my own work as an illustration, I am writing a book with a main character who is kind of a threefer – female, ethnically Jewish (which counts as “non-white” even though she is caucasian), and considering that every single vampire has been at least a little on the LGBT side since thirty years before the publication of Dracula, I think she fills that “diversity” slot, too.
…And some of the feedback I have gotten is that she is “not diverse enough.” Specifically:
Judaism is too close to Christianity, and “You don’t want Judeo-Christian values to defeat pagan or Wiccan beliefs.” This makes me wonder exactly why neo-pagans would identify with a rampaging murder-demon.
She is “too white,” even though a 12th-Century British woman from a moneyed family probably wouldn’t be much else… and she doesn’t count as white, anyway.
Her sexuality is not a major in-story issue. That said, she laments her lost husband, laments her psycho vampire ex-husband, but also talks with a person who is clearly an ex-girlfriend. But see, I’m not doing any of it to make a point.
And the point of this ramble is? Of course I didn’t do enough. There is no “enough.” Diversity does not work that way.
Diversity is not a checklist, scorecard, or collectible card game.
“Collect ’em, trade ’em, get the whole set!” should not be your character design philosophy.
Ideally, having a diverse cast is something nobody would need to think about, with characters developing however they may. But of course, we are shouldered with a long legacy of “Black people don’t read books, so make your protagonist white,” or “Female characters can only talk about shoe shopping and boys,” or other stupidity. So yes, it is a very good thing to see people consciously try to branch out when developing a cast of characters, but the truth is that you can cobble together a gang of tokens and not ever approach true diversity.
True diversity is when a cast of characters resembles the appropriate part of society. False diversity is when you fill slots for “The Black” and “The Gay” and “The Wimmens” and “The Miscellaneous.” And the funny thing is, when you do the latter, it’s still guaranteed to not be “enough.”
Look at the header image. Look hard at it. The Burger King Kids Club managed to hit most of the “necessary” points, right? Well, no, you could argue that they didn’t do enough. After all, they forgot to include any Asian or Middle-Eastern kids, so the whole thing is wrong. Or maybe you could point out that it is a committee-driven cast of tokens without any real value whatsoever.
You see this all over – movies about vikings bend over backwards to include a token non-white Viking for “diversity.” Films set in Edo-Period Japan violate everything about history to stick a foreigner in there. Movies set in deepest, darkest Africa slip in Mighty Whitey for audience identification. And as silly as it is, as much as the last point seems to clash with the others, they all boil down to the same thing – letting an artificial fear (“Will I be racist if those vikings are all white?” “Will the audience be able to identify with African tribesmen?”) govern character design, and ultimately treat human beings like tradable commodities.
Looking back at Vintage Soul, I really don’t care how diverse it is anymore. I will be careful not to make a lily-white homogeneous cast, but the characters will have to develop that way first. I didn’t pull out a checklist with Lucy, and I’ll be damned if I do it with anybody else. Atonio Ortiz is very obviously Latino. Well, the name could be Italian, but it isn’t. And di I do “enough?” Naw, not when you look at it like that!
On the flip side, Cole Spade is caucasian. In a lot of ways he has to be – if he were black, his name would become an unfortunate slur instead of an intentionally-exaggerated noir character name. Also, despite his status as extremely all-American, in his pre-vampire days he hailed from a very specific part of Eastern Europe that is rather homogeneous. And finally, I intentionally made him look a lot like Larry Love/Rob Spragg from Alabama 3:
You’re welcome, ladies.
So, will I ever fill in all the proper token slots? Well, probably. There are going to be a lot of characters cycling through this series, and I can guarantee that they will not all be whitebread. But the thing is, none of them will be tokens. Race, gender, religion, and sexuality are not trading cards. When you start to view people as tradable commodities, you dehumanize them.
A truly diverse cast might contain any combination of ethnicities… and sometimes that means only one. Why? Because sometimes, that is what suits the story. It could also be a Small World-style melting pot, and that is suitable as well. Do what fits, not what matches an imaginary chart of people types, because I guarantee that you will leave something out even if you try to fill in every space. The answer to “How much is enough?” is a trick. There is no “enough.” Not ever. Not with that mentality.
In conclusion: Diversity in and of itself is an empty word. When you write a story, you must be aware of your own prejudices and be careful not to whitewash the world… but do not under any circumstances start filling in quotas and slots. Because you will never do enough.