I am extremely white. I confess to this. Growing up, the only place I saw people of colour was Sesame Street. The only disabled person on television was on Ironsides and I didn’t get to see a movie with an all-black cast until my mid-teens.
This does not mean that I can only write white people.
I am a human (we presume), and all the people I know are human (we presume) yet I spend every day coming up with aliens and fantasy creatures and I write them with personality, quirks, and a certain amount of depth.
It’s not like it’s hard.
George R. R. Martin is hailed for his amazing perspectives on female characters. He says it’s easy. All he does is write them as people and let them be women. I have no doubt that he’s known a few women in his lifetime. He may have even asked questions.
Yet, when faced with writing strong female characters or disabled people of colour or people whose sexuality doesn’t match the mainstream… there’s a sudden hue and cry about “forced diversity”. Especially from the gatekeeping set.
“Too many women,” they cry. “Too many people of colour,” they rave. “Too many disabilities,” they wail. Honestly, they sound a little bit… memetic…
[Shown here: Screencap from the first Harry Potter movie where Duddley Dursley was throwing a tantrum about his birthday presents. Over the top is the caption, “36 white male protagonists? But last year we had 37!” in all caps]
I honestly don’t understand it. White males have been saying, “If you don’t like it, make your own,” for absolute years. Now that people are, they’re cracking a shit because that stuff is popular. I’ll get onto gatekeeping and why it makes absolutely no sense at a later time. I’ve digressed enough.
Let’s talk about the lowest bars to clear. The Bechdel test, the Brown test, the Mako Mori test, the Furiosa test, and what I’m thinking of as the Minority Test.
We should all know what the Bechdel Test is by now. It’s linked there so you can educate yourself if you don’t know. The Brown Test is a yardstick I invented: a show contains two people of colour who do not act in a cardboard-esque stereotypical way when on screen. So far, Doctor Who and Black Lightning are leading on that one. Most shows only have one token person of colour, and if they have family, it’s an even bet that gangs or drugs will feature prominently within.
Mako Mori and Furiosa tests are simple: women on the screen as actual characters with their own agency, with little to no sexualisation for the duration. Not that hard, right? Screenwriters and directors do that for male characters all the time.
As for the Minority Test… it’s even simpler. Characters shown within any given minority are treated as real people throughout their presence in the show. That means you show the warts as well as the boons, they have real-feeling lives, real-feeling emotions, and don’t exist just to push the white hero forwards.
Corollary for animated movies: the minority hero is not turned into an animal for a majority of the film.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it?
It should be easy. Yet, I keep seeing this horseshit crop up time and time and time again. It’s almost exhausting. So. For those few of you who care, who want to do this right, here’s how to get your head into spaces where you, personally, are not.
- Look for blogs by and about the people you can’t easily understand. People have a voice in social media these days. Look for those with perspectives where you can’t see. People of colour, people with disabilities, people who are -basically- not like you. Start with the ones who aren’t angry about things if that helps [hint: the more oppressed they are, the less likely they are to put up with horseshit] but that search may be long.
- Research, research, research. Odds are, the things you were taught in high school were incredibly inaccurate and boiled down to the simplest of terms. Once you go down this rabbit hole, the scales will fall off your eyes and you will never see things the same way again. Look deep into the patterns of history and you will see how alarming it all is when you’re looking at the bigger picture.
- Have an open mind. Seriously. If you go in with a bias, you won’t get the full benefit. If you’re willing to represent correctly, then this shouldn’t be a problem. You have to be open to trying to understand, which leads neatly to…
- Imagine. Picture yourself in the same circumstances. Try to figure out what options there are when you have a similar position to the person you’re trying to write. If you’ve done part 2 correctly, you should know that the options are limited by now. You should know how trapped the minority-of-choice can get by the willing ignorance of others.
- Listen. If someone has a rational objection to how you’ve written a character, listen to that. It’s not hard. Apologise for doing it wrong. Learn. Grow. Do better next time. It’s a journey and your first efforts are not going to be perfect. And for the love of mercy, don’t pull a J. K. Rowling and retcon inclusivity into your past works with a firkin dartboard.
I’ve spent a lifetime attempting to learn about others, mostly because my Autism meant that I couldn’t understand the usual social folderol (and I still don’t TBH). I learned to fit myself into others’ mental space from an early age. It’s an effort to this day, and I don’t always get it right, but I’m trying, damnit.
Wouldn’t it be nice if everybody else tried too?
City planning changed when designers changed the virtual perspective from five-foot-something to three to four feet high. They saw that decorative hedges meant that people in wheelchairs and small children couldn’t see if cars were coming. That’s just one example of being willing to change your own perspective and seeing things from a different angle. In this case, literally.
What could change if you could see through someone else’s eyes?