I’m afraid to write this post. Why? Because it’s about diversity in YA fiction, and writing about diversity is almost as scary as writing diverse characters. There’s a sense that you need to walk on eggshells, that at any moment you’re liable to say something offensive, un-PC, or just plain wrong.
The call to write diverse characters is everywhere, but when you’re not LBTQ, disabled, or a Person of Color, doing so is stepping into a minefield. No one sets out to create a character who is a stereotype. But when you’ve been fed those stereotypes all your life through the media and the institutionalized biases that run rampant in our culture, they can be hard to see beyond. Even worse, you may think you’re writing an authentic character, unaware that you’re reinforcing one of those very stereotypes.
A related problem occurs when you intentionally try to write against stereotype. The thinking goes like this: There is a stereotype out there of the young black man who is an unemployed, drug-dealing thug. Therefore the young black man in my book needs to aspire to a law degree from Harvard, speak the Queen’s English, and spend his spare hours doing volunteer work at the local hospital. Your character then becomes just as cardboard as the original stereotype, and what’s more, if your book’s setting is a crime-ridden inner city, downright unbelievable (is it okay that I said that??). This whitewashed, pardon the irony, version of your character is nothing but a knee-jerk reaction to the original stereotype, and therefore calls attention to that stereotype.
So how does a straight white woman like me go about creating characters who are very different from her? I don’t know, but I imagine that the answer lies in a combination of research, beta readers…and a bit of trust in our shared humanity. Through research, I can learn about the cultures of those different from myself, and once I’ve finished a draft, beta readers can reflect back to me any insensitive material I’ve unwittingly introduced into my work.
But the most important tool I have is empathy. Our skin colors and sexual orientations may be diverse, but my characters and I share primary human emotions and universal life experiences. If I can tap into the deep well of my feelings and experiences, I know I will find a connection with my characters whether they’re black or white, abled or disabled, straight or gay.
So I pledge to move forward boldly and do my best to bring diversity to my YA fiction. The danger of leaving deserving teens without books that reflect their backgrounds and experience trumps my personal fear of getting it wrong.