It’s Messy in the Middle: Answering the Call for Diversity

by Colice Sanders
published in Writing

According to Ron Burgundy, played by Will Ferrell in the 2004 comedy Anchorman, “diversity is an old, old wooden ship that was used during the Civil War era.” Of course, this is both hilariously false and maybe the perfect metaphor for understanding the struggle around answering the call for diversity within the publishing world.

Answering the Call for Diversity

Within the last decade, the impetus for equal representation in art, politics, and education has grown from a quiet murmur in the back of the room to a charging battle cry. Publishers, critics, and readers now demand representation from all genres. 

How is your current project answering the call for diversity?

Are you proudly aboard the “diversity ship” as it sails forward into battle? Is your pen, your proverbial sword, drawn and poised to write your characters into a deliciously crafted and equitably represented battle?

Or are you on the opposing ship? Are you itching to release the diversity Kraken? Are you aiming your cannons to blast through the censorship of the “PC police” and so-called social justice warriors that threaten to derail your story with their politics?

Maybe you are standing on the shore, in the middle with most of us, wringing your hands, watching this frenzied mess play out while clutching your characters to your chest, unsure of if, or how to navigate it all. If you are nodding your head yes, maybe we can figure this out together.

“Walk The Plank!”

If you feel deeply opposed, bordering on rage, to being asked to consider diversity in your writing, this series may not be for you. I understand: free speech, down with censorship, end culture wars, etc. I gently release you back to your writing.

Additionally, if you are a “social justice warrior” looking for a righteous diversity sermon that will “convert” others, I release you as well. I’m not interested in talking at writers to showcase my vocabulary and “wokeness.” I wish productive writing to you as well.

“It’s Messy In The Middle”

This series is dedicated to the authors standing on the shores of uncertainty, lost in the messy middle of humanity while making attempts at answering the call for diversity. Together we will consider how to craft complex characters and build dynamic worlds with which readers with marginalized identities can connect.

You will not find an instructional laundry list of do’s and don’ts here; just an invitation to reflect on and explore underrepresented identities in your writing. If we are to answer the call for inclusion from our readers and publishers, we must be specific, honest, and intentional with our writing.

“Be Specific.”

What does it mean to write diversity? In the US, the word is often used as a more palatable way to refer to visible differences, often nonwhite racial and ethnic identities. However, diversity encompasses much more. 

From the moment we are born, gender, ability, sexuality, ethnicity, socio-economic status, and race combine to shape the way we see the world. These identities serve as a roadmap of humanity that guides us through the complexity of human existence.

We need to shift our writing beyond surface-level differences and begin incorporating more equitable representations of marginalized communities. Critics, publishers, and readers want to read books that center on these experiences because they exist, we exist, and we read books.

To build dynamic worlds with complex characters, we must be specific in illustrating the intricate humanity of underrepresented and marginalized identities. We cannot write the marginalized experience, but we can connect to universal truths that exist. But before we can do this, we need to be honest with ourselves.

Reflection #1: Reflect On Your Roadmap.

Examine your identity roadmap. Set a timer for 10-15 minutes and complete these questions. Try not to overthink your responses.

1. List as many parts of your identity that you can think of that are public or visible to others.

2. List as many parts of your identity that you can think of that are private or hidden from others.

“Be Honest.”

Why do you feel compelled to include diversity in this project? Hopefully, your answer involves more than “because that’s what publishers are requiring.” Shoving characters into your work for the sake of checking it off a list is bound to self-destruct.

Writing identities outside of our own experience requires us to be willing to listen, learn, and grow as authors. Be aware that holding a majority perspective can create limitations in our understanding. I don’t believe you have to identify as a member of a group to write about them, but at the very least you should understand that difference and bias exist. 

“Difference Exists.”

As a society, it’s time to remove our “color blind” bumper stickers. Recognizing difference is not the problem; it is when we discriminate against others because of their differences. Our previous three presidential races alone have made it abundantly clear that most of us in the US are in fact seeing and responding to color.

We see and hear difference every day. Hair, accent, clothing, gender expression, and physical abilities are more noticeable when they are different from our own. Although it’s uncomfortable to admit, we can make negative judgments about groups based on these factors. 

Instead of shying away from this truth, let’s be honest. Where and when did we learn to assign value to difference? As authors, we need to get curious about our reactions and how they impact our writing. Exploring our biases can be messy, but it is integral to answering the call for diversity in our writing.

A Majority Perspective

When we are writing from a majority perspective, it is essential to understand that our perceptions of marginalized communities may not always be accurate. I say this with love and understanding as an imperfect human being, just like you. Widening our perceptions requires us to shift the focus away from ourselves in order to understand others. We will examine this more throughout the series.

Reflection #2: Look Deeper

Use your responses from reflection #1 and go deeper. Spend 10-15 minutes answering the questions below. Again, try not to overthink or judge your responses.

1. Which identities are you most proud to share or be recognized as a part of?

2. Are there identities that you hesitate to be associated with or tell people about?

“Be Intentional.”

As authors, the worlds we weave have the power to impact individuals and communities for years to come. Your story can provide perspectives that move us forward or backward as a society. Therefore, we must be intentional in the ways we portray our characters.

We must strive to portray complete human beings instead of polarizing and fetishizing our characters. We can do this by exploring the complexities of identity through meaningful research and seeking culturally sensitive feedback. 

There are numerous resources available to gain perspective, but we must be careful not to invade safe spaces without consent, especially when members are not compensated.

“Roll Up Your Sleeves and Start Writing!”

Inclusive writing takes patience and courage. But when we are specific, honest, and intentional we can craft complex characters and build dynamic worlds that readers with marginalized identities can connect with. We can authentically answer the call for diversity while staying true to ourselves. Get started by completing the three reflection questions in this blog.

Reflection #3: Get Messy

Use your responses from reflections #1 and #2 to write a one-page description of how your collective identities have led you to become the person you are today. Focus on identity. Be specific and honest. 

Tell us in the comments: How are you answering the call for diversity in your writing?

Colice Sanders is a blogger and motivational speaker.  Colice writes YA, poetry, and memoir. Her blog chronicles her journey of radical self-acceptance through the lens of childhood trauma. You can reach her on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram!

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