Diversity in Fiction: The Problem With White People

The Peters Map porjection

“I’m kind of getting tired of all this talk about diversity in speculative fiction. It’s already there among independent writers. We just don’t have access to the distribution and marketing the mainstream publishers enjoy. So when you speak of diversity in speculative fiction, be more specific. Say ‘diversity in speculative fiction among major publishers.’ That’s what you’re really talking about.”
-Milton Davis, author of Meji

Much is made of the so-called diversity problem in fiction. There is a silent epidemic involving diversity, one which is never addressed, but I frequently attempt to bring up whenever I’m on a panel or in other public discussions relating to diversity. It is the “white people” problem.

Yes. There is a problem with white people. How many times have you been reading something and the characters were not described at all, or they were described as being white, Caucasian, normal, or at best European? Often at the heart of the diversity problem is the accusation of lazy writing, poor writing, whatever you want to call it. Some people defend this as relying on commonality or reader expectation to facilitate more quickly getting into the plot.

The problem with this is: there is no such thing as white people. There are Polish people who have a rich culture and history and have their own contributions to the world’s cuisine. There are Welsh people with their own language, and their own politics, and their own handcrafts. In fact every group hailing from the westernmost reaches of Eurasia have their own separate identity. When we refuse to acknowledge this we are shortchanging our readers, our characters, and overall depriving everyone involved of a far richer experience.

So what I say when speaking publicly is, “there is no mass of whiteness. Even here in the United States everyone comes from somewhere. They have their own backgrounds historically, but also regionally here in the New World, further complicated by issues of economic class. You could just as easily take two or three sentences initially, and then a few more here and there throughout the story, to provide the necessary background to make a distinct, memorable character. Including those details opens doors to all sorts of other plot and subplot possibilities.”

See, it’s not hard really. But as someone with pale skin you are frequently trained to think of yourself as if someone who is just “white,” and by the same token folks with more heavily pigmented skin are frequently trained to do the same. The merest bit of forethought, backed up by say five or ten minutes of research–or even just recalling some memories of people or situations from our own past–can fill in these gaps, thereby creating the narrative far more realistic and convincing, making it easier for readers to fully immerse themselves in your world.

When discussing diversity in fiction I feel that the “white problem” is the greatest threat confronting us as authors and editors and agents and publishers and readers. Plugging directly into that so-called mass of whiteness programs us as creators to not think in terms of how people are different, and how those differences can clash or complement each other, and how various cultural touchstones can organically build interesting plot points. Once we unshackle ourselves from that amorphous mass of whiteness we will be limber enough to ensnare and employ all sorts of various identities, make it easier for readers to differentiate between characters, and–when our work is eventually adapted for television or stage or film–provide opportunities for a wide array of actors.

After all, who does not want their work to be memorable? Who does not like the memorable character? Frequently we write about ourselves, and if you are a person descended from Western Eurasia you are bringing that experience to the table as a creator. However, if you are the blueprint for every character in your stories that will wear thin very quickly. Even looking back into your own family tree you will find all sorts of interesting details deviating from your contemporary family.

I’m not saying that “white people” are boring; I am suggesting that stories about white people too often are hobbled because the potential for these characters to be dynamic is insufferably diminished by how we approach them. Making white people interesting doesn’t require any reinvention, it just requires permitting them to be themselves. As an editor over the last dozen years I have repeatedly seen authors present a depiction of white people that conforms to the official narrative, but rings desperately hollow, not just because I personally know the authors in question do not have that in their background despite being pale skinned, but because the characters are so flat and one-dimensional they are completely interchangeable.

Be kind to your white people. Stop crushing them flat. Once they are fully inflated with detail you will see how kind they can be to your story, and how easy it is to start contemplating and implementing other ethnic backgrounds.

Now that we have that out of the way we can progress to the rest of diversity in fiction, as described by Milton Davis in the quote above, which is to say: we’re embarking on a lengthy journey. To be continued…