I was recently sitting in a panel about representation at a con when one of the panelists repeated something I'd heard before, "REPRESENTATION SAVES LIVES." Unlike the other times I'd heard it, those words hit me square between the eyes like a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick.
So, I'm going to jump into some messy territory this week and talk about my struggle with trying to be representative in my writing. This a minefield of complicated, uncomfortable issues. As I've dug into this, I've realized that my greatest obstacles are the filters I have between what I 'believe' I know or think, and the reality of what's going on in my head. Put simply, there's a disconnect between what I 'think' I know about myself, and what's really happening behind the curtains in my mind. It's like Oz the privileged white guy is back there still pulling levers. It's personal, messy, challenging stuff.
I'm writing about me, but this is also a call to others to really dig in and look at how we view others. This isn't simple stuff, it takes work, but it's important.
I kind of look like a poster boy for white privilege and the patriarchy. I'm a middle age, cis, white guy with white-grey hair and blue eyes. I've seen myself represented in film, TV, comics and every other media from the moment I could understand what it meant. I grew up in Arizona where casual racism was everywhere. I grew up hearing people called "Spics", "Beaners" and "Wetbacks", the undercurrent of cowboys and Indians translated to 'The only good Indian is a dead Indian', brazil nuts were referred to as n***er fingers, and on and on.
How do I begin to wrap my head around how important it is for other people to see themselves represented positively? With my upbringing and a base level advantage of being white, male and middle class, it's not something I can understand at anything more than a rational level. It's nothing I've lived.
The first thing I learned from my friends who are People of Color, Native American or LGBTQ, is to shut up and listen to people. That doesn't mean trying to explain my perspective, it means exactly what it says. Shut up and listen. And that's hard, uncomfortable work. If I really listen, I can't help but hear the pain, the fear, the rage, the heartbreak. That's intimidating.
People of Color, Native Americans, and members of the LGBTQ community have endured things I can't begin to imagine. And in that is precisely where some of the disconnect happens. I literally can't understand what they've been through. Had I experienced some of the things they had, I could easily see myself either in prison or dead. And that, right there, is white privilege talking. As a white guy, I come at situations with the expectation that the playing field is going to be level. That simply isn't true.
I can't fix what my friends and others have experienced, but as a writer I can make the effort to see that they are represented positively and powerfully.
Why representation matters:
According to the Trevor Project (statistics), "LGB youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth, LGB youth suicide attempts were almost five times as likely to require medical treatment than those of heterosexual youth, 40% of transgender adults reported having made a suicide attempt. 92% of these individuals reported having attempted suicide before the age of 25."
According to the CDC, "American Indian/Alaska Natives (AI/AN) have the highest rates of suicide of any racial/ethnic group in the United States. The rates of suicide in this population have been increasing since 2003." "Compared with whites, AI/AN decedents had... 2.4 times the odds of a suicide of a friend or family member affecting their death."
There are loads more statistics out there including a spike in suicide among Black boys between the ages of 5 and 11 (Journal of American Medical Association).
"Researchers looked at the suicide rates among children ages 5 to 11 between 1993 and 2012. The rates overall did not change over these years, but the rates among black boys rose from 1.78 to 3.47 per 1 million. In contrast, suicides among white boys declined from 1.96 to 1.31 per million." (CNN)
When it comes to positive representation one obvious place to start is Black Panther. Like the words "Representation saves lives" finally hitting home at the con, it took seeing the reaction of people to an African superhero for another part of the whole equation to unspool for me. Seeing kids playing with toys from stories about people that looked like them somehow made it all make sense. These people that looked like them were not only smart, but powerful and compassionate. They did things just because they were the right things to do. And when we talk about masculinity that isn't toxic, King T'Challa is a great example. He treats people in his sphere with respect, even though he is king. He doesn't claim to know everything, instead he listens to those who are more knowledgable and considers their counsel deeply. This in no way erodes his power as a leader or a man.
"T’Challa’s nature is to be merciful. He’s internalized this principle to the point that it guides him instinctively. Rather than kill M’Baku, he asks him to yield. Rather than let Agent Ross die, he takes him to Wakanda and lets Shuri heal him. Rather than turn Erik away, he accepts Erik’s challenge for the throne." One Tribe: Black Panther's Altruism
"It’s about more than gender equality, however, as the film takes a pretty serious look at fragile masculinity and the way in which men are raised to deal with (or not deal with, more often than not) their emotions. T’Challa and Killmonger both openly weep at multiple points in the film, as two incredibly strong men struggling to come to terms with their pasts, and specifically their relationships with their fathers." Why ‘Black Panther’s T’Challa Is a Better Man Than Most Superheroes
And then there's the 'Scully Effect.' Research now confirms that women who watched the X-Files and saw Dana Scully portrayed as a smart, independent, powerful woman, were motivated to enter STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields.
"But Scully didn't just inspire women to work in STEM; she also helped to spike an interest in STEM among female viewers. For 63% of those women surveyed, Scully was the character who clued them in to the importance of STEM work, and 50% said their interest in STEM increased after watching Scully onscreen."
Both of these are great examples of representation.
One of the characters in the modern fantasy novel I'm currently working on is a trans woman. I really liked the character's arc, but her story concluded with her becoming possessed and doing something terrible. Her arc ending that way would be tragic, a great end for any character. But I wanted to check with someone who had 'skin in the game', which I as poster boy of the patriarchy didn't. I reached out to a trans friend of mine, Elayne. She got back to me and said she liked the character's representation and understood the reasons for her to go out that way, but warned me away from that ending. Her response hit the nail on the head:
"...there's already a lot of evil, murderous, demonic, possessed, psychotic, broken transgender characters in stories. In my humble opinion, we don't need any more. Not one more..
The world needs more stories about trans people making a difference. Trans people parenting, arguing with their spouse about important things, building structures, leading people, inventing things, and shooting the bad guy, and generally becoming icons that young humans growing up and discovering their identity doesn't match their body...and they can see someone living a life worthy of emulation.
If, for no other reason that this: write a character that future generations can look back on and hold up as an example."
Needless to say, that character is now in the trenches right alongside the main characters through to the end of the book. As I was working on the banner for this post I asked Elayne for suggestions for a trans character to use. I decided to go with Sera From Marvel's “Angela: Asgard's Assassin”, but Elayne had an awesome idea to leave the space blank with text something like "Insert transgender hero character here," to address the fact that there are so few characters like that out there.
It's a challenge to try and see past my own blinders. It takes work to change how I refer to people. I have a hell of a time using They/Them pronouns, it's just not something I'm used to. But I'm putting in the work and making the effort because it's not about me. And that's a critical piece in all of this. I care about my friends and others who need and deserve representation, so I do the work for them. Given the spectrum of experiences they have had, making sure I use the proper pronouns seems a pretty insignificant effort to support them.
On the Writing the Other facebook page, they sum up what I and other writers struggle with.
"Writers know that it’s important to write about characters whose gender, sexual orientation, religion, racial heritage, or other aspect of identity differs from their own. But many are afraid to do so for fear that they will get it wrong–horribly, offensively wrong–and think it is better not even to try."
There is so much more to this than I can get into here. I'm not an expert on any of it. I'm just a guy trying to make sense of it for myself and I hope this encourages others to take a hard look for themselves as well. I would recommend looking at what the folks at Writing the Other have to say, sit in on panels on representation like I did, and all importantly talk to people you know from communities that need representation - Then shut up and listen.