“Representation in Media” has become a hot-button topic across print, film, television, you name it. As a child, most of the things I learned about the world I learned from reading books or watching television. How I view myself, how I view others, what I should expect from society…
For some people, this is just fine as society was built to look like and cater to them. For the rest of us…well let’s just say, it’s 2021 and we still ache to see ourselves–- not flat or embarrassing or monolithic depictions– in the stories we consume every day.
Writer’s have the ability (and in this writer’s opinion, the mandate) to build the world we want to see out of the broken pieces of the world we live in. Minority writers especially are well-poised to do this work, and everyone else could stand to learn from their recommendations.
Many of us call for better representation in what we watch or read, but the onus is also on us to demand better representation in what we write! We can either put in the work to honor other marginalized communities, or run the risk of propping ourselves up on their further tokenization.
For example: I am a non-binary, pansexual, Black, and autistic writer who grew up poor. Each of those identities act as overlapping lenses through which I view and experience the world. They inform what I choose to watch or allow my kids to read, and they inform the characters I write and the stories that I tell about them.
However, I am not indigenous, I am not Latinx, I do not use a wheelchair. If I want to represent these identities in my writing, I can’t just shove them in with no research, with no real communion in these spaces. Otherwise, I would have really unbalanced writing with glorious, complex Black femme characters but only stale stereotypes of additionally “othered” communities.
It is a disservice to those communities, and worse, my story genuinely suffers from the oversight. It is important that we as writers interrogate this: in my own practice, I find that means being brutally honest with myself about my own ignorance and biases.
But I am just one person, so I interviewed three other minority writers to hear about their experiences with purposeful representation in their genre as well. Which leads me to my first takeaway: Writing in a vacuum is the best way to ensure stale, underdeveloped identities and stereotypes in your work.
Writing in a vacuum is the best way to ensure stale, underdeveloped identities and stereotypes in your work.
India Jones is a Black woman screenwriter from Pittsburgh. She describes herself as an “independent student of writing,” citing lack of representation in television and film from childhood as the thing that inspired her to start writing.
SYR: Do we need representation in every program or movie?
IJ: Yes. Representation doesn’t start on screen, it matters in the writer’s room! It starts even with the director. We don’t need just representation, we need diversity. Have you heard about this? I’ll send you this report. There’s a whole thing about how the way we represent the criminal justice system on television skews the way society thinks about it.
You can find the report at https://hollywood.colorofchange.org/crime-tv-report/.
In Sci-Fi and Kids’ Lit
Christine starts by telling me, “I quit a lucrative job in engineering to try and show the images of kids like my own, [inner-city kids who weren’t poor or incarcerated], but I was unaware how many barriers there would be in publishing. My editors had to re-train their agents and buyers on how to look for stories.”
SYR: Re-train their agents? What do you mean?
CTB: By 2005, I worked with three people- all Black- who were all saying the same thing: They were having to retrain authors to stop sending them oppression and historical stories- they wanted mainstream stories about Black kids doing mainstream, and fun, things.” She goes on to tell me “Realize that was in the early 2000s, and fifteen years later, it’s still a problem…Even when you try to talk about things related to you culturally, that [don’t] fit the mold; ‘it’s not a universal story’ you’re told [by editors and publishers].And even if you manage to write marginalized characters, you still have to get through a mostly-white gatekeeper publisher who has to get through mostly-white gatekeepers at schools and libraries.
SYR: So how do you go about writing marginalized characters with backgrounds different than your own?
CTB: What I don’t know, I find out.
It sounds simple, but Christine told me about living on a Navajo reservation for a few weeks in order to be in community with a new culture, to ensure she could bring honor to their stories, to gain permission to share what should be shared, and leave out hurtful stereotypes for one of her characters. For another, she spent time with a Spanish language and culture community. Read about her diverse group of kids on sci-fi adventures in The Lost Tribes.
And remember, if you can’t or haven’t been in community with a marginalized group, do not try to tell their stories. Pay them to tell their own stories instead.
In YA Fantasy
L.L. McKinney, named one of The Root’s most influential African-Americans in 2020, writes about Black Girl magic. (This article is not a review for her debut novel, A Blade So Black, but I wish it was because that book changed my life just by the voice of the main character alone. Go read it.) I reached out to L.L. Because she is a vocal advocate for representation in publication.
SYR: Do you consider yourself marginalized? If so, how does that show up in your writing?
LLM: I’m a Black queer woman with an invisible disability, and I write predominately about Black queer women and girls.
SYR: Talk to me about representation in your work.
LLM: I and people like me deserve to exist in this or any world. I don’t entertain any notions to the contrary. Other people also deserve to exist and I include them of course. When I do, I have multiple people who share their backgrounds read that work. Hell, I have other people read work about my Black characters as well. I grew up in this same world with its biases, sometimes I don’t see how those eek out onto the page. People are important and if I’ve put them in my world, I’m going to do all I can to make sure I give them the respect due.
SYR: Can you talk more about how you do that?
LLM: Say in the Nightmare-verse. We met some other Dreamwalkers who were the Tweedles, white boys. I didn’t want that for other potential Dreamwalkers so I wrote the characters of Haruka and Romi. They are Japanese…I insisted on reads from someone who was Japanese. I got notes on language, customs, formalities, plenty of stuff, and I adjusted accordingly…You can add in that my publisher made the arrangement, sent the reader the manuscript, then sent me the reader’s notes, so there was always a boundary between us to the reader felt free to say what they wanted/needed. So publishers DO know what it takes and CAN accommodate it. It’s a choice when they don’t.
In Your Genre
When I pitched this article, I wanted to provide some handy tips that every writer can use to be more mindful about representation in their own writing:
- Don’t write in a vacuum, employ multiple (paid!) sensitivity readers because no identity is a monolith
- Diversify your consumption—make it a point to read (and promote) queer, Black, Brown, and disabled authors. Read their published work but also read their personal words about their own lived experiences. And believe them!
- Search #ownvoices tags on social media to find relevant consultants and sensitivity readers and diversify your consumption
- Purposefully diversify your characters: are they queer enough, do they have mental illnesses, do they come from varying socioeconomic backgrounds, etc.
What I heard repeatedly in my interviews, however, is that better representation is a problem that starts at the top. Non-marginalized writers can and should help advocate for better diversity in the producer’s and publishers’ offices.
Insist that Black and Brown stories get told; That Trans and Nonbinary voices are elevated on panels; That Neurodivergent and Disabled writers are in charge of their own stories. And make sure that all of these people are getting paid for their labor.
Ultimately, we can’t sit around waiting for more representation. We have to demand it of ourselves and our industry.
So What’s the Point?
By now you’re probably wondering, what does all of this have to do with “looking both ways”? I’ll say it simply: If you only look one way at an intersection, you risk getting hit!
See how awkward it is to get blindsided while you’re reading? That’s kind of what it feels it’s like to read your identity being misrepresented in published work! Please save yourself and your “road-mates.” Interrogate your own worldview for tools that you can use when interacting with or handling identities that are different than your own. Look both ways. Happy writing!
Schereeya is a North Carolina-bred, United Kingdom-trained, multi-disciplinary theatre artist who has been working on her novel (currently titled “Preparers”) for five years. When she’s not tweeting hilarious jokes (@Schereeya), or photo-journaling to maintain mid-pandemic sanity on Instagram (@Schereeya), or reading or playing with her two small children, Schereeya writes about writing (and her novel) at patreon.com/Schereeya. She’s available to hire for freelance writing, performance consulting, acting, and directing.