Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Better no diversity than lazy diversity

#WeNeedDiverseBooks is a very important trend, because we really do need diverse books. In fact, we need diversity in all media, not just books, but because books are the best medium to get you into a character's head -- and thus learn from them -- then I would argue that diverse books are an absolute necessity.

But what do we mean by diversity? All too often, it's simply to have more people of color, or more women, and then declare victory. That's too simplistic, and I would argue is more damaging, in the long run, than having no diversity at all.

Why? Well, first of all it denies the user from having the rich viewpoint that a person of different color, gender or orientation can give them. Think about it -- does making a character black, for example, without bringing their viewpoint really do anything for your story?

Consider the following examples, from related TV shows. First: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Image from Wikipedia
As the third Star Trek TV Show (after the original series, and then The Next Generation), it needed to mix things up a bit. One way it did this was by having an African American in a leadership role: Benjamin Sisko. The writers didn't take a Captain Kirk or a Captain Picard and just make him black. They built a real character, a creole chef from New Orleans, whose perspective as a black man resonates in his overarching compassion for the Bajorans -- recently freed from subjugation and slavery by a cruel overlord. It's no co-incidence that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is commonly seen as the best of the shows, and the participation of a diverse viewpoint such as Sisko's is no small contribution. Watching the show over it's seven year run he became a role model to me, and a character who has influenced the way I think. That's diversity that works.

Contrast this to other Star Trek TV shows -- such as Star Trek Voyager or Star Trek Enterprise.
These shows launched with a fanfare about how diverse their casts were. Voyager, in particular, launching alongside Deep Space Nine tried to repeat the formula of having diversity in the leadership role, and had a female Captain Janeway, brilliantly portrayed by Kate Mulgrew, but whose character could have easily been male. Being female brought nothing to the table except a feeling that somebody checked a box somewhere.

Similarly, the second in command, Chakotay, played by Robert Beltran, was the first time a Native American character played a major role in Star Trek, and, to be honest, the first time I had seen this in any TV show. Then there was the Asian, Ensign Kim, played by Garret Wang. And finally a black Vulcan, Tuvok, played by Tim Russ. None of these characters brought any kind of memorable viewpoint of their race to the show. Indeed, I remember some backlash about Tuvok on the early Internet when the show launched. The question was asked: How could green-blooded Vulcans have black skin? The character (and the actor) were put in a bad position from day one.

In my opinion, the ultimate issue here was lazy diversity. Throw a black character, an Asian, a Native American and an empowered woman in there and declare victory. Is it any wonder that this show is generally seen as one of the weaker Treks, and not even close to DS9 in terms of quality? There was so much opportunity to expand the experience and engagement of the viewership by bringing a real exposure to Korean, Native American and Black (Vulcan) culture, but instead we had cookie cutter characters who were no different despite the rich racial heritage the character could bring to the table

So, as you think about diverse books, and about the importance of diversity, remember this: Lazy Diversity is worse than No Diversity. Bring us characters with richness of experience - richness earned because they're black, asian, female, alien, gay, transgender, disabled and so much more. Make our world better with this diversity, because that's what good books do.

And that's what I've tried to do with Space Cadets. I hope you love it.