I’ve recently had an opportunity to read and enjoy two mysteries and an urban fantasy mystery, all within the span of about two weeks. But an odd thing struck me as I was reading them.
In two of the three, there was a stunning lack of diversity.
Not a single, discernible person of color. The only ethnicities identified were second-or-later-generation Irish-American, or longtime small-town residents of Appalachian Scots-Irish ancestry. Everyone else in those two books seemed to be thoroughly-assimilated European-Americans, although that wasn’t spelled out.
Not just white, but heterosexual–or at least, from the way relationships between characters were handled, everyone was assumed to be not only white, but straight.
Now, I’ll grant that the population of a small town in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina might not have too many outsiders living there. I grew up in a small, semi-rural town in Southwest Missouri that had (at the time) only white folk living there, so I know it’s possible, although even my formerly-“lily-white” home town now has in the last 30 years become significantly more integrated.
But we sure did have gay people (oppressed, closeted gay people, I’m sorry to say. But they lived among us, a naturally-occurring segment of the population).
Yes, maybe there are pockets of white monoculture in isolated towns, where “polite society” still doesn’t recognize “the gays.” But in New York City? In Queens? I’m sorry, but for a group of NYPD cops not to encounter a single ethnic face or meet a single LGBTQIA person or person of color in the entire book just strikes me as weird. Worse, it threatens my suspension of disbelief.
“But that’s not part of my concept,” the author might say. “It’s my art, and I’ll write it as I please.”
Okay. It certainly is true that the First Amendment says they have a perfect right to write a book with only white or “default-race” heterosexual characters in it if they want to. I will stop to note that one classic hallmark of white privilege is a lack of consciousness that pink skin and European ancestry isn’t really a “default” setting.
For a writer, however, there’s also another, very practical problem with that “it’s not my concept” conceit, and it hasn’t got the slightest thing to do with “political correctness.”
Not everybody out there in the reading population is white. Not everybody is straight or cisgender. And the everybody-else-from-everywhere readers also enjoy seeing people like them showing up in a book every once in a while, as an ordinary person (not a stereotype).
Depending on how you define “white,” there are a range of possible futures for the “white majority.” The Census Bureau’s prediction that the US population will become “majority-minority” in 2044 has been disputed. But the likelihood is that, depending on immigration patterns and birth rates, at some point in the mid-21st Century there won’t be a “white majority” in the US anymore.
But we already live in a world where LGBTQIA individuals exist–as they always have existed–in our midst. If at least a small percentage of your characters aren’t LGBTQIA, you’re misrepresenting reality (or you’re clueless).
Recent estimates that seek to control for bias indicate that up to 20% of the population “may be attracted to their own sex.” Others dispute both polls and perceptions. Numbers on transgender individuals are even more fuzzy.
My experience suggests that the 1-in-5 or 6 guesstimate is probably not too far off, and that transgender folk also are seriously under-reported. I don’t get out that much, and I know at least three of the latter. All of them are much happier, now that they can look and act like their real selves. And they’d probably like to see characters like them, fairly represented, from time to time in their fiction options.
Authors who’d rather not look like some kind of strange, historical relic within another decade or so might want to keep all of this in mind, when they begin concept work on their next stories.
IMAGES: Many, many thanks to Dave Allen and Pixels, via Pinterest, for the gorgeous view from Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If you like the photo, you can get it printed on lots of things at Pixels. I also deeply appreciate the New York Sun and photographer Ben Parker, for the street scene from Flushing, Queens, New York. I also greatly appreciate Standing Up for Racial Justice, for its self-demonstrating example of white privilege in action, and I also very much thank Time Out New York for its article on the 2018 Gay Pride March in NYC, as well as Filip Wolak, who captured an evocative photograph of the event. This post just wouldn’t be the same without these images and their creators. Many thanks!