Tuesday 5 January 2021

Mixing it Up - Challenging My Unconscious Biases to Add Diversity to My Writing

By Nick Cross

Photo by Mike Petrucci on Unsplash

I’ve spent the last year adapting a YA novel (that I originally wrote in 2012) into a graphic novel. In retrospect this was a big project to take on, especially during a pandemic, and there were many points during 2020 where I ground to a complete halt, questioning what I was trying to do. But at the end of November last year, after an almost complete rewrite of the original novel, the first draft was done. Phew. I had a short break and then dived into the much easier task of editing the manuscript.

As part of the editing process, I wrote out a list of all my characters: their name, age, gender and function in the story. But, as a way of challenging my own unconscious biases, I also wanted to add their ethnicity. So many times recently, I’ve heard or read about White* authors assuming that theirs is the default identity and not commenting on it, but then specifically calling out characters of colour.

As I read down my list, I started to get a sinking feeling: fifteen-year-old White British boy, forty-eight-year-old White British man, fifty-two-year-old White British woman, etc. Whitewash would be a pretty appropriate term. And it’s a problem that would be compounded in the graphic novel version of the book. In a novel, you can perhaps get away with fudging the ethnicity of a character, or relying on outdated tropes like describing someone’s “coffee-coloured skin” or “almond-shaped eyes.” But in a graphic novel, as with a film or TV show, the casting is visible in every frame.

Perhaps it was borderline acceptable eight years ago, when I first created the characters, for them to be so overwhelmingly White. But this is 2021, and I wanted to shake things up a bit and add more diversity to the mix. Except I then hit a different problem – how could I do that but also stay in my lane as a straight, White man?

A few years ago I wrote, and had published, short stories with a wide variety of first-person perspectives. These included a story about immigration from the perspective of a Black British teenager, and structural racism from the perspective of a Black girl from the deep south of America. But I didn’t have lived experience of any of this! I can't imagine sitting down today to write something like that without at least questioning my right to do it.

Of course, as a creative person in the UK, I have the undeniable freedom to write about whatever the hell I want. (White privilege alert!) But, I also have the responsibility to deliver a sellable manuscript to my agent, especially for the hypersensitive US market. And that’s not to forget my social responsibility to use my privilege in a positive and constructive way.

Director Armando Iannucci took an interesting approach with his recent film The Personal History of David Copperfield, turning the typical period drama on its head by employing colour-blind casting. It was a method I found inspiring in terms of the freedom to cast the best actor for the role, but also sometimes confusing. For instance, I fully bought into the idea that the titular character could be of Indian descent. But as a viewer, I found that my suspension of disbelief was affected by decisions such as giving a White character a Black parent without any explanation. Instead of being able to accept it, I found myself distracted from the narrative by questions about their heritage and whether they were adopted.

Aneurin Barnard as James Steerforth and Nikki Amuka-Bird as his mother Mrs. Steerforth in The Personal History of David Copperfield

Now, perhaps this is just my own prejudice talking, and other people were able to watch the film without worrying about this at all. But as a comparison, I found the heritage of Will in the TV adaptation of His Dark Materials to be much more believable. For my own novel , which is highly dependent on parent and child pairings, I don’t want to do anything that would make my readers think I’d simply made a weird mistake!

Ultimately, I’ve decided to keep my protagonist as a straight, White British boy to reflect my own heritage. But even eight years ago, I’d thought it was a good idea to have a girl of Korean descent as his co-protagonist and romantic foil, which has allowed me to expand her role in this draft and tie her heritage more tightly into the story. I ummed and ahed about changing the ethnicity of my baddie, but so far I’ve left her as a White woman, because I don’t feel comfortable with the stereotype of a Black antagonist. But what about the protagonist’s White best friend? One of his parents needed (for story reasons) to be White, but what about the other? Could they be a person of colour?

As well as adding some more ethnically diverse background characters, I’ve been able to make both the best friend and another teenage character mixed-race, without upsetting the story or (I hope) engaging in tokenism. That's not to suggest that having a mixed-race character is a shortcut, though - everyone has their own unique experience, and mixed-race people may find fitting in to be even more of a challenge than someone from a single ethnic group. But, just as nobody tells us who we can love nowadays, so the opportunities for diverse and interesting mixed-race characters have widened. No longer does mixed-race automatically mean one White and one Black parent – just look at the success of Spider-Man Miles Morales, who is of both Black and Puerto Rican heritage.

Tackling your own biases and revisiting your old work can lead to some uncomfortable realisations. For instance, I discovered that I’d given my antagonist a disfigurement in the form of a large facial birthmark. This was only mentioned once in the novel, but would be constantly visible in a graphic novel as a hamfisted and hurtful signifier of "evil." I also found that I’d given the Korean mother of my co-protagonist some questionable speech patterns. Both of these things were easily fixed, but they led me to reflect that there are almost certainly things in my manuscript of today that I will look back on in another eight years and wish I’d done differently. As with anything to do with writing outside your lane, nothing beats talking to an actual person from the ethnic/cultural group you're trying to represent. At later stages in the process, agents or publishers may bring in sensitivity readers, and it's a good idea to try to head off any issues they might report.

Society, as well as its norms and preconceptions, is constantly on the move. Just this morning, I had a fascinating discussion with my daughter about trans rights and identity politics – for her generation, gender fluidity is the norm, not the exception. And an increased awareness of intersectionality will doubtless lead to both new categorisations and new quandaries for those of us stuck in our conformist ways. As writers and artists creating work for modern readers, it’s our responsibility to stay alert, ask difficult questions of ourselves and be open to admitting when we get it wrong.

If all of this sounds like an uncomfortable process, full of unwritten rules just waiting to trip you up, take heart. Opening yourself to different cultures and different opinions is hugely enriching, as long as you're willing to listen as much as you talk. You can become a better writer and a better person too, and at the end of the day, isn't that why we're all here?


* Author’s Note: I’ve chosen to capitalise both White and Black in this article, as signifiers of racial identity. There is much debate on this topic, see here for an example.

Nick Cross is a children's writer/illustrator and Undiscovered Voices winner. He received a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.
Nick is also the Blog Network Editor for SCBWI Words & Pictures magazine. His Blog Break column appears fortnightly on W&P.

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