Representing Diversity: A Few Rules of Thumb
Submitted by Linda Howard Valentine on February 14, 2007 - 18:13
My experience with incorporating representation comes from desktop publishing rather than comics, but over the years I have figured out and been taught a few rules of thumb.
Let me state up front here that I'm not telling anyone they have to do any of this. These are my guidelines for myself and for those who are interested in this.
- Write the character first, then add secondary characteristics. Many experiences and beliefs are common to the human experience overall. Give your characters a personality and purpose first and a gender and ethnicity second.
- Keep it simple. If you aren't familiar with a character's culture, don't try to write an immersive story. It will sound forced and fake. The book adaptation of the movie Hackers is a great example of this; the writer knew all the lingo, but couldn't speak from the voice of authority he was trying to project. He didn't sound like a hacker; he sounded like a wanna-be. This doesn't mean you shouldn't include diverse characters. It just means that when writing them, write from the commonality of human experience that you do understand.
- Do your homework. If you want to add specific cultural aspects that you're unfamiliar with, whether it's being a Mennonite or being from Greenland, do your research. Half an hour with Google could have told the Disney team who did Mulan that the Chinese doctor's tent should not have the Japanese Rising Sun flag on it.
- Visual representation equals visual identification. It's not enough to draw a character who looks white and make his last name Shen; that's inclusion, but it's not visual representation. The reader has to be able to look at a picture and see people who don't all look white. The cast of Multiplex (http://www.multiplexcomic.com/cast.php) is a great example of this in action. (For a great photo reference on visual multiracial diversity, check out Kip Fulbeck's book Part Asian, 100% Hapa (http://www.amazon.com/Part-Asian-100%25-Hapa-Fulbeck/dp/0811849597).)
- The 40% rule: To make a crowd scene or group picture look naturally diverse, aim for about 40% of the people to be visually identifiable as non-race of majority. This rule isn't written down in stone anywhere; it's a personal rule I've come to after much trial-and-error working on activist publications that strove for diversity in representation. Something about this ratio feels natural to the eye when you look at the scene.
- Cultural appropriation does not equal visual representation. Firefly may be the awesomest show on the planet, but it's also an amazingly galling example of cultural theft. Here you have a setting where the United States and China have become one fused government called the Alliance, where Chinese culture has become tremendously visible to the point where everyone swears in Mandarin. The only place you don't see the Chinese influence? In the cast. With one or two crowd-scene exceptions, even the extras aren't Asian. That's cultural appropriation, and it's sloppy and lame.
- Keep trying. Do the best you can, and learn from your mistakes. But you knew that already.