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  • Writer's pictureVera Mark

We Need to Talk About Diversity

The problem is, I am not really the right person to talk, or write, about diversity, being a privileged white woman. (At least I am a woman, but still.)

Yeah... umm, not so much.

But I want to write about environmental justice, which means writing about underprivileged groups*, and I want to do it right - so what can I do? What is ‘right’ in this context?

*Even as I write that, I wonder if using that term isn’t white privilege and terribly patronising. But I gotta start this post somewhere…

Let Others Take the Lead

I recently worked with a young filmmaker to develop a near-future story that plays out in Africa and the US with protagonists of colour. While it was clear from the start that the actual writing should be done by a writer of colour, there was still the fundamental dilemma: cool idea, important topics, but who has the right to tell it?

I am happy to see many more diverse stories, characters and creators pop up everywhere, even though it is just a beginning. I am happy to take a step back and support these creators, e.g. by crowdfunding their projects. I am trying to engage far more with these stories and creators, trying to learn by listening (and that should be deep listening).

But I think it’s still a valid question: what’s left for me? What kind of stories can I, should I still tell?

Just write the character. Focus on the human (or humanoid) story.

This is good advice. My favourite example for how to do this successfully is the great late Ursula K LeGuin. Her writing contains characters of all kinds of backgrounds, skin colour, gender, without making a fuss about it. They just are the way they are.

And yet I think it’s not possible to write about an ethnicity different to mine, or someone with a disability, or someone who gender-identifies differently to me, with anything other than my own perspective, however 'well-meaning' that may be. I am trying to ‘enlarge’ that perspective - see above, listen and learn - but if I write about them, I am still very much at risk of engaging in cultural appropriation.

Also, even just choosing a name for a character so often indicates the skin colour in the reader’s mind. (And in the case of screenwriting, in the producer’s or casting director’s eye.)

So let’s say I have an idea for a story about two people falling in love, against social conventions, and I think I have some beautiful moments and messages in the concept - am I ‘allowed’ to set it in an ethnic and/or social environment that I am not personally familiar with but have done my best to research, including giving it to a sensitivity reader?

It’s possible to overthink this. And perhaps I will stop myself ‘unnecessarily’ from writing certain stories that would be ‘okay’. But in my book (pardon the pun), that’s okay too.

Stories for a privileged audience are also needed

Even so, I believe there is a place for ‘non-diverse’ stories too, directed at privileged audiences.

Long ago, I started writing a novel about environmental activists trying to stop oil pipelines being built in Minnesota. This was way before the current Line 3 situation (check out Honor the Earth), and at one point it turned out to be eerily prescient. I would write this in instalments over many years, which means it is now in danger of becoming obsolete - and perhaps that’s not a bad thing, as I not nearly aware enough of the impact this real-life story had on the indigenous communities.

But now I am wondering - should I bin this entirely? Or should I finish it, acknowledge that this is only the ‘white side’ of the story, but throw everything into that to address a privileged audience and make them aware of what’s going on? Show how my white protagonists do the right thing, including one that is listening and learning?

Most of the economic and political power worldwide is still in the hands of the privileged few. Should we not also write stories for them, to change their hearts and minds?

I’d be very interested to hear what you think - feel free to leave your comments!

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Vera Mark
Vera Mark
Dec 02, 2021

Thank you for this response, Renard. Yes, absolutely. Any production - theatre, film, book - that wants to earn the label 'diverse' must be inclusive and offer equal opportunities (genuine, not token). Across the board, bottom to top, prep to execution to distribution. Privilege needs to take a step back and support others.


Dec 02, 2021

I find myself whenever I hear the word diversity in theatre giving the slight side eye. It goes beyond swapping a white role for a black role, or female for male role. It goes to inclusion,equity and diversity. You can be a diverse theatre company but not inclusive. True diversity, In my eyes, starts from the front of the house to backstage, from actors, to sound techs, from the actual stories we tell.

I had a conversation recently with a friend who has a hand a picking plays for the upcoming season. I asked why am I seeing the same old same old plays over and over again. My friend replied "those plays are the ones that keep the light…

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