Given my position in my social and professional circles, I deal with the question of how to include and represent a wide spectrum of people and beliefs without alienating or caricaturing them more frequently than I feel qualified to answer. That said, I'm going to try my best. The very short answer to the question is to speak honestly, mindfully and, when possible, have someone of that group check what you have to say, write, or draw to ensure that you haven't accidentally misrepresented them. This is not always an option in certain situations, so I would like to take some time to set a few examples and guides that can be kept in mind to make conversations and inclusion a less daunting task.
Let me begin by stating a few things about myself so that my position on things might make more sense. I am a white looking Hispanic-Native American that has a lot of European ancestry on the other side of the fence. I'm what you might call "mixed" or "mestizo" depending on your level of familiarity with vocabulary used today. That's something that we'll unpack later. On top of that, I am pansexual, polyamorous, and genderqueer. I live with major clinical depression, PTSD, generalized anxiety disorder, and unpredictable bouts of extremely limited mobility. My daily life also includes acute audio-visual disturbances and frequent insomnia which does not help my overall mood on any day of the week. This is complicated by the fact that it is not possible for a stranger to know any of these things about me unless I decide to share with them which has lead to some, quite frankly, uncomfortable situations in my life. However, my "living between" categories on a government form has offered me a certain sense of understanding even though I am far from perfect at it.
Doing it Wrong
Sometimes, we see representation in media and know instantly that the creator has grossly misunderstood their target audience or subject. The backlash and general tire-fire that follows this always seems to spark the very worst in people on social media. There are times that it is clear that the creator, despite their intentions, has deep-seated racial or religious issues. One such example, and I hesitate to even bring it up because I know it's a sore spot, is Save the Pearls by Victoria Foyt. On the surface, Foyt is making an attempt to address issues of racism by flipping the script and presenting a white protagonist that is at the bottom of the social ladder.
Personally, I have never liked the idea of utilizing existing social issues and making it so the fantasy world has a reverse rule. Things like straight relationships being illegal or any one race being more desirable than another always sits wrong with me. Making a character's entire identity revolve around a single aspect of the whole flattens and weakens natural similarities between people.The concept undermines and complicates things by taking a hostile stance when it has always been more successful, for me at least, to present a character as a person and let where they are from and what they look like exist without making it their whole identity.
Foyt in particular misplayed her idea by then describing the male protagonist, who was African American, as animalistic and beastly over and over and over again. In her effort to present him as an authority she stripped him of his humanity and reinforced a plethora of negative stereotypes and connotations and set up readers to dislike, distrust, and dehumanize him. She used a gemstone based racial caste system with Caucasians, pearls, at the bottom growing into people of Asian descent, ambers, Hispanics, tiger-eyes, and ending with African Americans with the title of "coals" at the top. I think the issue speaks for itself, and her argument that it was meant to show additional prestige because of the usefulness of coal in the world did not succeed. She further botched any attempts to assuage and explain in interviews showing her own biases when she blatantly said that African Americans were another species. Oh, and did I mention that the white characters in her book wear black-face and it was written in the 2000's?
This particular example of under-informed alienation is pretty well talked about and beaten to death. Despite all of the issues here, I do not completely think that Foyt was intentionally harmful. Was she under-informed? Yes. Was she harmful to the cause she supposedly tried to champion? Yes. Would she benefit from sensitivity classes or a circle of people looking to help educate? Yes. I don't know if she has made an attempt, and she is far from the only one. J. K. Rowling is another great example of a writer that could have benefited greatly from starting a dialogue with the people she tried, and failed, to represent.
Very few people that try to include and represent people do so maliciously. It is more often fueled their desire to show caring and compassion and represent the things that make the world so varied and wonderful. Limited understanding and interaction can cause genuine attempts to look rather troublesome. Rowling, for example, seems to be fixed with an intense desire to fit into modern dialogues with a series that was a product of its time. I really wish she would stand by what she wrote and work to do better with representation instead of twisting and stretching any character she can to fit the hot issue of the week. It would be a much better look for her.
For most people it's much less severe. I know I've seen enough long-winded arguments on Twitter just because someone who did not yet know the difference between sex and gender used the wrong word when trying to support representation in tabletop games. The item in question was a "potion of gender change" that could be available for players wanting to play a trans character. Instead of reading the spirit of the words, and the honest attempt at inclusion and accessibility the individual was instead told how they are, in fact, everything wrong with the world. The conversation could have gone much better with a simple:
"Hey, that's a great way to include your LGBT+ players. One note, it would be a potion of sex change and not a potion of gender change."
I'll be talking more about fostering healthy interaction between allies and minority groups in a different article. The point is, people were made uncomfortable because of an honest mistake stemming from a lack of information in spite of good intent. That is honestly the bulk of the alienating interactions I encounter in my daily life.
The Future of Advocacy and Representation
On the flip side, you have extremely conscientious writers and content makers that consistently push to further the representation in the media they produce. I want to take a moment to acknowledge a few of the creators I've had the pleasure of discovering and the way that they handle representation.
Let's start with some of the ones that have lead to a heck of a lot of contention in fandom. Steven Universe and Voltron. Now before you grab your pitchforks and get ready to shout me down please listen to my point. I'd love to talk to you about it. These shows are both quite modern and feature a cast with wide representations. You have protagonists that are people of color, that are LGBT+, and that have candid conversations about things like PTSD and anxiety. Voltron features a character that has lost a limb and is not defined by it. There are single-fathers that are loving, children learning to live with extended family when a loved one has passed, and people working through things realistically and with flaws.
Characters lose their tempers and learn from it. Others learn to move through and unlearn racism and showcase valid ways to seek forgiveness when they have hurt someone they care about. They are not perfect shows. Yes, we would all love for some of the facets of these characters to be brought into sharper focus, but the creators also do not let one part of a character's identity become the entire character. On top of that, they have battled through major corporations that are intrinsically scared of changes that could lead to any sort of backlash and won. Shows like this may not be where we want to arrive, but they are a sign of a great fucking starting line for others to look at.
For publishing, I can't say enough for Legacy Books. Every time I see interactions with them they are candid on what they believe and back it up by ensuring that they are exploring a wide variety of protagonists. They have a great handle on LGBT+ representation and actively work against sexism, racism, and bigotry in the publishing industry. At the time of writing this, they are working on writing a book with a trans protagonist and are reaching out to readers to make sure that they are not misrepresenting them.
They have shown themselves to be quick to respond when they discover that there is a gap in groups that they've represented and open to answer questions about their process. I admire them greatly and hope that more publishing houses will begin to follow their example.
I could go on at length about different video games, films, shows, books, and companies that handle representation and diversity well, but we'll end with this handful for the sake of making this more concise. If you are looking for recommendations or want to add some of your own for other readers you are beyond welcome to ask or mention them in the comments! If there is interest I'm more than willing to develop a reference guide to different outlets, organizations, titles, and the like for people to be able to look into at a glance.
Back to Basics
Now that you've seen a few examples let's take a moment to unpack my own identity and ways that some advocacy, inclusion, and representation can foster understanding and healthy dialogue. We'll start with my mixed race heritage. To look at me I'm a white female. If you know me, then you will know I'm only half white. I haven't gone to the extent of using 23andMe or any other ancestry tool, so I have this identity through spoken family history. I have the interesting prospect of navigating life by being easily accepted in groups of people that might otherwise be racist toward me, and I take no small pleasure of educating them when I get to see some of the nastier sides of people because they assume I'm "safe" to talk to. I also often need to prove my right to be there in situations with other Hispanics or First Nation people. Rightfully, I am often held at arm's length until I can "prove" that I belong. For some people, it's as simple as mentioning shared family upbringing. Others will never accept me because I can’t speak Spanish and wasn't raised bilingual.
I will never be Hispanic enough for them and I must live with that. Likewise, living where I do, I am often brushed off by tribal members because I am not part of any local tribes. I look white so therefore I am white to many people. I am in a situation where I am qualified to talk about some issues within my race and not others. Since I am identified as white on sight by most people if I were in a rally I am not going to be regarded as part of my own group but rather as a white ally. Unless circumstances permit, I move within that perceived identity so that I do not cause harm to the perception of my people. Given that I understand that, I know that I can leverage that perception to help in different way with the knowledge that anyone who doesn't know me is more likely to harshly judge me or write me off as a racist. I can also, with varying degrees of success, network and communicate with others of mixed heritage since we tend to share similar issues of not being "enough" of anything to be truly included. That is the personal vantage point that I view the world from just as my counterparts at Nerdolopedia have their own.
If we move on to sexual orientation it's a new can of worms. There's already debate on what is and isn't a valid identity and there is a lot of hostility toward people that are bisexual and pansexual because, depending on who we are with, we can appear to be straight. I don't believe that I need to go on about how each individual aspect of what identifies me impacts how I interact with the world and am interacted with. If we use all of the labels available I am a mixed-race, agnostic, pan, trans, neurodivergent, disabled person. It doesn't tell you that I like dogs, enjoy video games, or have siblings. These labels might help vocabulary in understanding what I am, but it doesn't tell anyone anything about who I am anymore than saying another one of our members at Nerdolopedia is a cisgender, white, straight, neurodivergent man. What each of these labels gives, aside from sounding highly specialized to someone who doesn't know the jargon, is a stereotype that is influenced by our own individual experiences.
If we move forward in a culture where it becomes a need for me to disclose personal and intimate information like I did at the start of this article, it places people in situations where they need to decide if they want to potentially put themselves in a dangerous situation just to have an opinion. Yes, the context helps people understand where I am coming from, but in the same breath it should not be a requirement before any level of social interaction. It paints a target on people and honestly is not far from requiring people to wear stars and triangles on their shirts. People being valued and listened to based on their intent rather than their in-groups is a much better way to achieve advocacy goals.
The point I'm trying to make here is that advocacy starts on an individual level. It's seldom about any one sub-group or label, and more about identifying people as individuals before factoring in any other qualifier. An example of inclusive advocacy language versus alienating dehumanizing language can be as simple as word order. Let's use physical disability and ability an example. If I were to say to a driver, "We have three wheelchairs with us," I've essentially taken away any semblance of humanity from the people I’m referring to. If I instead use, "We have three people with wheelchairs with us," I've placed the person before their aid. These three imaginary people are not defined only by their mobility. It's not a hard change to make, but making it can make us open to better understanding.
Questions to Keep in Mind
I told you I would give a short list of things that can help in situations where you might be afraid of misrepresenting yourself and botching what you are trying to get across. These are a few things I try to keep in mind when I set out to write an article like this or speak about an issue.
Who am I talking to? If I am speaking to a broad group I might use LGBT+. If I am speaking to other bi/pan people I will refer to bi/pan people specifically.
Am I part of the group? I can speak with more confidence at an LGBT+ rally. If I were at a Black Lives Matter rally it is not my place to say more than that I am there to support and to direct people to speak to someone with more direct life experience.
Am I being mindful? If I do not know an answer for a large group I try to mention that I am speaking only from my own experience. I am not a community leader and even then leaders seldom are able to speak for everyone.
What am I trying to say? If my point is for people to see one another as humans and not only what makes us different it isn't helpful for me to point out group labels. It's more important for me to point out things we share instead.
Is it helpful? If I don't have anything helpful to say I avoid it. There are pros and cons to everything, and if what I want to say does more harm than help it's likely not worth saying.
Is it honest? If I am not honest about my own experiences and thoughts then it has no place being mentioned. If I am not coming from a place of honesty then I have already lost any form of respect that is possible. It's often better to admit that you do not know and are seeking input than to say something with little information.
Is the example I'm setting positive? I often think about what I appear like to younger groups of people like me. It is important to me that I set a positive example and work to be better and admit when I have spoken or acted inappropriately and what I am going to do to fix it.
Am I generalizing? Generalizations can be especially damaging to a point. I try to avoid talking about large groups with any sweeping statements. It lessens personal experiences and depersonalizes me which is something I do not want for myself.
Asking yourself any of these questions can help you check yourself and foster clearer understanding between a speaker and a listener. It's okay to lead a statement with, "To my understanding," or, "I might not be using the best words, but," when you aren't sure. It lets all of us know that you are trying, learning, and doing your best. That knowledge can go a long way in convincing us to listen to what you are saying and not how you are saying it.
Every single person you see and meet has a whole different set of life experiences, limitations, and perceptions. It's easy to get caught up in the bog of modern slang and language evolution as things become mainstream and talked about. If you take only one thing from this article, it's to be mindful that it will be impossible for you to please every person. What is possible, however, is to reach out to others to ask if things could be better worded or presented in a more thoughtful way. Nothing is going to be perfect, but knowledgeable efforts are how we move toward better understanding and representation.
Now that you know a bit about me and how I tend to approach this topic are there any other tactics that you’ve used in your day to day life to promote more open communication? How do you manage sensitive topics with people like family or friends that might not be as receptive to who you are? We all tend to have things that we can learn from each other’s experiences, and I hope you’ll share. Again, you can find me on tumblr, twitter, or discord if you want to talk at length about anything or just want some privacy.