I wrote this post ages ago, way back in 2016, but then everyone around me became consumed with politics and it seemed out of place to publish it. I put it on ice and forgot about it. However, the recent controversy regarding Broken Pencil’s editor prompted me to remember what I’d written. Please note that this post is not directly addressing that situation and its contentious fallout. Its intended audience is artists and creators and not editors and journalists.
Representing ethnic minorities and subcultural groups is a potentially challenging project, even when you identify with the minority group you are representing! Instead of giving a list of how-tos, I’m going to write something more theoretical. I’m hardly the first to have thought or written about this, so I’ll post some links at the end of this one to hopefully get you thinking.
1: YOU’LL NEVER GET IT RIGHT
I find this topic generates a lot of fear for creators, especially the fear of failing to get it “right.” It’s like people want a set of minority-approved guidelines to follow in order to feel secure that they are in the “right.”
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with guidelines (I’m writing a list of them) but they need to be taken with the understanding that guidelines are not a shield for valid criticism. I understand that we want to protect our work – and by extension, ourselves and our personal character. No one wants to be accused of participating in forms of discrimination or worse, being bigoted, and it’s natural to look for ways to prevent this.
But being “correct” is not a great approach. Because people are not “correct.” People are complex and contradictory and ever-changing.
So the good news is, you can stop worrying about getting anything objectively “right.” The bad news is, there is no easy answer, no magic hat tricks to pull to ensure that you will create a representation of a minority immune to criticism. What you can do, is give your artistic decisions due consideration so you know why you have done what you did and are confident in your reasons.
(And why not try this idea on for size: a work of art can be both insightful, meaningful and honest and problematic at the same time.)
2. TAKE RESPONSIBILITY
Sometimes people advise running your work by individuals who identify with the minority group you’re representing. This is excellent advice, advice I would give myself, but it has limitations. It assumes that the people you consult are able to speak intelligently on behalf of an entire group. Some people have the life experience and education to do this well and others don’t.
This strategy also assumes that people do not derive amusement and pleasure from representations that are problematic. Just because your POC friends and colleagues give your work a stamp of approval, that doesn’t mean it’s absolved from criticism. Statements like “Brown people love my exaggerated caricatures of my brown family!” or “My work objectifying women’s bodies can’t be sexist because women love it!” do not offer an adequate defense. You should be able to articulate the value of your work based on the work itself. While it’s great to have the support of others, you need to take responsibility over your work as well.
3. TAKE RESPONSIBILITY II
The greater the spread of work in a society, the greater its audience and influence, the more likely it will become politicized.
The influence that comes from having a large audience is not a free ride. Having clout comes with the yoke of responsibility – whether you asked for it or not. How you choose to act is up to you but I generally advise against receiving power and rejecting the responsibility that comes with it. Now I am not saying the answer is to try to make art that pleases everyone when you have a large audience. I am saying that when you choose to represent someone who is a part of a minority group and you know it will be received by a large audience, you have greater responsibility to be mindful about your representations of minority characters than an artist whose work is relatively obscure (although ideally, everyone goes about it mindfully).
4. ALWAYS CONSIDER CONTEXT
Your work doesn’t exist in a vacuum – it exists in social and historical contexts that require study and research to understand. Potential things to consider:
- the history of how a minority group has been represented in the past
- what forms of discrimination they have faced or are facing
- what are persistent stereotypes of that group where those persistent stereotypes arise from
- historical and existing relationships of power (e.g., colonialism)
For example, if you are writing an American love story involving a 2nd generation Chinese-American female character you could read up on the history of fetishizing Asian women, the history between the US and China (Sino-American relations are completely different from relations with other East Asian nations, especially today as China grows in economic power) and the development of immigrant communities relevant to your female lead (Chinese-Americans in Southern California have a different history/experience than the Chinese diaspora in the Mid-West), etc.
Perhaps all this sounds too onerous, but it’s also an opportunity to learn more about the world. I also believe that ignorance negatively impacts your ability to represent the world. So to me, research is a way of improving my ability to understand the world I live in and the worlds I am trying to represent.
Having said that, I empathize with the desire to just create art and screw history and politics. Rather than being inspired by knowledge, sometimes the weight of everything can begin to feel like a burden. To this, I would say if you want to ignore social context, that is your choice – but bear in mind that you can’t expect everyone else to ignore it too. If you don’t want to handle the varying perspectives of large demographic groups of a public audience, consider limiting the public’s access to that work.
If you want to consider two specific, personal examples where I think considering context really mattered – one that I think works and one where I think I failed – keep reading, otherwise feel free to skip to #5.
As a second-generation Chinese Canadian and a “Southerner”, I had many considerations when it came to representing Northern Canadian aboriginals. Things that I was bearing in mind when I made my comic about the north for kuš! were the genocidal history between the Canadian state and aboriginal groups, various contemporary forms of systemic racism and discrimination faced by aboriginal Canadians, negative stereotypes specific to Northern aboriginals and Inuit, the fact that our ancestors both have colonial experiences with the British, China’s rising political influence and how that impacts resource extraction from aboriginal land in Canada and so on.
I ended up with a comic that touches upon some of the struggles we find up north (e.g., declining native language speakers, premature death) but I think the comic does not read as exploitative. I tried hard to avoid a “Southern gaze” that either romanticizes northern life or stereotypes Northerners as pitiable victims, as is often the case in mainstream Canadian news.
Now let’s consider a personal example that shows the importance of context that wasn’t successful. There’s a comic I made awhile back that featured a female dominant. I included an excerpt of this into one of my zines. I probably wouldn’t have done so now because the top discloses a history of child abuse. While some people who practice bdsm do have a history of child abuse, the inaccurate stereotype that all people who practice bdsm were abused as children is highly stigmatizing. This negative stereotype has only gained traction with the popularity of the 50 Shades series in which the main kinky character is an emotionally coercive sadist with an abusive childhood. (Side note: interestingly, although not surprizingly, I find that most pansexual kink-friendly people generally give 50 Shades a pass, while the leather community, esp the Old Guard, with its longer, deeper history of systemic discrimination, generally abhors the series and considers it harmful.)
Some time after I published my comics zine and had more distance from it, I realized that when my story is presented in such a brief, excerpted form, the character does not read as a fleshed out individual – it’s easier to read her as a stereotype. The thing is, I have met people who practice kink and have had abusive childhoods and I think it’s presumptuous and insulting to assume they are just mindlessly retraumatizing themselves – so I don’t think there should be a moratorium on writing characters like this. But the excerpt is not strong enough on its own to convey the kind of complexity I believe is necessary.
As such, I’ve decided that I’m not going to reprint this zine or sell it at comic fairs anymore.
5. IT SHOULDN’T ALL BE ON YOU
The best way to improve representation in my opinion, is to have a diverse workforce at all levels. This means developing an industry open to diversity in staffing as well as creative works so that change happens organically.
In my opinion, this approach also helps take the burden off of individual creators. If one creator decides to have an Asian math-nerd sidekick, that in and of itself is not very problematic. But if the only stories that are being pitched, published and marketed are nerdy Asian sidekicks, this becomes a serious problem. (And if we consistently see an erasure of Asian talent via whitewashing, this is a really serious problem.) So we can see that responsibility is distributed through the entire chain of decision making within an industry and not just squarely landing on a single creator.
I think recent developments in comics have proven that ridiculous rationalizations like stories with diverse leads won’t make as much money; people won’t be able to relate to diverse characters (because white, straight men are the epitome of relatability?), etc. are simply untrue. This is the kind of knee-jerk response we get from people who simply do not want to do any meaningful work to change the status quo, even if such changes would be financially advantageous (like expanding the comic book market).
We need to stop putting all the heat on individual creators and recognize that narrow representations of people stem from an entire ecosystem of an industry. I’m talking publishers, editors, retailers, festival organizers, award committees, journalists, publicists – not just in content, but in staffing.
I believe an approach that broadens beyond creators is far more impactful and positive than crucifying an individual creator who slipped and fell once in the arena of political correctness. A consistent focus on radical cultural change in creative industries and a commitment to diverse and meaningful representation in both content and staffing is the best long-term strategy for creating a freer, less contentious environment for anyone to write characters that come from a different background from themselves.