Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Forced Diversity?

Early on in my editorial career, I worked on a series that featured a group of friends. The characters were already somewhat diverse (I think out of five or six main characters, two were characters of color), but I suggested to the freelance editor the possibility of adding one more. She said she'd consider it, but was leaning towards not, because wouldn't it feel too forced and unrealistic?

I think as adults, we're perhaps too aware of examples of this "forced multiculturalism"--TV shows, movies, books where there's one black, one white, one Asian, one Latino character, etc. But as a kid, I never saw this as a bad thing--I wanted it, forced or not--and to many kids (and adults), it isn't unrealistic and it isn't forced. It's an accurate mirror of their own experience.
When I was in high school in Southern California, my group of friends included kids from almost every ethnic group. As a young adult working at Barnes & Noble in downtown Oakland, my group of bookseller friends was also very naturally diverse. One of my coworkers, who referred to himself as Chicano (he told me this meant he was the child of Mexican immigrants born in the United States--but as Wendy mentioned, it's ever-changing!), told me that when he was a kid, he had two best friends, one was black and one was white. Not a far cry from Bill Konigsberg's characters in Out of the Pocket.

Then again, my three closest friends in High School were all Asian. After I moved to Boston to start my publishing career, a friend saw a photo of the four of us and I told him who they were. "Isn't it kind of weird that you were all Asian?" He asked. "Not school was 40% Asian," I said. We didn't specifically seek each other out, it just happened that way, although I'm sure there was an element of feeling closer to girls who looked like us. But for me, it's no weirder than having a group of four white friends or four black friends.

Lena Dunham was criticized for her non-diverse casting of Girls, and she argued that she was depicting one reality in which four white girls were best friends. I haven't seen the show, but I don't begrudge Lena's choice, although I do think it was a missed opportunity. I just wish we lived in a reality where four Asian girls could also be cast as best friends on a major TV show, or where more than one or two "token minorities" can be cast without people thinking that it's forced or unrealistic.

Two Asian main characters on Hawaii Five-0.
Photo: Norman Shapiro/CBS ©2012
CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Then again, I'm not complaining too much, because things are so much better. A friend commented to me that it seemed like Lucy Liu was the only Asian actress working regularly, and I had to disagree. From Grey's Anatomy to GLEE to every other commercial, I'm noticing Asian actors. And flipping channels the other day, I came across a scene from the TV show Hawaii Five-0 that featured three Asian characters--two cops and a lab guy--and I thought, wow. This would not have happened even five years ago--a hit television show on network TV with multiple main Asian characters! How novel! (Get it? Novel? We're getting there...)


  1. Love this post! Forced multiculturalism (or the United Nations approach as I think of it) is definitely an issue. I'm struggling with this now in my WIP--how to depict multiple cultures sensitively. I'm so glad you posted this.

  2. I used to watch Ally McBeal and I loved Lucy Liu in that show. I then went on to watch everything she starred in--she became one of my favorite actresses because of that show.

    To me, when I'm watching/reading something with multiple ethnic backgrounds, it's never felt forced. In the city I grew up in and now live in, it's mostly one ethnicity and it drives me crazy. So I really love it when I stumble upon a book that reveals different cultures, in fact, I crave it. I think kids do too, we all want to know about the world we live in and it's wonderful when characters whether in books or movies show us that bigger world. Great post! Thank you, Alvina.

  3. Hah - I like how Lin puts it - the UN Effect. I don't think it's always felt forced, but when you have one character representing each ethnic background, and your cast looks like one of those 80's United Colors of Benetton commercials, you may have a problem...

  4. I think your point about locality is important, too--if the characters live in a place like Chicago, say, their neighborhoods are going to be much more segregated than if they lived in California. But it also doesn't mean that their neighborhood is going to be monoethnic, either--just that it'd have a little bit more of one flavor or another depending on what area they lived in. So it might be something that would be commented upon if a character were out of the ordinary for the neighborhood in Chicago, but just be everyday life in many California settings (but also not all).

  5. What if you're reading a story where all the main characters are black, and most of them female, but their culture is a mix between African and European. And what if, in that story, all the villains are NOT black, and there are absolutely NO characters of a "European" look? Just trying to be a sort of devil's advocate.

  6. Great post. It's also important to remember that Asia is a continent. Hurrah for The Mindy Project!

  7. My life experience around race is pretty weird, because I've spent most of my life in small Canadian towns. Really freakin' white ones. So you do have the experience of having the one friend of colour, and definitely not more than one non-white friend of the same background because the POCs don't have the option of hanging out with people who share their background (besides their siblings -- the only time I knew two south asian girls in the same social circle, they were twins). I know that when I reflect this in my writing, it might come off as tokeny. I do not currently know what to do with this information, besides what I'm generally trying to do anyways: write people as people. For now, most of my stories are set in places modelled after the places I've spent the most time living. But I've been in Toronto for a few months and I'm at risk of moving here for the long haul, so we'll see what happens.

  8. I remember walking up to a group of my friends freshman year in college, and everyone was hanging out on the front steps, all ranging in various ethnicities. I recall thinking, "Ha, this looks like a multicultural sitcom." It's funny that this didn't even occur to me until I saw them all hanging out, having a great time, because prior to that, I just saw them as my individual friends.

    Also, in response to having all Asian friends, there's much diversity to be recognized there too! I didn't have any Filipino friends in Alabama, but now two of my closest friends are Filipina. Totally different culture, even though they identify as Asian. And the food (kare kare, sinigang, tinola, pancit, adobo...). Nothing like what I ate growing up!

  9. Interesting post. I'm glad I'm writing futuristic sci-fi so I can make the world as diverse as I want. My WIP is set in a future North America that is very diverse except for one pocket that has deliberately kept itself "pure." Their homogeneity ends up seeming very strange.

  10. Such an interesting post. As Connie says, there's diversity within each group to be recognized. Alvina's "forced diversity" in books and shows is spot-on, but still, the effort is hugely important. The world IS changing, hooray. These attempts may be clumsy, but keep going!