Diversity is important because we don't live in a homogeneous world. We live in a world that's rich with differences. Those differences should be more than recognized and depicted. They should be celebrated, uplifted, and positively portrayed. When you don't promote and encourage and believe in diversity, you get the unfortunate result of story after story being produced that only features one kind of individual out of the multitudes that comprise our world. Deciding against or simply not caring to make your fictional world diverse is both toxic and harmful to readers.
Toni Morrison's novel The Bluest Eye explores and engages in a literary conversation with this issue in a much more poignant and heart-wrenching way than I ever could. If you have never read it, I urge you to do so—especially as a writer who is creating characters and content for people to absorb. The story’s protagonist is a young Black girl named Pecola. Pecola loves Shirley Temple, believing that whiteness is beautiful and that she is ugly. Her belief comes from the very real-life fact that whiteness is what every form of media, including books, bombards consumers with as the gold standard of beauty. Pecola lives a very difficult life. Her father is an alcoholic, her mother is distant, and she often sees domestic violence between her parents. Pecola believes that if she had blue eyes, like Shirley Temple, she would be loved and her life would be transformed. Pecola is a fictional character but her experience represents the experience of too many people of color. Non-diverse stories tell any reader other than the standard white, able-bodied, cishet individual that they are unwanted. They are ignored. They don’t matter. They are not beautiful and the world does not see them as so either.
In addition to the toxicity and harm non-diverse stories commit against readers in regards to standards in beauty, they also do readers a disservice in regards to the roles and positions any reader other than the white, able-bodied, cishet reader see themselves as being able to fulfill. Growing up, the heroes, the princesses, the saviors, the queens, the kings, the explorers, and the adventurers of 99% of the stories I read were white. I never saw myself reflected as the hero in the pages of the stories I read or the movies I watched. This lack of diversity basically says to any diverse reader, YOU CANNOT FULFILL THE ROLE OF THE PRINCESS OR ADVENTURER, OR EXPLORER, OR HERO, OR SAVIOR. YOU ARE NOT WORTHY. Over time, it makes readers, especially young readers, start to hate the skin they live in. It makes them begin to reject who they are in favor for looking like or being like the protagonists in the stories they read.
Equally as toxic is the fact that non-diverse stories reinforce to the entire would that there is only one type of good guy. One type of hero. One type of protagonist. Non-diverse stories set up a psychological construct where white, able-bodied, individuals are the heroes, the good guys, and the saviors. Furthermore, when you only think to include diversity when it comes time for a villain, you do even more harm by reinforcing bigoted notions that vilify diverse individuals.
The only way to combat the negative stereotypes in the world is to tear them down by bombarding the world with images that speak counter to them. One step towards doing that is with the heroes in our stories. Let them be diverse. Let them reflect the uniquely rich world we live in.
I don't know what you write for, but I write for my readers. So if I don't write diversely and then as a result have a reader who questions their identity, questions if they're valued, questions if they matter, questions if they're loved, questions if they’re beautiful, questions if they can be a hero…I HAVE FAILED AS A WRITER. I HAVE FAILED MY READER.
Nia is a YA and Adult SFF writer represented by Caitie Flum at Liza Dawson Associates. She is an alumni of the University of Southern California (Fight On!) and the University of Texas. She has an undergraduate degree in Biology and graduate degrees in Public Health and Teaching. By day she teaches English and Biology, by night she writes strong, kickass heroines who are perfectly capable of saving themselves, and by way of dreams she is the Khaleesi, Mother of Dragons, sailing to Westeros to seize the Iron Throne. Hey, a girl can daydream right?