1. It’s insulting to presume you cannot or should not represent difference in your creative work. This suggests that people who are different from you, people who are the Other, are SO different—so exotic, so mysterious, so unknowable, so beyond the norm—you cannot possibly conceive of their existence. Consider the implications of that belief. Consider the limits of your imagination if you cannot conceive of someone different than you.
2. The reason people get up in arms about how difference is represented on TV, in fiction, in movies, etc., is because all too often, people get it wrong and they get it wrong because they are lazy. They make half-assed assumptions or base their knowledge of the Other on popular culture which is a simulacrum, at best. I cannot let go of The Help (novel) and how Abilene thought her skin was black like a cockroach. That is some lazy bullshit right there. Black like obsidian. Black like a deep night. Black like still water. Black like coffee, I don’t know. Black like a cockroach? Get out.
3. It’s okay to not know but still try. It’s even okay to get difference wrong because what is right, anyway? It’s annoying to get difference wrong, if you bother to acknowledge difference at all, and then pretend you got difference right.
3a. You also cannot presume that anyone, from any walk of life is part of a monolithic whole. People may be different but they are also individuals and so much of representation ignores this and creates stock characters like Black Maid and Sassy Latina Friend. If you can assign your character a stock character label, you have found your first problem.
4. What sticks in my craw about Lena Dunham (and you know, mad props for her success, truly) is the claim she’s just writing what she knows. And that’s totally fine. But I know more Lena Dunham types than I know whatever she might be imagining people of color to be. You know what I mean? Most of my friends are hipsters or people pretending they are not hipsters is what I am saying. Most of the creative people of color I know, are part of Dunham-type circles. And what if they weren’t? That still wouldn’t mean people of color should just be ignored. And I mean, girl, put a writer of color on your staff. Dunham is a visible example but this goes to nearly everyone in the creative community. Have you seen a picture of a literary event lately? We can all look in that mirror.
Tangentially, this is why the phrases “white girl problems” or “first world problems” drive me crazy. Silly problems are not strictly the luxury of white girls or first world dwellers. Again, it’s this notion that people from other walks of life are SO different that they couldn’t possibly relate to your exasperation over some silly thing. I promise you there’s someone in Port au Prince right now, angry as hell about the data speeds on their iPhone. One such person is my kid brother who lives there part time for work and LOVES to tell me about how good we have it here with our 4G. The poor dear. Really, though, it’s a silly problem and he’s in the so-called Third World.
5. This isn’t really about Girls. This is a sweeping, widespread, long standing problem. When I look at Girls or movies like Django Unchained, it’s not that these texts exist, not at all. It’s that they exist in a cultural vacuum AND their equivalents, created by artists of color, are not ever supported in the same way, if they can even get off the ground. That is frustrating and maybe that’s just the way things are but don’t ask people to grin about it.
6. So how do we represent difference? The simple answer is, “I don’t know,” and the complicated answer is, “I don’t know.” When writing characters who are different from me (and this would be every character I’m writing as it’s called fiction for a reason), I start with the experiences and emotions people have in common. I tend to believe we are more alike than we are different. We get so stuck on this question of difference as if we’re from different planets. Don’t believe the hype. We all love and lust and want and know joy and darkness. We are all imperfect. And then I think, how would a given identity shape these common experiences and emotions? How would a given identity shape a person’s imperfections? From there, I try to write difference. I try to do research—what is life like in inner city Baltimore? What is life like in rural Michigan? What is life like in Los Angeles? And then what is life like in those places for a Latina woman? What is life like in those places for a black man? What do I know about these characters who are different? What do I assume? Where am I wrong in my assumptions? What do I need to know? I don’t have the answers but I also don’t think it’s as complicated as we make it. I suspect we try to make it complicated because it’s more flattering to imagine ourselves as unknowable, precious snowflakes.
7. How do you try to represent difference in your creative work? If you e-mail me your responses, I’ll compile them, with attribution.