Humanity in Color


Marcus Haynes

The word “diversity” is being tossed around in the media more than a Superbowl football, but very few people are scoring any touchdowns. It’s like all the big names in TV, movies, and books are caught up in some crazed competition to see who can have the most characters of color, queer characters, female characters, or any combination of the three to win the ultimate diversity prize. This should be a good thing though, right? Our media is finally reflecting the people who consume it! Only it’s not. Diversity is easy; inclusion is much harder and much more beneficial. It’s easy to point at a bunch of Black faces in a writer’s room and say, “See! We’re diverse!” while making it hard for those Black faces to do anything but fetch coffee. It’s easy to talk about how much you support queer people or how feminist you are, but how many of those queer people get to have strong romantic relationships? How many of those women have other women as friends and get to do things other than pine after men? Inclusion is the necessary evolution of diversity in writing because it is the only way to fully incorporate marginalized characters and to show their humanity. Without their humanity, well, you may as well not have the character at all.

Think of a few major characters you would say show “diversity” in a speculative text. You may come up with Falcon as Captain America, Amadeus Cho as The Hulk, Jane Foster as Thor, or Iceman and his long-hidden sexuality. Maybe you’re more of a TV person. In that case, you may think of the race-bent West Family in The Flash or the bisexual Sara Lance from pretty much every show in the Arrowverse. Or maybe prose books are more your speed and you can remember that Dumbledore is gay or that there’s a good chance Hermione Granger is a Black woman. With all of these characters, it is easy to assume that speculative fiction texts are actually doing the work when it comes to including diverse characters. Not quite. How much does any of these characters’ race, ethnicity, sexuality, or gender expression affect their storyline? Are we really going to pretend that a Black man taking up the Captain America mantle isn’t going to run into ANY problems? Or that Hermione being called a Mudblood doesn’t become WAY more serious if she’s a Black woman? Or that Sara visiting eras that all but enslaved women and murdered queer people wouldn’t present ANY problems for her? To ignore the complex ways that marginalized people navigate the world is an attack on their humanity because it erases a bit of who they are to make the narrative more comfortable. Jane Foster navigating the male-dominated Asgard as the Goddess of Thunder could be some Wonder Woman–level female empowerment, but we don’t get to see it. Nor do we get to see any real ramifications for the greatest wizard of all time being madly in love with the greatest dark wizard before Voldemort. We lose a bit of who these characters are without these aspects, and without those parts of their humanity, they are no different than their straight, white, male (and oftentimes all three) counterparts. In genres where imagination is key and changing world views is the name of the game, it makes no sense that we can’t see marginalized characters for everything that they are.

So what’s to be done then? How do creatives, especially speculative fiction creatives, make sure that they maintain their characters’ humanity? Thankfully, that’s pretty doable. The first thing that must be done is to recognize what not to do. It’s important to not fall back on tired tropes of writing marginalized characters; that means not getting rid of Black characters to uplift the white ones (see: Sleepy Hollow and Star Wars: The Force Awakens), no queer narratives where their romantic life is hidden (see most incarnations of Obsidian, The Brain and Monsieur Mallah, or Iceman), and no reducing female characters to damsel-in-distress or sidelined roles (see most speculative stories). The tired and untrue stereotypes about what marginalized people deal with are oftentimes crutches writers fall back on when they truly do not know how to write these characters, and for people who are actually a part of those marginalized groups, they ring as false. Instead, all aspects of these characters and their lives should be woven into the narrative. How much agency does this character of color have in the story? Do they get to help with the big bad at the end? Who is this queer character’s partner? What do we know about them? Does this female character exist as her own person? Does she have her own life outside of the men in the story? Starting here can begin the process of making a story inclusive and showing the fullness of every character’s humanity.

Now truth be told, a lot of people have gotten that far. In fact, most indie creators have taken notes about how mainstream writers use diversity and dedicate their lives to combating that. There is no problem with that per se, but it can become a problem when your marginalized characters only exist to disprove certain stereotypes. Think about this: there are stereotypes that Hispanic people aren’t smart and that people of Islamic faith are all terrorists who oppress women, so you decide you will create a story that shows a brilliant Hispanic person with a doctorate degree in neurophysics and a Muslim person who chastises other Muslims for their beliefs. Sure, this may show that these groups aren’t so bad, but what happens to the Hispanic people who still struggle with speaking English or the Muslims who like their faith and customs? In trying to disprove stereotypes that have no real basis in fact, you have just excluded a large portion of the people who are looking for representation in your work. I call this “The Cosby Effect,” where in trying to battle one untrue stereotype, you have created another one that is nearly impossible to live up to, much like the perfection that was the Huxtable family in The Cosby Show. In many ways, this can be as harmful as the original stereotypes because there is still a lot of erasure of humanity, only this time instead of reducing characters only to their “problems,” you have completely erased said “problems.”

So how do you avoid the Cosby Effect? Luckily that’s fairly simple too. As a creative, you must never be afraid to embrace your characters’ flaws and shortcomings. In my first two fantasy books, Legend of the Orange Scepter and Return of A.G., I included two characters named Rod and Jay. Rod and Jay are both in their late teens and earlier in their lives, they were leaders of a street gang. Although the gang had long since disbanded and they both lost a bit of freedom due to their past, their gangbanging history is a large part of their stories and I make no efforts to hide that. Most people would feel that is feeding into a stereotype about Black men, and maybe if them being gangbangers was all of who they are, I would agree. Thankfully, it’s not. Both characters are devoted big brothers and fiercely loyal to those they align themselves with. Rod is savvy, Jay is well-read, and both of them are super-powered heroes who are willing to give their lives to save their world. Even the reasoning behind them being gangbangers, to help their respective families, fleshes out who they are. These characters are more than their perceived flaw and their stereotypical outer layers; they are complex human beings with very human shortcomings and successes. This is the type of care that must go into marginalized characters. This is what gives them full humanity.

Believe it or not, the same principle applies even to creating villains from marginalized communities. Perhaps one of the best mainstream examples of this comes from Marvel’s Luke Cage. Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes and (Black) Mariah Dillard are both Black characters who are able to still be completely human characters despite the stereotypical nature of their villainy. Both Cottonmouth and Black Mariah are gangsters in this series, although they push a different type of substance. Cottonmouth is the traditional gangster who owns a club and sells weapons on the street, and Black Mariah is a crooked politician who uses her influence to keep her cousin (Cottonmouth) in business and herself in office. On the surface, they are ordinary criminals with unflattering personas, but Cheo Hodari Coker allows us to look deeper into their interesting relationship and their genuine desires to uplift their community and their family name. It would be easy to rest on the fact that Luke Cage has an almost completely Black cast, but the writers and creator still took the time to flesh out the characters, even when their backstories could be troublesome for some. Rod, Jay, Cottonmouth, and Black Mariah show that there is good and bad in every person, and in order to fully show a character’s humanity, all of those traits must be shown. It’s easy to simply want to combat stereotypes and avoid anything that may be viewed as negative, but such behavior does nothing more than continue to erase the humanity of marginalized characters and render any claims to diversity or inclusion useless.

The aforementioned stories demonstrate that inclusion is the way to go. Anyone can drop a few diverse faces in a story and pretend like everything is all good, but if those characters are not fully incorporated into the story and their personalities are not as deeply integrated as their non-diverse counterparts, it is all for nothing. No character exists in a vacuum, not even characters of color, queer characters, female characters, or any combination of the three. These characters deserve to be fully realized, with all their strengths and weaknesses, in any story that they are in. We need the gangsters, the respected, the nerds, the jocks, the sex-positives, the prudes, the religious, the atheists, the femmes, the butches, the queens, the trades, the independent women, the spoiled princesses, and so on to truly be inclusive. We are polylithic (opposite of monolithic) and our characters should be, too. The real world is already killing us enough and stripping any semblance of humanity from us; we shouldn’t let our speculative worlds help them strip our humanity even further.