The Privilege Index: Addressing Diversity in Fantasy Novels

Every once in a while, amidst the pictures of restaurant food and the inspirational memes and the promotional posts for TV shows I’m never going to watch, I come across a statement on social media that just gets right under my fingernails.  Whether it’s an article in the New York Times or a retweet from someone I follow, sometimes I just have to speak out.

Normally, I get a little adversarial when that happens, but I want to say right off the bat that this is not one of those times.  This is a time for a civil conversation about a very important topic – and, I sincerely hope, an opportunity for me to learn something from people who have different views than I do.

I saw bunch of tweets the other day that basically boiled down to an argument that goes something like this:

Books with mostly/all white characters – or books assumed to have mostly/all white characters when not explicitly identified as non-white – are pushing a white agenda.  We can’t all relate to white characters, so mostly/all white books are not really valuable to a modern audience. 

But if you’re a white author trying to include non-white characters in your stories, you’re probably engaging in cultural appropriation or misinterpretation.  You’re probably just doing it because diversity is trendy right now, anyway, and that’s wrong.  Don’t try to write books about cultures/gender identities/sexual orientations that aren’t part of your own authentic experience, because that’s insulting to people who have experienced negativity, violence, or other pain related to their various identities. 

But books about mostly/all white characters are bad…and around we go in a vicious circle.

Now, hold on a minute with whatever you’re thinking.  First, I am not defending this argument.  Second, I am not attacking this argument.  I am merely recording an argument I have seen.

The counter-argument seems to go something like this:

This logic maligns the rights of white people toscreeeech.

Let’s just put the brakes on that one for the moment.  It doesn’t lead anywhere worth going.

Even though I consider the fact that I’m Jewish to be a major cultural/ethnic marker, I usually check the “white” option on my demographic forms, because Ashkenazi is hard for people to spell. And I agree with the notion that white people are not really in a position to claim that they are being maligned about pretty much anything.  In the literary world, we still probably get most of the exposure and the dollars out there (I mean, I don’t, but that’s not the point) and straight white male voices still dominate the history and present of the fantasy genre.

But I’m not a straight white male.  I’m a woman, which gives me an inherent disadvantage and a stake in this conversation.  But…I’m a privately-educated woman with full-time employment, a small amount of disposable income, and a broadly accepted gender/sexuality identity.  But I struggle with depression and other mental illness.  But I’ve never experienced physical violence due to my gender/sexuality/ethic/racial/religious identities.  But I have certainly been verbally harassed and made to feel shame for some of my identity attributes.

But I’ve this, and I’ve that, and I’ve the other thing, et cetera, et cetera.  Pluses and minuses – the list goes on.  You can tally up your own privilege points with things like this hideously reductive Buzzfeed quiz, but I don’t think that adds much to anyone’s “right” to contribute their perspective.

So instead of spouting out a whole bunch of nonsense that falls prey to the flaws of the Privilege Index point of view, I just want to gather information from people who have all different takes on the world.  To that end, I’ve created a short survey.

It’s just ten questions, some of which are open-ended, to collect some data about how you guys (readers and authors) feel about the thorny problem of diversity in a genre that is clearly undergoing one heck of a major revolution that is long overdue.

The survey is anonymous.  I will not be collecting names or email addresses.  I do not know any of you well enough to guess who you are based on your responses to the demographic questions.  Feel free to say what’s on your mind, but remember to be kind, thoughtful, and honest.

Please note that for the purposes of this survey, I am using the word “diverse” to mean “non-white/straight/cisgender” characters.  I’m aware that it’s a silly definition, because it assumes a whitewashed world is the standard and everything else is the “other,” but it’s a commonly accepted way of framing the issue, and SurveyMonkey will only let my questions be so long.

Click here to take the survey!

I would like to share your thoughts in a follow-up post, but please do be aware that malicious sentiments or hate speech will never see the light of day.  This is an opportunity for discussion, not for being an awful person.

Please share the survey with your friends and fellow readers.  The more responses I get, the better the conversation.  I’m looking forward to your feedback!

3 Replies to “The Privilege Index: Addressing Diversity in Fantasy Novels”

  1. I worry that privilege arithmetic may be the modern “Angels dancing on the head of a pin”.

  2. Great, brave post. Looking forward to the follow-up.

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