Maya Angelou once said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” This is one quote I live by.
When I was growing up in Shreveport, Louisiana, scriptwriters and some of my favorite authors appeared to not care about knowing or doing better when including African American characters in books or on TV shows. When these characters were included, they played mostly bit parts, shucked and jived as sidekicks, or mirrored stereotypes that to this day exhaust me. Being disappeared or misrepresented creates real psychological pain and trauma. Not seeing myself reflected in the stories of this country made me question if I belonged in this country. To make matters worse, while reading books by my favorite authors I would often encounter text that caused further isolation. Sometimes it would be a small, throwaway line, or an entire premise that spoke to a shared experience between author and reader— an experience that didn’t include Black people. Maybe something like, When our ancestors came to this country to escape religious persecution, or, Women in America received the right to vote in 1920.
Books and television were an escape from both racism and poverty when I was young. The problem was that the very media I was using to survive was in its own way killing me. I tried to fix it. I would find myself daydreaming entire plots of The Wild, Wild West. In my version a kick-ass Black woman would best Captain James West using physical dexterity, cunning, and intelligence. And she definitely would not be the kind of woman who would surrender with a soul-sucking kiss at the end of the show.
But I couldn’t fix this.
What I was dealing with on the race front was already too heavy to carry. I vowed that if I became an author, I would do my best to make sure no one else had to endure this erasure. In my new book, A Killing Rain (June, 2022), I used my own lived experiences growing up in Louisiana to create the fictional town of Byrd’s Landing. I tried to populate that world with who I saw around me to avoid erasure and stereotypes. It was only when I could see my characters breathing that I would stop developing them. Raven Burns, an African American homicide detective and daughter of a serial killer, not only breathes, she evolves. By the end of this four-part series based on fire, water, air, and earth, she will have decided how she wants to be in this world—a responsible citizen fighting for those weaker than herself, or a pestilence on society like her father was.
While I’m an expert on my own unique lived experiences, however, being a Black woman doesn’t make me an expert on diversity. Sometimes I get it wrong. That’s why I’ve committed to being a life-long learner of DEIJ-B awareness and practices. The acronym stands for diversity, equity, inclusion, justice, and belonging. DEIJ-B is not just about the numbers, it’s about providing equal opportunity and creating space where it’s safe for everyone to be their authentic selves.
I sincerely believe that DEIJ-B awareness is a muscle authors can build. Here are a few tips that have helped me on my DEIJ-B journey. I hope they will help you.
Remember that you are only human.
Everyone carries implicit bias. Everyone. It’s part of being human. The PBS documentary video series, POV, contends that implicit bias originates from the fog of misinformation we’ve been breathing all our lives. This linked PBS POV video may provide you with another perspective on implicit bias.
You will make a mistake.
Honest mistakes don’t make you a bad person. If you offend someone, a sincere, complete apology will go a long way. Explain how you will do better next time. Remember, however, that the person you’ve offended is exhausted by daily small aggressions.
Recently a grocery store clerk asked my daughter-in-law during checkout, “Will that be EBT?” She asked loudly so everyone in line heard. There is no shame in needing help, but this clerk wanted to shame my daughter-in-law by implying that women-of-color are mostly on today’s equivalent of food stamps. Just remember that you don’t have a right for your apology to be accepted. But still try. Do your best.
Put in the work.
- Read books by diverse authors and seek out resources on DEIJ-B awareness
- Participate in your writing organizations’ efforts to be more inclusive
- And by all means, don’t expect a person from a marginalized group to do this work for you. Their burden is heavy enough.
- If you do need help, find a professional, someone who does this work for a living.
- If you do find a trusted friend who shares your character’s lived experience to help, keep in mind that one person can’t speak for an entire group of people. Regional differences, upbringing, etc. also impact how people see the world.
Develop your characters.
- Fully develop your diverse character. Give them hope, wishes, dreams, hobbies, neuroticisms. While you are doing so, consider these questions:
- Why include this particular character, especially as your protagonist? Are you the right person to tell this story? Has someone with the same lived experiences as your character already told this story? If you decide, yes, you will write this character, in my opinion that’s OK. But it’s imperative that you put in the work.
- Is the character’s role in your book a part of a tired trope or based on stereotypes?
- A great resource for writing characters with different lived experiences is the website, Writing the Other: Learn to write characters very different from you sensitively and convincingly.
- Make space for diverse authors in your writing communities, and welcome them
- Ask panel moderators if they are including diverse panelists. Be prepared to decline the invite, insist that they add diverse panelists, or tell them to offer your seat to a diverse author. Consider doing the same with anthology editors.
- In your calls for submission, solicit diverse authors to participate, but don’t expect them to only write about diversity. They have many stories to tell, and sometimes, they just want to talk about their books.
And above all, remember that you will never be done learning about diversity. As Kimberly MacLean, a DEIJ-B expert helping Sisters in Crime in their diversity efforts says, “Find joy in that.” Think about all the ways people are wonderfully different including LGBTQIA2S, the neurodivergent, people with disabilities, everyone. The reward is in how your readers will feel when you not only strive to know better, but do better.