On Being the Only (x) in the Room

I started a draft of this post when Ashley Nell Tipton won Project Runway Season 14.

I opened it up again when I overheard dire opining about how diversity efforts in the workplace shouldn’t be forced, you should just hire the “best person for the job.”

I find myself staring again at this screen now, after a series of months of peripheral whining about how unnatural the diversity in Jessica Jones was; how Star Wars: The Force Awaken’s Finn was a terrible character.

This is the problem with only having one (x) in the room: One plus size designer on Project Runway, ever, let alone only one competing in the final round; one (white) woman in the office; one superhero show with more than one white woman and more than one non-white character; and one black man in all of space.

There’s only one, so they or it are seen as special. Too intentional. Force. As if the white, straight, male dominance of all entertainment since the beginning of time wasn’t forced. As if the presence of this one deviation from the norm is just some silly diversity effort, and not that person, that show, that character, having had to overcome odds the average straight white male creation has never dreamed of just to exist let alone be in a place of prominence.

There is a problem with these people, characters, and things: it’s that there aren’t enough. The more plus size designers win Project Runway, the harder it is for anyone to say (with any hint of credibility) that their success was some kind of PC PR move. An office that makes an effort to dismantle its white male blinders and achieves actual diversity makes a strong argument for every one of those perfectly competent and capable non-white, non-male employees being there. More shows like Jessica Jones, that get eyeballs and accolades and money, make the case for a new norm rather than a passing diversity fad. And more than one black man in space at one time lets there maybe actually, one day, be a terrible character,* and that not be unusual or noteworthy, because don’t white men get plenty of terrible characters that are just politely lost to the ages?

The answer is always more diversity, not less.

*Finn is an amazing character and anyone who thinks different is wrong.

Things We Get Away With

I don’t need to research what foods my Taiwanese-American protagonist would have learned about from her mother, because no white person will ever question me on it and an offhand reference to pineapple cakes will do.

I don’t need to understand the particular challenges of getting into a white male dominated field of study and working as a professor for a supporting Afro-Latina character, or even flesh out her background that much, because no white person will ever wonder about it. (Except, maybe, to wonder if I’m trying to cram this diversity thing down their throats, because her ethnicity + profession is just so unrealistic.)

I don’t need to delve into the cultural nuances of growing up as a black lesbian in an upper middle class east coast home, because few white people will even notice she’s black, even when I repeatedly describe her that way.

But I don’t want to be a white writer who gets away with anything. I want to do a good enough job, by giving my non-white characters enough humanity, that there’s nothing to get away with.

Weren’t we all supposed to learn this in kindergarten? Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Tips on Tropes: Describing Asian Characters

Because I’m writing a modern day novel I have the luxury of saying outright, “Sophie is Asian. Asian Asian Asian. Here’s a reference to her mom’s family being from Taiwan. Asian. ASIAN.”* This strikes me as fairly important in a world where readers are primed to assume everyone is white, even if characters are explicitly described otherwise.

Whatever you’re writing, how can you give your readers a clue-by-four that that’s not the case, without being a racist yourself? Today, the fabulous Tumblr Writing with Color has you covered for Asian descriptors. If you take away nothing else, remember not to call your Asian character’s eyes “almond shaped.”

Read Writing with Color’s very thorough guide on descriptors for Asian characters.

*Not an actual excerpt from my novel.


Hitotsubashi ICS: Efforts Toward Inclusion

Hey friends! One more post on diversity issues and progress towards inclusion at Hitotsubashi ICS. You may recall the post I made a little while ago about the bigotry I witnessed and experienced during my time as a student. Here’s what happened after that post went up:

– One of my classmates posted a link on our class’s private Facebook page, with a note along the lines of how I should be ashamed of myself for marketing the school so poorly.

– Several classmates (all notably straight, cisgender, male, and of the dominant ethnic group from their respective countries, therefore not personally subject to, in their homes, any of the oppression I talked about – hmmm) chimed in to agree that I was terrible.

– I received an email from a professor asking me to talk to him about my post.

Two of those things are gross and horrible, and pretty much illustrate what I was talking about: as a school community, we found it worse to protest bigotry and harassment than to actually engage in bigotry and harassment. It was acceptable to drive me out of a space I was a part of, to try to shame me for having an experience I thought was not OK and expressing that it was not OK. Nobody had anything to say about, say, racism not being okay, or it being shameful that racism was an issue in our community, and that it was terrible marketing that racism existed in and was expressed by members of our community, or that we should really do something to fix that.

The email I got from my professor, however, was good! During my time as a student I hadn’t sat down and talked with any authority figures in detail about all the stuff that I had witnessed or that had personally happened to me, because the one or two times I brought things up to test the waters, the vibe was either so negative or so apathetic I was scared off. Anyone who has been in this situation knows what I’m talking about: even if the people in positions of power don’t appear blatantly untrustworthy, or themselves express overtly problematic opinions, it’s a risk to approach them. There are consequences to speaking up, and at the time there was way too much risk and way too little reward for me to say anything. So I kept my head down and stayed safe.

After my professor reached out to me, though, asking me directly for clarification on what I’d talked about and what I’d experienced, that door was open, and I shared in detail what had happened to me and what I’d seen over my two years. I named names, which was refreshing, because the anonymity of those who had harassed me was in part why I think they were allowed to continue to be active parts of the school community. I doubt these people will ever be punished in any way, but I don’t especially care – I just care that someone in a position of power now knows who they are, so new students will hopefully never have to deal with known racists, misogynists, and bullies.

His inviting me to talk to him also allowed me to discuss in more depth the school’s ongoing efforts to improve diversity and inclusion. There seem to be a lot of things in the works, the positive effects of which I hope you current and incoming students will see (or are already seeing).

Most notable to me was that the school is in talks with a professional diversity trainer who I’ve personally worked with and really admire. She lectures internationally and is hired by huge multinationals to train their staff. I think she has the potential to help a lot, and also help moderate and maintain a safe space for discussions about diversity issues that was lacking before.

Going forward, I hope you incoming students, many of you who have read my post, spoken to me, and decided to apply to and attend ICS, will let others know how it’s going and feel safe to speak to the administration about any issues that might arise.

As an outsider, or at least no longer a student, what will be most demonstrative to me of ICS’s progress is how much I’m welcome in the community in the future. I’m not really trying to get into the whole diversity and inclusion initiative – that’s stressful as heck, and better left to the hired professionals. But I have worked with the ICS faculty and administration on a lot of projects, including writing for their website, helping with the fantastic new Japanese culture class, and being a part of orientation week so you new kids know how health care works and where to get a cellphone. I’d love to continue to be a part of that, and in all honestly, I think I will. One blog post speaking honestly about my experiences doesn’t transform me from “one of our best students ever” (direct quote from another professor) to “evil vindictive harpy bitch” (not a quote). If ICS is an institution really dedicated to owning up to its diversity and inclusion issues, and improving them – and I think it is – then I look forward to congratulating the newest incoming class in person this summer.

And, possibly, explaining how you can pay your health care bill at the convenience store.

Take care everybody. As with the last post about harassment, comments are off to avoid, well, harassment. Prospective and incoming students are always welcome to contact me directly with questions.