Appropriate Diversity and why “Historical Accuracy” is (mostly) Bullshit

Diversity in media is a subject where whatever you do, someone will complain that you’re not doing it right. Either your work has not enough diversity and you’re a discriminating bigot, or the diversity in your work is a form of cultural appropriation. You really have only two options: Cultural appropriation or cultural segregation. I think much more often than not, any such discussion is missing the point.

There really are two different diversities that need to be looked at separately. A diversity in works, and a diversity of works. Most time people talk about diversity in media, they seem to be talking about diversity in works. “Does this work have sufficient amounts of women, blacks, and Asians and does it have positive depictions of other minority characters?” And I don’t think this is the right question to ask. We don’t need black vikings any more than we need an English samurai, and we don’t need women fighting in the trenches of World War I. Looking at a viking story, a samurai story, or a World War 1 story and counting the number of characters from various demographic groups is not only pointless, it also gives plenty of ammunition to dipshits who argue that any diversity is stupid and bad.

I think what is much more important is that we have a diversity of works. I don’t have any problems with works that have a mono-cultural or mono-ethnic cast of characters if these works are set in places with little cultural and ethnic diversity. Just squeezing in token minority characters isn’t doing anyone any good. If you are interested in seeing diverse representations, what we really need is a market that provides us with works set in diverse places, made by diverse creators. I don’t know about actual numbers, but in my perception of books, movies, and TV in the fantasy and science fiction genres, it feels like 80% of creators are white American or English men, 15% are white American or English women, and the final 5% is everyone else. I don’t have any problems with any creators setting their works in places and cultures that are familiar to them and in which they feel confident to make things up that are respectful to the issues within those places and cultures. The real problem that I am seeing is that the international entertainment market is set up in a way that strongly favors certain rather narrow groups of creators. The people who create the kind of content the market demands. Which the market demands because it’s the kind of content that audiences are used to.

The thing is that it is very easy to pick one specific work from one specific creator and say “this work is almost entirely white men!” That’s not really addressing the actual problem, but where do you want to point your finger when you want to criticize a global industry for long-term statistical imbalances? What address do you send your strongly worded letter to, and what event do you complain about? I think that’s the reason why we mostly see people barking up the wrong tree. Unfortunately, there is very little that any individual can do about that. But occasionally you see efforts being made. I don’t watch superhero movies, but Black Panther seems to be just the perfect example of what I mean with diversity of works. It’s a fantastic story set in an African country with the completely appropriate African-dominated cast of characters. That’s the kind of works that I think bring diversity to world of mainstream entertainment that is appropriate to their own content. That’s what I want to see more of.

However, recently I’ve also started to gain a new perspective on diversity in works. There certainly is a place for it and you can have, and should have, a considerable amount of diversity even in a viking story or in a story set in a German trench in World War I. But I believe that when we’re talking about diversity, we’re still instinctively thinking about the representation of black characters in works set in the contemporary United States. I feel like this is where it really started that people think about diversity in media. People complained rightfully that most works set in 20th century America do not accurately reflect the reality of the setting and that considerable portions of the population were deliberately erased from the picture. And from my outside perspective here in Germany, that’s still an issue for a lot of people. But I think there is a big mistake in equating “Diversity” with “ethnic Diversity”.

There are many settings in the contemporary world, from history, or in fictional places that really just don’t have much ethnic diversity going on. At least not in ways that are immediately visible and reflect the multi-ethnic population of the United States. A medieval Norwegian village might very well have considerable numbers of Finish, Irish, and Slavic slaves. That’s a form of historically accurate ethnic diversity, but in a movie you couldn’t tell them apart from the Norwegian and Danish slaves, so we don’t consider that to be a portrayal of diversity. And I don’t see that as a problem either.

However, and I think that’s really important, even in a medieval Norwegian village that has no foreign slaves, not everyone is the same. Not everyone in this village is a physically and mentally fit man in prime fighting age. There are also the women, and the old, the sick, the mad and feebleminded, and various other people who don’t fit the ideal of the group that is in power. Every village would have them. Lots of them. Considerably more than the number of warriors in their prime. If this is your setting, all these people deserve to be included. It is completely historically accurate to have them in the story. It actually would be grossly inacurate to keep them out of the picture. In the stories they tell about themselves, the brave battle bros of course dominate everything and do almost anything that is relevant to the story. But they still have to interact with the rest of the people around them.

If you’re a white European man like me, and only feel confident to write fantasy in a setting based on medieval Europe about the activities of medieval European men without grossly misrepresenting other cultures, I think that’s perfectly fine. It is not your duty to create an ethnically diverse setting with various populations inspired by Asian and African cultures, or to transplant characters from other cultures into your historical setting. There are millions of Asian and African writers who will be perfectly confident to represent such characters and cultures in fitting and appropriate ways. (That they have a harder time finding an international audience is another issue, but not something you can do anything about with the work you’re writing.) Some people will complain about that, but some people will take offense regardless of what you write. But even then you can be expected to acknowledge the diversity of people that exist in your mono-ethnic setting.

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