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  • Writer's pictureBarbra A. Rodriguez

Writing with Greater Cultural Sensitivity

I mentioned to a colleague a few months ago that I was considering visiting North Carolina. She'd spent a few weeks along the state's coast several years ago. "Every time I met someone new, they'd immediately ask me, 'Where are you from?' " she said, eyes narrowed. That's because for my beautiful olive-skinned friend of Mexican heritage, this was a reminder that she was not local, not "one of us." Meanwhile, I have the green eyes and paler skin of the Polish/Lithuanian side of the family rather than my Dad's olive-skinned complexion, and would likely have received a different reception.

We all develop a unique worldview that is based partly on the reactions of strangers to factors like skin color, as well as the subconscious and conscious expectations of family and others related to our social standing in terms of wealth, education, and so on. That is true regardless of things like whether you were born without a penny to your name, were educated at boarding schools, or had what others consider a classically middle-class, suburban upbringing.

Cardboard signs at an outdoor rally, including one that says "Racism is taught" (credit, Pexels-Kelly)

Depending on circumstances, the way you speak, attitude, and more likely open some doors more readily for you to be accepted by one group, while raising eyebrows elsewhere. As an example of how subtly this can play out, a researcher I know has studied microaggressions such as the one my friend experienced while vacationing. Dr. David Rivera, an associate professor at the Queens College-City University of New York, found that Latinos are likelier to be considered unintelligent if they speak with an accent than because of their skin color or fluency in more than one language.

A plus side of this all can be that refusing to meet expectations of family and others can spur someone on to greater accomplishments, and adversity can influence what topics you are drawn to as a writer. Regardless, our worldview plays a part in writer's voice. And at times, views we may not even know we hold about the value of things like a college degree can creep into writings, preventing us from reaching a broader audience because of inadvertently "other-ing" a reader who doesn't fit the mold we've unconsciously promoted or denigrated.

Whether you seek to provide more realistic characters in fiction, or to prevent unconscious biases from creeping into nonfiction works, tackling your personal -isms can allow you to connect emotionally with a broader swath of readers, while building your capacity to be culturally inquisitive and "culturally humble" (not assuming you know a person from a certain cultural background's worldview related to career goals, etc.).

Here are some ways to build a more open-minded approach to representing people, and tools for considering how you depict diverse backgrounds.

Intentional Diversity Learning

Stepping into Diverse Experiences

Exposing yourself to diverse books, movies, plays, and more helps to temporarily step into the shoes of people with dissimilar backgrounds in the hopes of tweaking stereotypical beliefs. But it's just a tiny step. Putting yourself into culturally diverse situations, like working outside your home country or volunteering at a setting where people from a different background are likely to be present, such as a public health clinic or law library, is an even better way to make your interpretations of others more fluid. Here are added ways to build your diversity muscles.

Pegging Where You are Privileged

Writers can contemplate where they have a privileged identity in society—which we all have in some areas. To evaluate your personal identity related to privilege, consider reviewing the power wheel from the Canadian Council for Refugees, where those who are closer to the inside of the circle are more likely to have cultural power. The wheel covers ten factors of relevance to this discussion that can be used to "peg" what people are like: gender, sexuality, physical ability, skin color, age, professional seniority, language used, indigenous status, formal education, and citizenship. You might also want to consider factors such as income, type of housing, weight, and religious/spiritual beliefs. The wheel can reveal which parts of your identity bring pride or that you tend to shy away from, based on your and others’ perceptions of the factors value.

Image of a frowning man with white hair, next to wording that reads, "no vacancies" (credit, pexels-kelly)
You can consider how a character's attributes influence perceptions of older people and others

Setting Matters

That you can view one factor as holding different values relates to the reality that what benefits someone in one social situation can be a drawback in another, based on who's present. For instance, an elderly person would traditionally be revered in Japan and some other countries, but might be unconsciously marginalized in the U.S. and elsewhere from the assumption that something like having gray hair means a fragile mind or body. And even your name can produce differential treatment, affecting access to contacts and resources. For instance, studies in 2016 and 2003 found that, if a job applicant seemed Black, perhaps because of a name like Lakesha or Jamal, they had half the chance of either getting an interview, or being called back or offered a job, respectively.

Portraying Diverse Characters

Writing Out Of Character

So what should you do when it comes to presenting characters or real people on the page? First off, many in marginalized communities recommend avoiding a protagonist or other major character in your work that differs significantly from your worldview. That is partly about sticking with the "write what you know" approach. The argument is that you won't likely be able to fully comprehend the psychological weight of being treated as less than because of a physically noticeable characteristic, for instance, without having personally experienced that, day in and day out, over years.

On the other hand, we allow actors to step into the shoes of others all the time, such as Dustin Hoffman playing a man in the movie Rain Man who is on the autism spectrum and is a savant. An alternative option some authors draw on is thus to deeply research conditions like autism—just as you wouldn't want to incorrectly depict the way some technology or other aspect of your world "works." You can also run your draft by those who have experienced the worldview you seek to represent (as I'll share more on below; to help with this on the medical front, I cover finding reliable health resources and guides in this post).

Beyond the concern about providing a true depiction of others, a remaining concern is that the predominantly white publishing industry still favors books by white authors too often, even when a work focuses on marginalized characters and issues their communities face. What can be a more palatable take on a topic may have been selected over more nuanced writings by marginalized authors, while the added attention given by a publisher to the former can literally steal the thunder from works by marginalized authors that are of equal or better literary merit. Those concerns were central to the controversy a few years ago that surrounded American Dirt, which was written by a self-identified white woman about Mexican migrants.

One of several critics of the quality and authenticity of the characterizations in the book, Myriam Gurba, called it "trauma porn," a failure of real empathy that appeared to match Flatiron Press's use of wood blocks with barbed wire on them as centerpieces at an early launch party for the work. But this wasn't the first turn of some publishers' insensitivity merry-go-round; similar concerns about the realism of Black characters' depictions were raised nearly a decade earlier with Kathryn Stockett's novel, The Help.

World Building

Genres such as fantasy and sci-fi/speculative fiction come with an innate flexibility to the way the worlds they depict are built. This can allow for playing fast-and-loose with cultural mores in ways that many have lauded in retrospect, such as the famous kissing scene between Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura in the original Star Trek TV series. But some authors, and those who translate their work for the big screen, have come under the gun for using the fiction umbrella as an excuse for using sexualized violence or other behaviors as ways of providing gratuitous energy. The original, cinematic Game of Thrones series was chocked full of leading female characters being raped at the decree of kings and such, as well as the routine use of female nudity to "fill in" moments of duller dialogue, which led to coining of the term "sexposition." While some people (like me) object to this type of dehumanization, they may or may not be OK with something like the revenge rape scene of a man by a woman in the Swedish crime thriller, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Writers of nonfiction and genres such as historical fiction should also consider how they approach denigrating words that were once broadly accepted by many in a culture. An understandably volatile case in point, given ongoing discrimination against Blacks today, is usage of the "n" word. Memoirists such as Tara Westover never spell out the entire word to minimize the trauma it can bring up, and in her case, she only uses it to drive home a larger point: in Educated, the context is her becoming appalled by a family member using the term for her, after she finally attends college and learns about slavery's history. Long online discussions between editors and writers suggest that some are OK if a word like this is restricted to historical dialogue, when it is known to be accurate for the time depicted. But others argue against any usage of pejorative words like this in something like historical fiction, with some giving exception to authors who themselves come from the culture being diminished.

Image of man with an amputation about to surf (credit, pexels-kampus-productions)
Reviewing style guides helps improve sensitivity when depicting someone with an amputation, etc.

More on Language Choices

The differences of interpretation described above are why it's important to delve into resources to provide the most accurate depictions of others' experiences as possible. Covering health conditions is one example of how this comes into play. For instance, how would you represent a person who has diabetes? By doing some research, you might learn that someone diagnosed with the disease can increase their exercise and reduce their blood sugar anomalies so much that they never start taking medications. Knowing this could prevent you from defaulting to wording such as that a character “suffers from diabetes” or “is a victim of diabetes.”

If the character or real-life individual really is suffering, the old rule of “show, don’t tell” is a wise workaround to avoid using victimization language. That is, you could provide scenes that show someone whose disease is not being well-managed at the moment and how they moves about their world. And you could choose to depict any cultural realities, such as having grown up on cheaper, high-calorie food, that are part of what may be hindering a character's self-care.

The same approach applies to depicting the language of something like a disability. That is, unless you’re putting words in the mouth of a protagonist or other character who is meant to be ignorant/cruel as part of developing a take-home message with meaning, using terms like "crippled," "dumb" or "special needs" is not considered OK.

The tricky thing is, what individuals prefer to be called varies within a community, and over time (as a previously preferred term gets demonized by some, or tweaked in understanding). An added layer is that some within a community may reclaim terms that have previously been used disparagingly as part of self-identifying with pride in who they are, such as calling themselves an “obese person,” or “a deaf person.” Meanwhile, others will prefer using a phrase such as “a person who is deaf” as a way to share their personhood first—that is, that being a person, not a medical term, defines their underlying identity. The “person-first” naming approach partly has become more popular because it helps take into account the fact that something like dyslexia or autism spectrum disorder can manifest differently in different people: some will have a milder version that does not greatly impact their daily lives.

Language Diversity Guides

What is a writer to do with such inconsistencies? Luckily, diversity-related resources have become available that can help when considering the nuances of writing about religious beliefs, gender identity, and more. In the U.S., they include:

  • The Conscious Style Guide website, which covers disabilities, health, sexuality, ageism, nationality/race/ethnicity and other topics.

  • The National Center on Disability and Journalism updated their disability style guide in 2021, and it is available in four languages.

  • The American Psychological Association style guide, which includes a brief primer about person-first versus identity-first language, and examples of what they refer to as “bias-free language."

  • Diversity style guides, such as those developed by the Native American Journalists Association, National Association of Black Journalists, and Society of Professional Journalists. The Asian American Journalists Association is updating their guide Note that even these guides share different perspectives, with the word "White" capitalized by the SPJ style guide, but not being listed in that of the NABJ (which previously also capitalized the word); most style guides like that of the Associated Press used by newspapers have moved to upper casing "Black," and using the lower cased form of "white." Meanwhile, an individual may prefer "African American" over "Black." As with other identifiers such as "Latino" and "Hispanic," it is often best to ask those whom you write about their preferred term when variations exist and the lines aren't always consistently drawn (the National Hispanic Journalists Association has a cultural competence guide that covers how they differentiate those two terms, as one reference).

If the nuances in identity preferences are still bugging you, keep in mind how your use language use differs from older relatives, and from people who grew up in different circumstances from your own. Be ready to apologize if you have offended someone unintentionally. Being unaware that certain wording hurt them is no excuse—although we all are human, and there should be room on the other end to listen and to consider how to help someone learn to do better and such – when someone has the energy to do so, as this in itself can be exhausting work.

Writers can also hire what is called a Diversity, Sensitivity, or Authenticity Reader, which I have occasionally served as. The professional's role is to review the parts of your work that relate to potential biases in how individuals or groups are portrayed. As a result of the focused nature of this work, it is usually cheaper than hiring a professional such as a copy or developmental editor.

To take things a step further, consider reading blogs like the radicalcopyeditor’s one, and following individuals who focus on conscious language, such as Crystal Shelley, a social worker-turned-editor who shared the power wheel I mentioned above at a 2021 presentation. Digging deep in this way could ultimately help you create more than just well-rounded characters, enriching your own character as well.

Barbra A. Rodriguez

To learn more about diversity in the publishing industry and what publishing houses are doing to address this, visit: https://pen.org/report/race-equity-and-book-publishing/

To see example words like "blacklist" that you may not be aware have a historically racial underpinning: https://www.today.com/tmrw/everyday-words-phrases-racist-offensive-backgrounds-t187422 To read my feature about brushing up on local customs while working overseas, visit:

To receive my brief Scoops4Scribes shares on the writing life, style matters, and writing hacks, click here.


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