Diversity is much, much more than skin colour

PrintOver at Space freighters Lounge, we’ve been talking about diversity in science fiction. Again. Here’s what I had to say. Heather Massey who has been a great supporter of diversity in stories, and POC (people of colour) writers in general, weighed in with some comments. Here’s what Heather said:

Diverse characters not only makes for better science fiction, it’s just plain necessary realism! When I go from seeing my local neighborhood full of diverse groups to an all-white SFR ensemble cast, I’m like, uh-oh–someone made a conscious choice to erase people of color.”

And that got me thinking. Heather is American. I am Australian, born in Amsterdam (the Netherlands). And the difference is more than the fact that Americans talk funny. My neighbourhood isn’t diverse at all, and really never has been. For me, an SFR with an all-white cast would be a future view of home. Let’s examine that for a moment.

My family emigrated to Australia ten years after WW2 ended, leaving behind battered, war-weary Europe and the spectre of Communism looming in the East. We settled in probably the most Anglo-Saxon of Australia’s capital cities – Perth, Western Australia. Bear in mind that Australia had restrictive immigration policies, designed to limit the types of people who could settle there. It was called the White Australia Policy, and it wasn’t dismantled until well into the 1960’s. “White Australia” was something of a misnomer. As the article says, white people from Eastern and Southern Europe could be treated unfairly.

In the ‘fifties, western European kids like my brother and me learnt English and were absorbed with little fanfare. My parents attended English classes and went to lengths to become part of their new world. Our neighbours were Aussies. As I grew up, the “different” people were the Greeks, Slavs and Italians; olive-skinned people with dark hair and eyes. The older women wore black dresses and spoke to each other in an unintelligible gabble. And they all seemed to live together, in the cheap parts of town near the city centre, or the market gardens, or the fishing boat harbour. Aboriginal people kept to themselves in areas as close to slums as Australia ever got. I rarely saw anyone with dark skin.

I moved to Melbourne  in my early twenties. For me, Melbourne was gobsmackingly different. Just outside the city centre shops had signs in languages other than English – Greek, or Turkish or Italian. You’d go into a shop, the people saw you coming and fetched their son or daughter from out the back to talk to you because they couldn’t speak English. And there was a China Town. But even so, the city was predominantly Anglo-Saxon.

These days, things have changed. We had a new influx of immigrants fleeing the Vietnamese war. That caused a stir. They moved into the market gardens and the inner city suburbs, replacing the original Greeks, Italians and Slavs. But after a couple of generations, their kids speak English with an Aussie twang and they’re just part of the scenery. The Greek and Turkish shop signs have been replaced with Vietnamese or Cambodian. And after them came the Sudanese, the Lebanese, the Iraqis, the Iranians. Many of those people have not, at this time, integrated. There are parts of Melbourne and Sydney that could be part of the Middle East, places where many Caucasian Australians don’t feel safe.

But I’m no longer in one of the big cities. Since we retired, my husband and I moved to a small town. I’d say 98% of the people here are Anglo-Saxon. There are a number of Dutch and German descent, a handful of indigenous or Islander folk and a smattering of Asians. So “diversity” has very little meaning here. And that is true in many, many other parts of our world – if we’re talking skin colour.

In the early nineties I visited Beijing, one of a group of about twenty Australians – all Caucasian. China was just starting to open up, although the massacre in Tienanmen square was a recent memory. The residents of Beijing were becoming used to visits from Westerners. But Beijing is also a tourist spot for Chinese. I remember standing in a group while our Chinese guide talked about the Forbidden Palace. As she talked, a second group formed around us – Chinese people wearing Mao suits, staring at us. They’d never seen people with round eyes, fair skin and fair hair before. And I’m willing to bet the same thing happens every day in Africa and India. It was quite an experience being one of the weirdos. In fact, probably the most ‘diverse’ place I’ve ever been is Singapore, where Chinese, Malays, Indians and a few white folk rub along together very well. It’s also a tiny little island.

So does that mean people with the same external characteristics are uniform, showing no layers of diversity? Not at all. You don’t have to look far to see the differences wealth and religion can make. Not to mention sex. Even in our enlightened Anglo-Saxon communities, white male privilege is a real thing. India’s caste system is a more regimented form of class distinctions that can be found in every human society. It’s how we roll, the tribal instinct. Even so there are other external cues that set people apart – weight, height, a missing limb, a walking stick, age, the length hair, clothing, tattoos, occupation…

Now, in the early years of the twenty-first century, we are grappling with the fact that ‘sex’ as in gender isn’t black and white, and doesn’t altogether depend on physical attributes – boys have these dangly bits, girls don’t. And love isn’t necessarily one girl and one boy. So diversity is much, much more than skin colour and eye shape. As writers of science fiction we should go outside our comfort zones and consider ALL the possibilities. If we don’t, we restrict ourselves. And that would be a shame.


2 thoughts on “Diversity is much, much more than skin colour

  1. Julia Barrett

    I like this post. I have an issue with diversity. A character is a character is a character. I come from a mixed racial background but I was raised Jewish. Many of my characters have this Jewish consciousness. I will not include a character of a particular color/religion simply for the sake of diversity. I include a character because he or she IS the character.

    1. Greta Post author

      Absolutely. Every society is different, and a token black, or token woman, stands out like dog’s balls.

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