My brother has Type I Diabetes. He was diagnosed with it when he was 11 years old and for the last fifteen years, he’s worn a pump that delivers insulin to keep him alive. Quite literally without it, he would die. An insulin pump is a little device with a small clear tube trailing up his arm that connects to a site embedded in his arm. Or his butt. Sorry, big brother. But it’s the truth! And disability often comes with an ugly truth.
My brother would change his site every couple of days and pick a new location to jab it into his body—oh, and that’s in addition to pricking his finger to test his blood sugar levels. At every meal. And that’s how it’s been every day of his life.
Along with the highs and lows, the crashes and sugary snacks, the flinching when a site gets placed wrong and cursing when it’s caught on a door and ripped out. It’s been part of my life too, but my experience of living with Type I Diabetes is incredibly different than his because I don’t have the chronic disease. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate its representation.
Diverse Representation in Media and Real Life
The Disney film Turning Red (2022) includes a character at Meilin’s school with a small, white, circular patch located on her upper arm; the location where a diabetic could place an insulin site. The site isn't brought up in the movie, it isn't mentioned, the girl isn't integral to the plot, but I saw it. And I immediately texted my brother, freaking out that an on screen character with the same disability is in a Disney film, just living their life.
This background character didn’t have to have a site drawn then animated and rendered and shaded with lighting effects; the production crew could have saved time, money, and effort by not including such a small detail. But they did. Representation and accurate portrayals of marginalized groups opens a gateway to suppressed stories and untold experiences.
While media representation is starting to showcase diverse characters and storylines, one Black person in a cast of Whites does not equate to inclusivity or diversity. I sat in a work meeting and was chosen to participate in a project team of five. I was the only female in the room, three of the men were White, and one was Black. The group humorously claimed they were diverse because they had a girl and a Black guy in the room. And I sat there like, "They can't be serious, can they?" To be diverse is defined as showing a great deal of variety where no two things are the same. That group of five was mixed, but it wasn’t diverse.
Privilege Prevents Participation
Diversity feels sticky when you’re part of the majority, when you’re privileged to have not lived the experiences of a minority. You want to be sensitive to others, but you don’t know how when you haven’t been through the same thing.
Sometimes I want to write an Asian-centric story because, let’s be honest, the young, white brunette, YA heroine has had their time to shine, but I hold myself back because I don't have the first-hand experience, or even second or third, to identify and portray an Asian story authentically despite the fact that I have three cousins from China.
They were adopted at a young age then raised in the states, and though we look nothing alike, we’re family. The color of their skin or shape of their face will never change that. They may not have the terribly iconic Andrus nose my other cousins and I share, but we have memories of waterparks and camping and holidays and attending funerals together. That's what bonds people. Shared experiences forge connections previously nonexistent.
One of the ways I practice diversity is when I'm casting characters in my novel, no two people look or behave alike. While initially you might think, “Oh, that’s great. I should be able to take any character’s past, motivations, conflict, their worldview, and put them onto any body, skin color, religious affiliation, and have the story still work.” That isn’t the case. Worldview is shaped by one’s upbringing which is based on their experiences that are dependent upon how the world views them.
For example, my Chinese cousins mentioned earlier. We led similar lives; We grew up down the road from each other, played sports, instruments, sang in choir, but I didn’t have to learn how to place my eyeshadow on my own because makeup tutorials for Asian people didn’t exist. I never felt excluded in that way. Seemingly small moments, dependent on physical traits, can lead to a valley-wide difference in experience.
Censorship vs Consideration
This isn’t to say that people with privilege can’t practice diversity in media or in the workplace. In fact, that’s where we need it. But as author Kari Sperring says, “Marginal voices should speak for themselves, not through the filters of the privileged.”
Diversity isn’t about censorship. It’s about consideration. I grew up competitive swimming and the fastest girl in my age group was deaf, and her and her dad would sign before a race, having a heated discussion right in front of our eyes, that none of us were privy to.
Later in my undergrad years, a friend of mine was hard of hearing and I wanted to communicate with him in a way he was comfortable with, so I started learning ASL. When I next saw him and introduced myself by fingerspelling my name, he signed back that he was thrilled and invited me to join the ASL club on campus (which was the largest club and he was president and even offered to teach me privately so I wouldn’t feel embarrassed). That's not censorship. That's liberation.
Diversity isn’t a box to check off in your writing or in your project team at work. It’s a practice. A verb. An action. A continuation of monitoring and adjusting unconscious bias as we strive to understand others. If you don't have a disability like your brother, or you’re not Asian like your cousins, you can write about a minority’s experience, but as Kari Sperring says, “The most important thing is to listen, and listen with care and thought and respect.”
As Black History Month comes to a close and Women’s History is on the rise, how are you practicing diversity and celebrating everything we are?