Recent posts to Speculative Faith by Daniel Whyte IV and Mike Duran have addressed the topic of diversity among fiction writers in general and Christian fiction writers in particular. This post I’m going to offer my own thoughts on the topic of diversity, which I believe are different from both Mr. Whyte and Mr. Duran. My ideas of course are my own and do not reflect any official position of Speculative Faith.
While serving with the US Army in Djibouti, Africa in 2012, I remember meeting the Ethiopian liaison officer to the US military command there (Combined Joint Task Force–Horn of Africa or CJTF-HOA). I don’t remember the Colonel’s name, but I do remember noticing something distinctive about him. He was missing half of his right index finger, just like I am. His story of how he lost the finger was very similar, too. He was helping to cut wood for the winter (the Ethiopian highlands get cold enough to need it) when he was a small boy and a relative accidentally cut off his finger. He was five and I was seven and his cousin chopped his finger off and for me it was my sister. But both our stories spoke of hard childhoods in rural poverty–a poverty that made he and I more alike in that regard than I am with the majority of any ethnic group from the United States, no matter what their race is.
Likewise I’ve sat across the table from Afghans from remote areas of Farah province. While they and I were different in numerous ways (in many specific ways my life had more in common with the Ethiopian officer), most especially in our religion, these tough ethnic Pashtuns lived lives mostly without electricity, without running water, with “outdoor plumbing,” with their main energy for work provided by animal power. I too lived a portion of my life in a similar way. We usually had electricity (but it failed often) but as I child I passed extensive periods without indoor plumbing and living on a farm in which animal power was the primary way to get things done. Again, this is something about myself that showed more in common with foreigners than with most of my fellow US citizens, no matter what ethic group they come from (though rural Mexicans and Central Americans often have similar experiences to mine).
By the way, I found the Afghans were living rougher lives that most Africans, overall. Mostly because wartime pressures are worse in Afghanistan than most (but not all) of Africa–but note most Afghans are classified as (believe it or not) “white.” And they are desperately poor as a nation, overall. Though in fact, experiences vary in Afghanistan–some Afghans have lived relatively cushy lives, especially those who grow up in the families of urban professionals. Yes, even Afghanistan has urban professionals. And yes, even a nation that is essentially made up of one race can have sharp ethnic splits and class divisions.
For those of you who might be familiar with the history of Afghanistan, you might find it noteworthy that the East-Asian-looking Hazara of Afghanistan’s central Hindu Kush mountains have been picked on by most of the other groups in Afghanistan. You might be tempted to call that racial discrimination. But there’s a group in Afghanistan called the Aimaqs that are every bit as East-Asian-looking that are not especially discriminated against. Why not? Because they are Sunni Muslims like the majority of Afghans–while the Hazara are Shia Muslims. Surprise, racial discrimination is not really a worldwide thing–sure, it exists in many different countries, but in places removed from Western culture ethnicity (marked by language) usually matters more. As does religion. Actually, this is true in Western cultures, too. Though the modern conversation about discrimination based on race seems to miss that.
How do you suppose Afghans are treated that move to the United States? Maybe OK if nobody knows where they are from. But their accents and attendance at mosques tend to set them off–and from what I hear, they tend to get a little extra loving tender care from the TSA when they fly. Probably far more than those of you reading this receive. From what I’ve heard, that’s true even if they worked as translators for US troops and put their lives on the line shoulder to shoulder with us. And what race are they? Usually “white.”
Any intense focus on race I see as an ideological virus. It’s first of all a moronic notion–the idea that all of everyone from Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia have something in common making them essentially alike, just like everyone from sub-Saharan Africa supposedly has something that makes them alike, just as all Native Americans were supposedly alike and all East Asians alike. Nonsense. Individual differences are much bigger, much more important that real racial differences. Even benchmarks a racial theorist might think are reliable such as Africans having darker skin than Europeans isn’t always true–some Africans have relatively light skin (and not because of being so-called “mixed race”). While some Europeans are quite swarthy.
History mostly doesn’t reflect even Europeans fully believing this hokum–the English thought they were inherently different from the Irish, the French from the Germans, the Italians from the Greeks, etc, etc. It was only colonialism and a relatively-late desire to justify colonialism that caused the latter half of the 19th Century to become the heyday of racial theory, where people for the first time actually proposed that all Europeans have something in common and really meant it.
By the way, yes, these racial theorists did a great deal of harm to society. True. Yes, some of their idiotic ideas linger and even have a small effect in the direction of being self-fulfilling prophecy. Yes, by believing that race was real and really matters, they created institutions that enforced racial divisions, especially in regard to African Americans, but also against other ethnicities at various times. But it’s never actually been true that all white people are alike. Nor all blacks not all Latinos nor all Asians or Native Americans or nor all whatever.
It is not a sign of actual diversity to represent two people who grow up in the same middle class suburb of a major American city, speak only English, attend the same quality schools, but one of the two has dark brown skin and is called “black” and the other has light pink skin and is called “white.” While the two people no doubt have different experiences to a degree, these differences are essentially pretty small. Both have about as much chance of success in life. I’m not quoting stats here, but it’s true. Neither of these people will face prejudice so crippling that they cannot get ahead in life in the United States.
However, if you are a black person who grows up in a neighborhood with high crime and terrible schools, you are at a significant disadvantage to both white and black “I grew up in a middle class suburb” person. The real issue is not race–it’s place. It’s more what the schools are like and unemployment and the substance abuse situation where you live than anything else (many but not all of America’s reservations are especially terrible places in that regard). This type of depressed ethnic neighborhoods was to a large degree caused by historic racism–and a person coming from a situation of dire urban poverty really does have a different perspective on life than a middle-class person. But it’s a situation that is only influenced a small amount by current racism. There are many very successful people from all ethnic groups in the United States. And not every black person is actually from the “hood”–not even close!
My use of “small amount” to refer to the influence of current racism may offend some people, and I’m sorry, but I think that’s fair. I say that from the perspective of having spent significant time in foreign countries and having observed how divisions can line up in foreign non-racial patterns, ones that still produce haves and have-nots, advantaged people and disadvantaged. Without racism being a significant factor.
You wanna talk real diversity without making a bunch of presumptions about race? How about someone being different from most other people by missing fingers? 🙂 Losing a finger in an accident changes your perspective on life, I’m telling you–people chopping vegetables on a cooking show probably generates winces in me that ten-fingered folk do not feel. Yet if we were to create a panel of people who are missing fingers, to include both the Ethiopian Colonel I referenced earlier and myself would not represent diversity simply because he’s from Africa and I’m from North America. We both lost the same finger in the same way, making us essentially the same in the context of missing fingers…losing a thumb in a different way, now that would be an example of diversity in that context.
It may seem that I’m rambling here but I hope I’m doing so with a purpose. If you have a panel of writers, all of whom only speak English, all went to similar universities, all doubt the existence of God, and all have similar writing style, is that really a diverse panel if fifty percent or better are women and there are plenty of blacks, Latinos, and Asians? In relation to the subject of writing, diversity should actually center around different writing style, different themes, and different underlying convictions that under-gird what people write. Do people from different ethnic groups (as in racially based ones) automatically have vastly different perspectives from one another in all cases which will mean their writing is totally different? I would say, “no.” In particular in regard to modern ideas about sexuality as expressed in writing, it seems to me there is a high degree of uniformity among modern winners of the Hugo and Nebula awards. Pretty much all are libertine–and that reflects in their writing.
Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not against deliberate efforts to include people of differing superficial groups, including people belonging to various categories hatched up by 19th Century racial theorists. Though that’s just to make people feel welcome–the racial categories themselves are essentially meaningless. People are not their race–race is not destiny–that was a lie hatched up by self-serving racists. They never succeeded in making it wholly true, even though they tried. And it certainly isn’t true now. And thinking that race is somehow deeply significant is perversely very Western-centric and United States-focused–my experience meeting Africans, Central Americans, Middle Easterners, and Afghans has led me to believe that America’s perspective on race doesn’t reflect the whole world.
So if we as Christian writers wish to be welcoming to people different from ourselves, does it make sense to celebrate human diversity based on outward appearance or other superficial criteria? Sure, there’s no downside in doing so as long as we don’t think we just solved the world’s problems by mixing people from different groups. It’s kind to let people know they will not be excluded based on superficial criteria–but to imagine there is something actually different about writing or writers based on such superficial things–c’mon now. Real diversity is diversity of ideas, of character, of experiences–and nothing about race or other similar superficial criteria determine that in advance.
Each individual is in fact an island to himself or herself in most ways. Like me and my Ethiopian Colonel, every single person has the chance to meet someone of another race who because of individual experiences is more like them than anyone else in the world. Ethnicity is not destiny. Individual differences matter more than ethnic groups.
And the Church that Jesus built, while it should be welcoming for all who will repent and enter it–while churches absolutely are diverse in race, ethnicity, and gender, it all started with twelve Jewish men. You’d be making a big mistake to think those twelve men were not a diverse group–they were diverse in profession, education, and personality. For example, the disciples included a zealot, a group who swore to kill the Romans, yet also a former tax collector, who had collaborated with them. That’s a more significant diversity than if one of them had been born in Africa and one had been born in Europe but both believed the same things and spoke the same language.
Diversity in fact is most importantly reflected in inner traits and experiences. Real diversity is individual. As we deliberately include writers that fall into different superficial categories (as we should do), let’s not forget that. Let’s also seek diversity of experiences, styles, and beliefs.