What does representation truly mean?

Mermaids, representation, and white authors

More than enough has been said about the casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel in the live-action The Little Mermaid. Let’s just say if you’re outraged that an imaginary creature is played by someone other than a white person, or you want to deny Black kids the joy of seeing a leading character who looks like them—that says more about you as a person than it does about Disney.

This moment gives us as white authors a chance to reflect on what representation, diversity, and inclusion means in our works. We have to face a few uncomfortable truths.

First, different communities don’t need us to tell their stories for them. They have their own talented storytellers and amazing stories. If we want to be good allies, we should support those authors, buy their books, and promote their work.

Second, our writing—whether intentional or not—reflects our beliefs.

Terrible people can create wonderful art. But problematic authors are often problematic people. When we look at some of the ugly stereotypes in the Harry Potter series, should we really be surprised by the awful things JK Rowling has said and done since then? You can also say the same about Roald Dahl, Robert Heinlein, and other authors. Hidden biases and a dependence on too-familiar stereotypes can also trip up the most well-intentioned of creatives. Ryan Murphy is considered a champion of LGBTQ+ rights, but think of all the cringeworthy stereotypes that were in Glee.

Inclusion can’t be something we tack on to a story just to increase marketability or make us look “woke.” It has to come from our firm belief in a diverse world. We believe society is better when people of different backgrounds are all valued and play an active part. With that belief, you’ll put in the effort to depict well-rounded characters with depth and humanity. You’ll take care to avoid harmful stereotypes and tropes. You’ll use beta readers to make sure your characters come across the right way to your audience.

It’s what I try to do in my work because I belong to a community that is often stereotyped and vilified in media. That’s why I want to include other communities in my stories. When it works, it’s a wonderful feeling. Some of the best compliments I’ve received for my fiction are when my characters connect with readers, like Laura in Amiga. When I fall short, I’m willing to listen, learn, and do better.

We’ve always lived in a diverse society. We should depict it with all its vibrancy and humanity. With the ugliness and cruelty that’s growing around us, we should use our platform and privilege to build a better world.