I’m black. I’m African American. And I’m lucky in that my family is extremely diverse. We have members of many different economic classes. We have members of different sexual orientations. We have members that can “pass” and members who most certainly cannot. I’m privy to a ridiculously wide range of African American experiences.
I was raised in a neighborhood where most of the residents were Latino or Caribbean American. I would hear Spanish more often than English. And when I heard English, it certainly wasn’t in an accent that I was used to. My best friends were Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Trinidadian. Though I was ethnically an outsider, I blended in physically, which made others more open to sharing their cultures with me.
I was sent off to private school. It was a place where a majority of the children were white and certainly not part of my social class. I began to see how the “other half” lived. And once again I was immersed in different cultures that were not my own—Anglo-Saxon, Italian, Jewish, Irish. And so I observed everything that my peers did closely, and then I immediately copied it. Why? Because I did not want to stand out any more than I already did. I wanted to be “normal.” Sadly, it was at the expense of myself. However, it did teach me to navigate a world that is a requirement for my livelihood.
Luckily, a return to my old middle-class neighborhood was able to undo much of the damage I had done while keeping all of the benefits I had gained. And after some gentle ribbing from friends of all backgrounds, I learned to switch dialects depending on the individual I was speaking to. I can’t say I’ve studied how to do this, because I don’t even think about doing it. It’s effortless. Instantaneous. However, with friends I’ve had for a long time, I tend to forget and speak to them as if I am speaking to family. Still, I was finally able to swim the cultural pathways of my life and not feel out of place or uncomfortable.
And then I fell in love—with an Asian man. Who brought a whole heap of cultures and experiences with him that I knew nothing of. But I was more than willing to learn. Why? Because I cared for him and I wanted to know about the things that had shaped him and the things that he enjoyed. And I’m glad I did. Because even though the status of our current relationship is murky at best, he brought new and wonderful things into my life. There’s no way in hell I would have willingly put squid in my mouth if not for him and that is like the best food ever. Ever.
So why am I telling you this? Because if I sit down to write, I don’t have to think about diversity. I don’t have to go back over my work to see if I’ve added the right number of minority characters. If I have a question about a particular American subculture, I can usually pick up my phone or photo album before I have to pick up a reference book. I don’t have to think about diversity because my life is filled to the brim with it.
And because of that, I didn’t realize how difficult reader demands for true diversity would be for individuals who only had intimate knowledge of the culture they were born into to fulfill. So, I finally understand that it is a formidable task. Of course, that still doesn’t mean that you should shirk your responsibilities and not do right by individuals who are different from you.