Own Voices



  • Something caught me by surprise today and I thought I would share, also to hear your opinions (and that of @Lee-White and @Will-Terry would be highly welcome too!). My agent suggested I avoid including characters with non-Caucasian ethnicity in my portfolio - in particular Native American, African American and Latino characters. She said there is a surge movement in the publishing world since end of last year that strongly insists that only people that belong to these ethnicities should be creating such stories or characters. The movement is called "Own Voices" and has a strong presence on Twitter. This is particularly strong on authors, but illustrators are affected too. I have made some research, and indeed there seem to be a lot of discussion around this since a few months. The risk of using cliched representations is the strongest reason given to creators for steering clear of characters and stories that do not represent one's own direct experience.
    I sort of see the sense but a) it contrasts to anything I have heard about portfolios so far (namely that you should include diverse ethnicities), b) I come from a region of the world where there is basically no racial tension - indeed where race is not a topic in any business or non-business interaction - so I struggle to understand this kind of sensitivity.
    Of course I will follow her advice while I wait and see how things evolve - after working in corporate marketing you get a little sick of this forced political correctness in all instances....



  • Interesting. Like you, I understand the intention of it... but, it seems very limiting too.

    I would need to do more research and spend more thoughtful time considering it all though before just reacting. I am a big believer in all people are created equal... sadly though, not all people are treated as equals.



  • Well, being from Arizona and growing up conservative....I'd have a few comments on this that wouldn't be too popular...so I'm going to say....well, I'll just keep it to myself, else be crucified....that's kind of how it works now. But if the perceived race problems have gotten so bad that I can't even draw a person of ethnicity without being accused of cultural appropriation or as your agent put it "Own Voices" it gives me a very bleak outlook on the future to come. Unfortunately here in America we are busy looking backwards right now.



  • Well, it does not much sense to me either. I mean, Europe is an extremely diverse environment. Italians are culturally different to French, Swiss, British, etc... Sometimes there are visual differences, but they are not necessarily linked to cultural differences. And the truth is, nobody ever cares what you look like or where you come from. It is not that there is no discrimination (the world is not that perfect), but it is never linked to a specific group of people - rather you may get shunned if you do not speak the language of the country you're in...
    And the rest of the world? What about Asians, Egyptians, Indians? Means I can never draw an African village or a Balinesian temple? It does not make any sense...
    Apologize if this is a sensitive topic - do not want to create any bad feelings or controversy of course, especially these days. I am curious about discussing this in NY (if I manage without offending anyone. It is really hard if you're not used to this kind of identity discourse...).



  • @smceccarelli yup. I read about this as well. Citing cultural appropreation as to why it is deemed as inapropriate. I find it very strange to say the least. All avenues of life have changed under such philosophies. I just find it very strange that for me as an illustrator, that I will only be illustrating white people, and white history. I also think that it could really hamper the growth of children's literature within minority communities, if minorities do not get much more involved in this field. Just my opinion.



  • @Eric-Castleman That is what I thought too...whether there are enough First People authors and illustrators for example (the discussion originated because of an Eskimo character I drew..). And the second thought I had is, how can you isolate cultures this way? What about mixed families, and groups of children with different ethnicities? Isn't it highly artificial to differentiate?
    I am sure this is a phase that will pass - as I am sure my agent is just trying to help navigate a difficult time...



  • @smceccarelli I recently had a similar conversation with my agent as well, I also talked to an African American author about the same issue. It came up because my agent put out a call for "diverse" books and what she mostly got was Caucasian authors writing characters from a different ethnic voice. While this isn't a bad thing, I think it can lead to books written with an inauthentic voice/world view. A white man in the suburbs really can't know what it's like to live as a black teen, and while the best authors write from voices that differ from their own, I think it leaves a lot of room for a lot of misrepresentation, especially when minorities are already underrepresented in popular literature. Basically it can leave people saying "if you want a book from a black perspective, publish a black author. Does that make sense? Personally I am bi-racial so I get to choose I guess! :)

    On the flip side of this, I spoke with an author who describes herself as a person of color, and she said in regards to more diverse characters in kidlit, "I don't get it, we would have more diversity in picture books if people would just make the kids skin brown!"

    I also have a friend (a white male) who has a book out by Knopf featuring a dark skinned little girl as a the protagonist. When his editor was asked about this in a Q&A session she basically said that when the race of the main character does not affect the story, so it's a visual rather than cultural voice decision, she doesn't see a problem with making the character whatever race you want.

    Love hearing everyone's thoughts on this!



  • @natiwata That seems to make a lot of sense. So as long as you steer away from trying to represent a culture that is not your own (either visually or in stories), there is nothing to be said against having any ethnicity in illustrations. The discussion with my agent also makes sense in that context, because the illustration we were talking about was an Eskimo kid in traditional Eskimo costume - which may have not been completely accurate, and that becomes a potential mis-representation issue. Thanks for shedding more light - it will certainly be interesting conversations next week!



  • Mmm this is an interesting (and heavy!) topic to get started on. Again like most people here, my instinct would be to include a diversity of people in my portfolio to show the full range of the society that we live in. I remember one of Will Terry's videos recommending to draw a diversity of ethnicities... But then you don't want to ignore what may be the latest thinking about cultural appropriation....I remember reading the discussion about Moana and whether that was appropriate...To me it would be a shame if the best artistic studios in the world felt constricted from making the most exciting films, because the people making it didn't grow up in/experience that original culture, and/or the company financing it isn't from that culture/ethnicity/country. I think people can be very good at empathising/imagining without actually experiencing, that's what storytelling is fundamentally about. BUT there again on the other side of the argument, it is true that your best stories are usually going to draw from what you know best, and your original voice that is just yours - and that is going to be rooted in wherever/however you grew up.

    So to translate all that into portfolio advice, if it were me trying to take your agent's advice, I'd probably keep a diversity of people in group scenes - eg a classroom or street - because that's accurate and inclusive. If I were writing a dummy book featuring people, it would probably have British undertones (even if only subtle ones) because that's where I'm from, and it would probably show through somehow. I don't know whether it would matter what ethnicity the characters would be though. I don't think I'd pitch something about an African village or Tokyo city or Native Americans etc, because my experiences aren't enough to make that feel authentic without a ton of research (and even then it might not feel right)...I mean if you're an animation studio with years to spend, it's a collective effort and there are lots of people providing good advice, it can be different. As an illustrator needing to turn things around more quickly, the research time will need to be shorter. So illustrating what/where you know best is going to be easier/safer. I wouldn't want people to be put off doing new and interesting projects if they have a good vision for it though.

    Very interesting topic though...great to hear all responses and like others, I'll think more about it.



  • I think there is a difference between ethnicity and culture, though they are related and often people equate the two.

    For example, I have a piece in my portfolio of an Asian little girl, but she is wearing a t-shirt and using common American crafting materials. She might look different from me, but I'm not drawing something from a culture I haven't experienced. The example of the Eskimo in tranditional Eskimo clothing I could see being a tough subject, because its outside of your experience.

    But really, I see it as a "Damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation (if you'll excuse the expression ;-). If you choose to only include characters of your own ethnicity and background in your portfolio, you can be accused of being exclusive, racist, and not showing the world as it really is. If you choose to show people of diverse ethnicity and culture, you can be accused of cultural appropriation and drawing something you don't really know about. So basically, you don't get to be "politically correct" no matter what you do.

    I'm sorry, that came out rather blunt and bleak, but that really is the way I see it. All we can do is the best we can, and people are going to think what they want to think.



  • @smceccarelli Such a tough subject - i do not mean to be cheeky but i wonder if this same thinking by extension would prohibit me from drawing female characters.....if the intent is to not further victimize through our unconscious or conscious use of racist or sexist tropes. I think if we approach each character we draw (even or especially our villains) with compassion and sympathy ....and try to do no further harm historically speaking (which may require much research depending on how far from our own experience something is) that we will be okay... especially in our personal work - but if someone is paying us to draw and they only want white people in our portfolios if we are white... or black if we are black...that just makes my head spin and makes me feel a bit sad that we somehow cannot be trusted



  • At the end, I think the point has to be taken without the extremes. As @Sarah-LuAnn and @natiwata mentioned, to bear testimony to the diversity of our worlds is not the same as cultural appropriation. So I do continue to believe it is fully normal to continue to include different characters (and yes also different genders ;-)) in illustrations and portfolio, while one must be aware that there are cultural groups that are defensive of their identity (for very good reasons) and where the mis-use of cliches is a real risk and can be perceived as offensive...

    Though, I have to say, that I will continue to feel no remourse in stereotyping the French, Italians, Swiss, etc... , as illustrators and cartoonists have done for generations with great enjoyment ;-))



  • Wow, that is totally crazy. This political correctness has gotten way out of hand, it's not healthy for art.



  • As a French person, I feel exactly the same confusion as you do @smceccarelli
    I just don't get that political correctness, that, to me, will just lead to more racial issues because it doesn't bring anyone together, it just pulls them further and further apart. This is so against my own values and feelings and culture, I can't get my head around it



  • I totally agree with all of you when you say that illustration-art should be a representative of society. I cannot understand anyone mentioning something like keeping out groups of people or cultures, and honestly I think Its wrong. When a person says these things Its only an opinion, (as mine is) so please follow your heart.



  • I am an artist living with a physical disability from birth. At the same time, I am a white male. As a disabled person, I am comfortable with a fully physically abled person in writing about a character with a disability. Though I want the writer/illustrator to do some research about people living with disabilities or at least interact with a person (the more people with different types of disabilities the better) on a regular basis. This is just good writing/illustration practice.
    Yes, I want people of other races than my own to have a say and create stories featuring their own lives, people, and personal opinions. I want them to make transformative work that shows the rest of the world new and inventive ways in story-telling.



  • It's because we (I am speaking about Americans--I'm not familiar with the social milieu of other nations) are being pushed toward tribal identity politics, intersectionality and grievance groups.

    Everything has to be devolved around tribes. It's: The Black vote, the Hispanic vote, the White vote, etc. Apparently we are not humans, we are races.

    It is now not considered racist to say something like: because of your race you can't do X (where X currently most often refers to a White cis-gendered male doing something like: drawing a brown skin character and/or telling his/her story).

    Meanwhile, we are looking for the Holy Grail of intersectionality. Women are more oppressed than men so they are higher on the hierarchy but of course a Black woman would be higher than a White woman, while a lesbian Black woman would be higher still. Eventually the unicorn of intersectionality will descend from on high and the transgendered, Native American, pansexual, disabled female will have all power conferred to them and will then be able to tell us what to do.

    As we wait for that, people of all races, religions, genders, and ideologies, will continued to be told: if you are not part of X niche identity you are not allowed to presume that you might have a sense of how a member of that identity might think or feel in any given situation.

    Which is, literally, not how being human works.

    A gay, Asian, Muslim man (an identity group to which I do not belong) knows exactly (or near enough so as not to make a difference) what I am feeling when he sees me get slapped in the face, or drop my newly purchased ice cream cone, or try not to weep at the sappy Hallmark ad, or hold my child, or catch myself from almost slipping on the ice, or slamming my hand on the steering wheel in frustration, or laughing with an old friend at a cafe until tears run down my face, or experience the thousands of other little things that human beings have been experiencing for thousands of years.

    The White, Southern, Confederate flag waving, woman can as well.

    As can the afore mentioned unicorn of intersectionality.



  • This is such a great topic @smceccarelli, thanks for starting it!

    It's one, like others here already have mentioned before me, that gets me fired up too. I agree with what everyone is saying about how we most definitely should be showing a diverse range of ethnicities in our art. I most definitely understand the need for #ownvoices and fully support that. But reality is, the majority of books still being published today are those of Caucasian decent, or those who wouldn't identify with a non-white label (or marginalized group, whatever that may be). If those white writers and illustrators then are limited to depicting ONLY other white people, our problem continues with not representing enough of a diverse range in our works.

    I don't think I've noticed anyone else mention this, but a popular recommendation I've heard given to writers lately is that it's totally fine to write outside of your identity, but on top of doing thorough research, you should get (and potentially pay for) a "sensitivity reader" who is part of marginalized group you've written about. They then give you feedback on whether you've properly portrayed that culture or group in your work. I wonder if, as illustrators, we could do something similar. Reach out to someone we're trying to depict in our work and ask for feedback.
    The thing is though too, is that there's so many identities and different experiences within a single cultural group that even if someone were to be an #ownvoices author or illustrator, they still can't completely represent their entire race through their work. Just as I, as a white Canadian, would research the hell out of depicting a white person from France for example before writing or illustrating about them, it's no different than if I chose to have my MC be a gay biracial male for example. The whole point of fiction too is that we're writing and illustrating characters that are different than ourselves, that have their own voice outside our own. If we take care to be culturally sensitive and make sure we're representing a group to the best of our ability, there should be no harm in that.

    I do think though that you shouldn't pigeon hole a diverse cast of characters if it's not right for the story. And take a look at shows. For example: RIVERDALE (guilty pleasure! I devoured Archie comics as a kid. Shot here in Vancouver BC too!) - where they randomly changed the original cast just to be diverse. Suddenly, Mr. Weatherbee is black and Reggie is Asian. I do find it a bit weird (having grown up with very different characters in the comics) but I'm okay with that as long as the overarching original 'world' they live in isn't affected by the change.

    Also, I feel sometimes that white folk get a bit of reverse racism thrown at them. If someone comes along who's #ownvoices, would they get the same feedback that their secondary characters shouldn't be white?!



  • So much food for thought in your great comments @mattramsey and @DanetteDraws! I am reminded of an old international study about cultural differences that found out that differences and similarities run with professions and social class, not with ethnicity or nationality. That is, a mother in Nairobi thinks very similarly to a mother in New York and a doctor in Calcutta has a similar view of the world as a doctor in Paris, but a lawyer in Kenya has a completely different culture than a farmer in Kenya, even though they have the same nationality and the same ethnicity.
    I know what it means to force diversity beyond any reasonable representation of reality - I have worked in corporate marketing for a multinational company, where having a balanced representation of race in all communications is a mandate (does not matter if we have to look hard to find the Asian woman manager to put in the Annual report, while there would be ample choice of male Caucasian managers to choose from...). But at the same time, I have cringed at a brochure about pre-natal diagnostic which was drafted by young single, childless women who have not the slightest idea about the frame of mind of a mother-to-be going through pre-natal diagnostic (tip: pictures of happy pink babies and smiling pregnant models in the 9th month are not a good idea...).
    So what is the right thing to do? For the illustrator (and author) seems to be at the end similar to the question of finding your style....YOUR voice is after all a combination of your experience, your sensibility, your tastes and preferences - we could take it as a call to authenticity....



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