DiversifYA: Kim Johnson
|September 30, 2013||Posted by DiversifYA under Cultural and Ethnic, DiversifYA|
Today, Kim Johnson joins us on DiversifYA! Kim writes suspenseful and mysterious YA–including her two recent manuscripts HER ONLY ESCAPE and CROSSING ANGELA. She works at a University focusing on international relations, recruitment, and graduate student success, and she has some amazing things to share with us about her experiences and writing diversity.
1. How do you identify yourself?
I identify myself as an African American. To some, this category holds narrowly defined stereotypes. To me, it is a broad spectrum for a large and diverse community. My self-identification isn’t one that is “traditionally” accepted by some because my mother is African and my father is White. There are times in my life when I identify as African or multi-racial, a woman, a mother, a sister, a friend, a west coaster, but the one I feel is always me and always home is African/Black American.
2. What did it feel like growing up being African American?
Growing up in a predominately white town was a difficult experience for many reasons. I knew I was different. I knew for some reason I didn’t quite fit in. But I didn’t understand why. It wasn’t until being called a racial slur I realized, oh I’m Black and apparently this is a problem.
The most prominent thing I remember about growing up was constantly trying to understand why things were happening that in my gut felt wrong. Why was I singled out in public? Why didn’t some parents want me to be friends with their kids? Why do people always confuse me with someone else African American. Why was I followed in the store? Why did salespeople act in disbelief my mom could afford to shop in their store? Why when my mom answered the door did some people think she was the maid and not the homeowner?
I’d like to say I chose identifying myself as Black/African American first, but I think others did this for me before I had an understanding to color or race. And the interesting thing about some of their thinking was that they were real Americans and people of color were this other thing. I had to create my own concept of self and beauty, when what was around me wasn’t embracing me. When I began to see more people who looked like me on TV I flocked to those images. A place I finally saw myself. TV shows (Cosby Show, Different World), movies (Do the Right Thing, House Party, Boyz N the Hood,), music that went mainstream (Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Boyz II Men, BBD, TLC), Rap and R&B shows (Yo MTV raps or MTV Jams and BET if you were in the right market) were all groundbreaking at the time. Young people today don’t know how lucky they have it today. But there is still a long way to go.
3. What are the biggest challenges? Conversely, what are the quirks/perks?
The biggest challenge is dealing with stereotypes. It has taken me years to let go of the initial anger and shock that can take you by surprise. There are still times you see it in its worst form and have to say: haven’t we gone beyond this? Or aw hell do I really have to deal with this today? When stereotypes or racism do occur, often as an African American, you have to figure out how you want to handle it. Will you have a conversation with your colleagues on national racial issues? How will you respond when you are near police, in a store, or business setting? Should I make sure I’m standing straight, looking respectfully back, keeping my hands out of my pocket or purse, going well below the speed limit, show a huge smile so they’re not fearful of me? OR just say skip all of it and say, I’m doing nothing wrong so leave me alone. It’s exhausting.
As an administrative professional in my non-writing life, having to constantly prove myself is the most draining. I know that although I hold a leadership role there is always that time I attend a meeting with someone I haven’t met before. The first battle is going to the meeting place and having to assert, yes I am in the right place, yes I’m here for this specific meeting, and yes I’m leading it.
There are so many challenges, but the quirks and perks are the community and culture you can choose to be a part of or not. There is an overwhelming feeling of pride when someone in your community does incredibly well or beats the odds. Something that instantly connects you to that person even if you are incredibly different. A sense of history and shared experiences. There’s a culture of food and music you can identify and claim if you want along with embracing many others.
4. What do you wish people knew about being African American?
I wish people knew how diverse the African American community really is. I’ve lived in the northwest, east coast, and the bay area. I’ve had very different experiences as an African American and being around other African Americans. I have friends who are within the African Diaspora and are African, Caribbean, bi-racial, Black/Latino, and Black with all kinds of experiences–Christian, Jewish, and Muslim; Democrats, Republicans, and non-conformists; A rainbow of skin color and a variety of hair textures and styles; families raised in Black, diverse, or predominately white communities; and those who identify with the African/Black American community but aren’t racially in the diaspora. All with very different experiences, thoughts on race, diversity, and what it means to be Black.
5. What are the biggest cliches/stereotypes you’ve seen?
The biggest stereotypes emphasize fear, lack of education, and poverty. All stem from a long ugly history of racism and how people had to dehumanize African Americans to justify slavery and discrimination. Many communities are still segregated and only have a small population of African Americans. So the only reference is what they see on TV. It has only been just in the most recent few years you can find characters on TV that are the lead and not criminals. What you see overwhelmingly are rappers, celebrities, athletes and criminals. If that’s what you see everyday on TV, and your only reference is from entertainment, the stereotypes continue.
BONUS: What is your advice for writers writing diverse characters?
Take the pressure off yourself. Writing is what you do. You create fictional worlds all the time. Stories are told from the past, the future, people with superhuman powers, or non human beings who speak. Including diverse characters is much easier than creating fictional worlds because at some point in your life you had a friend, neighbor, colleague, or classmate of a diverse background. And if you haven’t, it’s about time you did.
If you’re afraid you might be stereotyping, have someone review it. Be subtle rather than overdue it. For example, if your MCs best friend is African American, you don’t want to merge the picture you have in your head of Lil Wayne, Kanye West, a few episodes of Scandal, Law and Order, and a Tyler Perry movie. You are overdoing it. Don’t be afraid to have cultural traits in your characters, but if that is all that you write about them you need to develop the characters more. Don’t bundle them up in a convenient package.
Don’t sprinkle diversity in the story just for the sake of having diversity. Because you might fault to stereotypes. Do a quick test? Is the gay best friend of the female MC always giving fashion advice and has no other friends or love interests–only giving their undivided attention to the MCs problems? What race is the robber or thief? The gardener? The maid or nanny? The poor friend your MC helps? The convenient store owner? The straight A student? The Athlete? If those are the only characters in your story that are diverse, you might want to rethink this. You also might want to think about diversity in the characters in your story. Why isn’t the MC a diverse character? Or, are all the teachers, parents, counselors, neighbors, the waitress, and friends of MC diversity omitted? If so why? Ask yourself, can I go a week in my city without interacting with someone of a diverse background? If your answer is yes, then is that the reality of the world your MC lives in? Unless it’s an incredibly small and isolated town, your answer is likely no. If you omit diversity, you are in actuality stating they are not a diverse character–plain and simple.
If you’re nervous start small. Picture your diverse character and think of someone you know or have seen. What’s their personality, what are they like, what makes them special. And you will find it’s really easy to have a diverse character without being concerned you aren’t getting their “diversity” right.