Why Creators and Writers Should Stop Putting Themselves in BoxesMay 04, 2021
The writer in front of me was talented, charming, and loaded with potential. Yet without realizing it she had put herself in a box:
“My dream is to give advice to other South Asian women.”
It sounds noble but it was partly driven by insecurity because she didn’t think people from other backgrounds would even consider listening to her. This was deflating as she couldn’t see her words had value to people from any background.
I see this behavior across the whole spectrum of creators, from writers to Instagram influencers to YouTubers. Their content deserves to be loved by a wide audience but they pigeonhole themselves based on some aspect of their identity. It’s completely different from niching based on the content you deliver.
Whatever your background is, why shouldn’t people from other backgrounds learn from you? I say we need to change this attitude and dream big. Your thoughts have value beyond the boxes society puts you in. If no one like you has done it before then become the first.
Stop using qualifiers
Ashley Summer, the CEO of Quilt, triggered a LinkedIn meltdown by posting a picture of herself with “I am a female founder” underneath. Except she crossed out the female part because why should she need to differentiate herself from simply being a founder? A man doesn’t need to put “male founder” so why should she?
I think we should be free to claim the core word regardless of our background and not have to add a qualifier. It shouldn’t only be a white man who can call himself a writer/vlogger/podcaster/creator without needing to qualify. I’m a writer full stop, not a “South Asian writer” and I don’t believe many white men would argue with me.
There are many fantastic creators raising awareness for community-specific issues and making an impact. For them, it makes sense to use qualifiers as the targeting is important. Yet from others, I see “as an X” constantly when it has less relevance.
“As a millennial, I’ve struggled with my confidence.”
“As a woman, I’ve struggled with my confidence.”
“As a gay man, I’ve struggled with my confidence.”
“As an Indian, I’ve struggled with my confidence.”
“As a <insert something here>, I’ve struggled with my confidence.”
The identity here is less important than the shared experience many can relate to about confidence issues. The advice shared afterward could usually apply to the other groups of people too so we shouldn’t use words to give the illusion it won’t.
Now there is an exception where the identity has a clear impact on the narrative and this should ideally be backed up by a story or by facts. Without this, it’s left to the reader to fill the reader to guess why it’s important and they are unlikely to have the same context as you do.
False easy mode
It’s not unreasonable to think there are people who will follow you based on your identity alone. Psychologists have shown we tend to like people who share certain qualities with us through affinity bias.
The problem is there are almost always more people outside your box than inside. Creators can emphasize their identity despite it being irrelevant to their content and experience rapid initial momentum. Then eventually they plateau as the booster effect runs out but they are stuck thinking only one type of person wants to follow them.
The funny thing is you don’t need to force it for the affinity bias to work. People can take one look at my profile picture and name and decide to follow me if my Indian heritage drives their decision-making. They don’t need me to put “South Asian” in my bio because it’s obvious.
It would serve to alienate more than include unless it’s a key part of what your content is.
Everyone in life can teach us something
I’ve been to nearly 50 countries and can confidently say everyone can teach me something. I’ve learned from people of all genders, races, and any other way you could choose to split society.
If you were to list out the heroes who inspire you, I’m sure you’d find some variety too. Take comfort in knowing if you can admire the ideas of people outside of your box then so can others.
My preconceived notions about other people’s willingness to listen have been constantly proven wrong. I’m a millennial from London but am amazed to see I have readers from across the globe and people much older than me. It’s not because I’m special but because there are so many people who care only about the content.
Give people the chance to show you they can be open-minded too and aim for platforms you think are too big for you.
Collaborate with people outside your box
I was listening to a discussion by South Asian influencers about how they are struggling to break through to the mainstream. Their solution was they should collaborate with other South Asians more and raise each other up. This sounds great but why limit your options?
I see this reinforced cycle where people only reach out to other people with similar fanbases and then wonder why they can’t grow as fast. If you worry people from only one background will relate to you, a surefire way to dig a deeper trench is to only associate with those people.
I have a newsletter called Write Your Future with 3 other writers. It’s two women and two men. We all live in different countries. Two of us aren’t caucasian. We’re in effect endorsing each other and gaining fans from different walks of life. To me, this is a collaboration done right.
If you have the skill, you might be pleasantly surprised to see how many people want to work with you that you thought never would.
You can’t speak for your entire group
When you tie your identity in with all your content, it’s easy to sound like you are a spokesperson for everyone like you.
It frustrates me when someone claims to speak on behalf of all people of South Asian ethnicity. As if there aren’t nearly 2 billion of us with hundreds of different cultures and a universe-wide spectrum of personalities. I don’t speak for all people who look like me and I’m sure many will disagree with the points I make in my stories.
I have more in common with my white colleagues than someone of the same age who has lived their whole life in poverty in the slums of Mumbai. We’re complex multi-dimensional beings and focusing on one aspect so rigidly ignores all the other influences our lives.
I’m glad I’m not the voice of all South Asians, it would be an unbearable pressure and I’d be deluded to think I could even begin to accurately portray the diversity in their lives.
Preach to the unconverted
I understand why people put themselves into boxes. As recent protests by soccer players in the UK show, discrimination is still rampant online. I can’t blame anyone for taking steps to carve out a safer space for themselves.
I could have joined this writing platform, seen there was no one with a significant following who looked like me, and decided I didn’t have a chance. I could have boxed myself off thinking only brown-skinned people would ever listen to me.
I didn’t and I’ve seen many other people come after me and grow their following too. For many readers, it wasn’t they would never follow someone like me, they just hadn’t found someone yet.
If someone has a subconscious bias that people like me have less value to offer in their content then I want them to my name pop up even more. I want to challenge their beliefs and I will not hide. Neither should you.
Reach Your Goals Without Burning Out
Get my free Anti-burnout Toolkit and weekly tips to help you balance your work and life.