Diversity: The NeverEnding Story

diversifyabutton

courtesy diversifya.com

I’ve been reading since I was three years old and I can’t remember a time when diversity wasn’t an issue in children’s literature. Week after week, I’d peruse the Scholastic book orders searching for brown faces. Other than Michael Jackson biographies or the occasional Dynamite magazine cover featuring Kim Fields or the cast of The Cosby Show, the pickings were slim. It didn’t keep me from being a voracious reader but I have to wonder how I internalized the lack of representation and if it’s still affecting me today.  

I’ve written about the lack of diversity in young adult covers and the negative message that sends. I’ve raged about recent studies that demonstrate how books are utterly failing to represent their readers  both in content and authorship. I’ve face-palmed myself nearly to death over authors being asked to “straight-wash” LGBTQ characters. It’s enough to drive you insane.

I don’t know what it’s like anywhere else but in the United States, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation permeate everything. Our collective fixation is almost pathological. We obsess over those issues yet when it comes time to have meaningful discussion about them we either run and hide or throw out knee-jerk responses or platitudes of the “gays are an abomination” or “we have a black President so racism is dead” variety.  We know we need to do better yet we’re so afraid of the work it takes to improve that hardly any progress is made.

Feeling so much rage, anxiety, and frustration about this is effing exhausting. Some days I just want to quit the planet. But I can’t stop thinking or talking about it. Not just because I’m a writer and a black person but because this crap is wrong and is endemic of just how far out of whack society is in general and the publishing industry in particular.

Case in point: Publishers won’t buy stories about people of color because people don’t read those books so agents won’t represent stories about people of color because publishers won’t sell them so readers can’t buy stories about people of color because they aren’t being published but publishers won’t buy…etc.

See how ridiculously crazypants that argument is? If we’re not buying anything, it’s that crappy rationalization.

smell o'bullshit

It’s annoying on so many levels. If I write a story featuring white characters, I feel like I’m actually doing my bit for diversity because that’s not representative of my native culture. But because white folks are so over-represented, it’s like I’m contributing to the problem. If I write multicultural characters who aren’t struggling with some aspect of their ethnicity or gay characters who aren’t harassed about their sexuality then it’s not believable. If I make no mention of the characters’ features at all it’s problematic because supposedly readers’ brains will explode if they don’t know what the characters look like.  *strangled scream*

I wouldn’t have to consider any of this nonsense if the stories being presented were more diverse across the board. Industry gate-keepers (publishers, editors, booksellers, librarians, bloggers, et al) must push past their comfort zones and make meaningful efforts to reflect the real world in the books they publish, buy, sell, and promote. Readers must continue to express their displeasure with being patronizingly told what their wants and needs are.

Most importantly, writers must continue to create the stories that move them. “Write what you know” is a myth. We’re not afraid to write about global catastrophes, aliens, or shape-shifting werebeasts, so why should writing outside our cultural or sexual experiences scare us? If we research well, write authentically and honestly, and know that we’ll make mistakes, it will be fine.

As writers, we’re constantly told not to chase trends. So why would anyone purposely configure their stories to fit into the ridiculously narrow molds of a publishing industry that requires everything be filtered through a straight, all-white lens?

Not gonna. And you shouldn’t either.

We control the story. We can change how it ends. We have that power. We just need to claim it.

18 comments

  1. Excellent post. I loved the Earthsea novels as a child, and I remember being utterly disgusted when the miniseries came out with nothing but white people. These were not the characters I pictured. Why did they need to change them?

  2. Great post, thanks for adding your thoughts to the mix. The tides are definitely turning the influx of posts like this I’ve seen + the recent #MSWL agents did on Twitter in which many of the agents wanted books with LGBTQ and/or multicultural characters.

    It’s interesting because as a POC and college student who grew up not having “non issue books” about POC to read, I’m constantly thinking about sexuality and race and ethnicity when I’m writing but I guess if you grew up with all the books “catered to you” (not exactly but close enough) it would be easy to overlook the lack of diversity. And I think that’s what we have, people who never saw a problem with it growing up who are now writers, agents, and others in publishing…but we’re definitely moving forward, thankfully a lot of top writers like Rick Riordan, Cassandra Claire, and Holly Black make an effort to write about “real people” and serve as an example to others like them.

  3. While doing literary agent research, I’ve noticed a few state they have a special interest in underrepresented ethnicities and stories with multicultural aspects. But when I compare it to the larger amount of literary agent research I’ve done, it’s sadly pretty slim :(
    I agree that this doesn’t make sense. America is a country filled with so many different types of people, but you wouldn’t really know that by picking up most of the YA books out there. I’m always baffled when I put a book down (particularly a contemporary), where all the characters were described as white. I really think there are very few places left like that.
    I have noticed, slowly, a variety popping up. I really enjoyed how Sketchy by Olivia Samms had a MC that had a mix heritage.

    Great post and really great points.

    1. I really appreciate agents that make an effort to solicit diverse stories. The fact that they have to specifically state “gimme all the multi-culti words” is evidence of how skewed the publishing industry is, but it’s a step in the right direction.

      And I think it’s rare that characters are explicitly described as white in YA books. They might be described as “blonde” or “green-eyed” or “fair-skinned”, all of which don’t necessarily translate to me as white especially when I reflect on my ethnically blended friends and extended family. But when characters of color are introduced, their ethnicity is almost always explicitly stated.

      1. When I read this comment, I couldn’t help but think of the kerfuffle over Rue’s character in ‘The Hunger Games’, where so many people assumed the character was white and were surprised by the movie casting. I am unfortunately guilty of this, and it’s such a subtle form of racism. For a lot of people, the ‘default’ person is white — they assume the person you’re describing is Caucasian unless otherwise stated. I think many people tend to do that with a character’s sexual orientation, too — we assume the characters are straight unless we’re told otherwise. Why is there a ‘default’? Why not just *people*? That’s a tricky cultural issue because it’s done subconsciously and (usually) with no bad intention.

  4. I’m happy to read your input on this, especially after having read Nathan Bransford’s post and all the comments. Both his post and yours are enlightening. Thanks.

    1. I read Nathan Bransford’s post. It was very illuminating, especially the responses he received regarding the depiction of his mixed race main character on the cover. I spotted that he wasn’t the same skin tone as the other kids on the cover right away but for some reason people missed that detail.

  5. I really appreciate this post. I just featured it here: http://www.scoop.it/t/relentlessly-creative-books/

    For the record, I will definitely consider books about people of color if you’ll work with me to reach out to readers. I agree that it’s time this vicious cycle ends.

    I’m a new publisher, but I’ve been developing and marketing books for years and used to blog on the subject of racism until our sponsor decided that racism had ended because Obama was elected and pulled the rug.

    If anyone is interested in knowing more about our “middle path” approach to publishing, just write me below.

    =MRP=

    1. Thanks for reading and featuring the post. I’m doing my best to get the message out and I’m glad that you as a publisher are doing the same. I think a lot of people believe that once a non-white person was elected President of the U.S. that would cure all of our nation’s racial ills. So not true!

  6. Solidad O’Brien gave a great speech at the lunch I was at yesterday. She said if you stand on the right side of history for long enough, eventually people will come over to your side. Her black mother used to be spit on in the streets with her mixed race children but she never got mad about it. She always just said, America is better than that.

    1. That’s a very great attitude. And I’m optimistic that the tide is turning. Our ideals as a nation are admirable. Even though many of us weren’t considered human when it was founded, the principals are wondrous. It’s tough to see how we’re falling short in so many areas. However, it’s that frustration with the pace of the tide that often makes things happen, whether everyone’s ready or not.

  7. I hear you. I’m watching the Trayvon Martin/Zimmerman trial on TV and it’s bringing out my anger about the racists n the country. The lawyer for Zimmerman tried to embarrass the Martin family’s star witness, a black teen girl, by pointing out that she couldn’t read cursive. It didn’t work. He just looked like a white male bully.

    1. I saw that. The funny thing is cursive is a dying art that many schools nationwide have stopped instruction in. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if someone admitted to not being able to read it. But it just plays into the stereotype that black people are illiterate or uneducated and thus her statements should be called into question.

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