Discussion: Race and the Diversity Conversation
Kel Sunday, October 02, 2016 discussionI struggled a lot over how to write this and whether to post it. I reached out to a friend to give it a first look, and I'm still not sure it adequately conveys the thought bunnies running around my head. I know it isn't everything (because that would be more of a 500-page thesis than a blog post), but I decided it was worth throwing out there and seeing what you guys thought. I think it's worth discussing.
I've talked a little about diversity in YA in previous discussion posts, and I've followed the general discussion regarding diversity in literature on Twitter lately. I wondered about some of the following questions:
- When you think "diversity," do you think "non-white/straight/able, etc. minorities" or the "full spectrum of people including those who are white/straight/able, etc."?
- When you think "diversity" do you think 1) race, gender, sexuality, ability, etc.; 2) character, culture, belief, etc.; or 3) mix of both?
I'm really curious about the ways people think about this topic.
A lot of people talk about kids/teens/adults needing to "see themselves" in the characters they read. I don't dispute that seeing a character that looks like you can be a good thing, but the emphasis on physical appearance seems to overlook or exclude from the conversation the importance of relating to characters who think, act or feel like you. Some might posit that, more often or not, the characters they identify with on that level are those that "look like them." In that case, is the reflection more a matter of race or culture? And I want to think carefully about this because there are serious implications for how we answer this question and the language we use.
If we identify with people because of similar "race," we're saying that people are inherently different based on skin pigmentation (and I don't think that's what we want to say). It also seems to foreclose the possibility, at least in great part, for readers to identify with characters of other races/skin colors.
If we identify with characters based on culture (similar upbringing, religion, desires, fears, socio-economic tier and accompanying mindsets/issues, etc.) or similar experiences, that's less limiting. It acknowledges differences but doesn't attach them to skin color.
Using Disney princesses as an example (because I'm a Disney nerd), yes, I identified a bit with Belle (hides inside all day, usually with a book); but I also strongly identified with Tiana (workaholic, frugal, no time for romance (why did they ruin it with that lazy prince?)), Mulan (efficient, capable, independent and big on family) and Esmeralda (speaking up when something's wrong, self-confident (wish I could say I had her level), and working to make things better).
It's strange. Within academia, you'll see ample use of the ideas that 1) race is a limiting social-construct, and 2) race is super important to acknowledge, celebrate and categorize/differentiate by.
I'm not saying that having more characters with different skin colors, sexualities, disabilities, religions, political persuasions, cultures or experiences is a bad thing. Far from it. I support diversity of reading options. We don't have to read, like or agree with them all, but readers having options is a good thing. But how and where we place emphasis in the diversity discussion and the language we use can cultivate impressions and boundaries. I think it's worth looking at the impressions we're generating and making sure they're the ones we intend.
Those are my thoughts on the subject, but there are many perspectives, interpretations and opinions out there. What do you think?