Booked til Tuesday

Life, Law & Libros

Discussion: Race and the Diversity Conversation

I 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:

  1. 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."?
  2. 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?


  1. This is a topic I've discussed on my blog too, and is definitely something I have thought a lot about. Here's my opinion on the matter:
    To me "diversity" just means a diverse cast of characters. Sure, it can implications of different races, creeds, etc. but I think at the heart of it, it shouldn't be about that because then it's pretty much always putting someone out of the circle. If you make a deal about a character being black, Asian, Hispanic, whatever, then is that not already almost reverse racism in a way? (at least the way I see it). One of the reasons I loved the Lunar Chronicles was because you did get diversity of character and yet the emphasis wasn't on that, it was about a group of people with different skills who helped each other do what needed to be done and made a good team. I think diversity should mean a diversity of personality types as well as everything else. The Fellowship in LOTR is another good example, you had different races represented as well as different personality types which made the group stronger.

    I guess my actual opinion of the whole diversity thing is to not sweat the diversity thing. As a writer I have done a ton of books where different races come together (Romans/Celts Scots/English and recently Modern Irish Warriors/Goblins) but never really meant it to be 'diverse' as such, just proving a point that people are people. I guess I've just always seen it in a more black and white way than a lot of people tend to, and because of that, while I do like some parts of the diversity campaign, I think sometimes it can tend to be overblown as well. And it seems more and more than books that aren't 'diverse' enough don't get the credit they are due even if they are amazing books in their own right.

    Sorry for the long comment haha ;) I enjoyed your blog post though, and this is definitely a topic I find to be rather interesting to see different people's perceptions of.

    1. No worries! Long comments are great! And this is definitely a topic that deserves a lot more space and thought than I was able to give it here.

      I like your "people are people" attitude, focusing on the individuals and their personalities and, you know, individuality. While race, religion, national origin, politics, etc. may all factor into a person's identity, I feel like focusing on one or a few of those factors veers away from viewing them as individual people and into viewing them as "x race," "y disability" or "z sexuality." It's classification...which may or may not be relevant depending on the character.

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Hazel!

    2. Exactly, another thing I think happens a lot in YA is that the diversity aspect makes such a point in the story that it comes across as preachy or in-your-face which it never should.(which is another reason I don't necessarily care for the whole 'diversity as a promotional aspect' idea) If an author is trying to make a point, there are far more impactful ways to do so than to rub a reader's face in it.

    3. If I were to play devil's advocate, some people might say "diverse" elements only feel "in your face" because they're so rare in YA. However, I tend to agree with you. I don't know about it happening "a lot," but I've definitely read stories where it felt like the author threw in diverse elements to meet a quota. It didn't flow well or make sense with the story/characters, which is unfortunate. It pulls you out of the story. :(

    4. Definitely. Since I've read some really good "diverse" books too, it's hard not to realize the difference.