The Diversity Discussion

Last week as I was preparing The Gender Discussion post, I was keenly aware that the issue of diversity was lacking but for a few mentions, and it is an issue worthy of more than that.

I had an opportunity to learn more about this issue and attended Ooligan Press’ Transmit Culture: Diversity and Inclusion in Young Adult and Children’s Literature.

In this panel, members of the book industry get together to discuss how the industry treats writers of color; what it means to be a nonwhite publisher, writer, or reader of children’s literature; how representation can be measured; why it’s so important; and how it can be expanded.

CAST OF CHARACTERS:

S. Renee Mitchell (author)
Alicia Tate (librarian)
Dong Won Song (publisher)
Brian Paker (author, illustrator, publisher)

Admittedly I feel uncomfortable writing this post, because 1.) I don’t feel qualified to write about these issues. I don’t feel like I know entirely enough about them to speak to them in a productive way and that’s why 2.) I’m afraid I’m going to say something offensive.

That is the nature of the discussion, and sometimes the uncomfortable conversations are the most important ones. For the sake of having all voices at the table, we need to endure that discomfort and come out on the other side.

Among the many things discussed at the panel, was the WHY? Why diverse lit and most importantly, why diverse YA lit?

The answer is obvious but bears repeating. Mitchell pointed out how fundamental stories are to our development and character and stick with us throughout our lives.

And she’s absolutely right. What were those books you read in your youth that make you feel grateful for having read them, that made it possible for you to love reading and to go on reading many more books? Don’t we want the same for all children, regardless of their background?

But perhaps most important of all was a point that Tate made. As a young adult, there were no love stories with “brown girls”, and because she didn’t see herself represented in those stories, she didn’t believe a girl like herself could find love. That’s how much this issue affected her self-esteem and sense of self worth. Is that really how we want children to see themselves?

And in case you’re thinking, “No, but…” consider the unconscious bias. Song presents his own theory based on his experience as a literary agent that there is a lack of diversity in books, because there is a lack of diversity in the publishing industry.

The gatekeepers are straight, white, cis people, so they are going to publish books that resonate with straight, white, cis people. Its not that they want to intentionally exclude authors of color or other sexual/gender identities. Those stories don’t speak to them personally, so they’re not exactly looking for them.

Just as important as children of color seeing themselves as the hero of stories, so too do white children. This is important, Mitchell argued, because kids need to see people in different ways than what they’re used to.

Consider the recent controversy over John Boyega’s casting in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This was actually a thing. People were actually upset about this!

Finally, Parker brought up the notion of white authors who claim, “I don’t think I could write a black character”. And that, the panelists agreed, is absurd.

Admittedly, I felt this way at one point. I felt like I could never do a black character justice, not the way an author of color would, so I never tried. Then Toku called me out on it. “Shouldn’t you try to write something outside of your perspective?”

It was a challenge. I am not the kind of writer, who does things the easy way. I do it, because its hard not in spite of it being hard, and writing a character of color is no different. Since that conversation, I’ve worked in more people of color and gay characters in my story, and as I learn more about the transgender community, I hope to include them as well.

Am I nervous? Of course, I am. I don’t want to write something ignorant, offensive, and lacking in awareness. Song agreed that writers should be nervous about writing diverse characters, because you don’t want to screw it up. And the best thing you can do is,

DO YOUR RESEARCH.

Therein lies the beauty of this issue. The onus is not on one person to solve this. We can all share the responsibility. Its not just up to one author or one amazing book to give us the renaissance we need. Its up to many of us, readers, writers, librarians, publishers, and teachers. I can’t wait to read Between the World and Me, but I don’t want just one Ta-Nehisi Coates. I want dozens of them.

Like all things related to diversity, there were no easy answers, but by just having the discussion, people could point out where the disparities are and what writers, readers, publishers, and librarians can do about it.

Its still early enough in the year that I can make a commitment, a commitment that half of the books I read in 2016 will be by authors of color, in addition to writing about them. This will be a huge leap from last year, where I read only two books by diverse authors. But its that important that it can’t wait.

I may not work in publishing, which causes a big part of this problem, but I can read and recommend these books. That’s the responsibility I can take for myself. If we each do our part, then 2017 in books can look a lot different.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Lara/Trace says:

    Reblogged this on Blue Hand Books and commented:
    I was keenly aware that the issue of diversity in publishing books …And in case you’re thinking, “No, but…” consider the unconscious bias. Song presents his own theory based on his experience as a literary agent that there is a lack of diversity in books, because there is a lack of diversity in the publishing industry. (We knew this and so we started Blue Hand Books…)

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