My mom says I’ve been writing since I was 6, but I really remember falling in love with it when I was 10. My stories had all types of fantastic concepts: vampires, telepaths, time manipulators, angels (lots and lots of angels), etc. And the characters tended to be evenly numbered in groups. There was a guy and a girl normally, and they’d go on some crazy adventure and find out more about each other and fall in love. This persisted for quite some time, only really stopping about a year or two ago. And up until 2014, my characters had names like Roger, Alice, Elizabeth, Jack, and on and on and on.
This all changed somewhat in high school. In freshman year, my best friend, Malachi, and I had shared what we were working on with each other. I told him Dreamer, and he told me about the comic characters that he had made. One time, Malachi, pointed out to me in just plain observation that my characters white-sounding names.
Now, before I go any further, let me say there is nothing wrong with white-sounding names or white characters. I didn’t want that to be misconstrued from this story. Every character in both my books and Malachi and my comics are people, regardless of race. Sometimes, race comes into play but never in a derogatory way; it’s used more as a mirror of society than anything else.
And yes, today we’ll be discussing diversity. Now, since this is such a big topic in the world of literature (and rightfully so), I’ve decided to split this discussion up into multiple posts. This first post will discuss the idea of diversity itself.
Diversity: Just a Buzzword?
And the reason I wanted to use this for my first ever blog post on writing tips and discussions can really be boiled down to one sentence: “diversity” as a word is meaningless.
Put down your pitchforks, extinguish your torches, disassemble the mob! Let me explain.
When I was younger, I went to primarily black schools. I saw people that looked like me on a daily basis; my neighborhood has black and Caribbean people everywhere, walking around, living their lives. New York has so much more than just black people, obviously, but my personal experiences were largely around people that looked like me.
Then, college came. There were still people that looked like me around, and that’s part of the reason I chose the school I did over Geneseo, but it’s not to the same level as NYC. But, this in and of itself, isn’t a problem. It starts to become a bit of an issue when the topic of diversity comes into play. I don’t hear the word on a daily basis, but the amount of times I’ve heard that word uttered over the course of just a year and half have been unreal. As as example, last month, SUNY Oswego held a talk with student workers last month to address race-related issues that they were hearing about from students in the town; they were looking for solutions. But the word “diversity” appeared, I kid you not, no less than 100 times in our 4-hour discussion.
Now, while it represents something very large and important, the word “diversity” is just that: a word. It has lost all meaning to me in our world. We’ll return to why I think this is in a moment, but for now, let’s discuss…
Diversity in Literature
In the last few decades, there’s been a real push to get more stories out there. Black, Asian (SE and otherwise), Hispanic/Latinx, etc. authors use the Twitter hashtag #ownvoices to tell their stories. And I really love the tag. It lets me see different types of stories, stories that might not’ve had an outlet otherwise. And, lots of people are starting to take note of this. Sociologists in the US—and recently in the UK with the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education’s Reflecting Realities study—have charted the numbers of ethnic representation in children’s books for a number of years.
The Cooperative Children’s Book Center found that of 3,200 books published by US Publishers in 2016, 157 were about Latinx people, 267 African/African American, 35 American Indians, and 225 Asian Pacifics. That’s only 21.3%! Barely over a fifth. The figure is even lower in the UK, where out of 9115 children’s books published in 2017, only 391 featured any type of minority (4.28%). For comparison, 21.3% of children’s books published in the UK with black, asian, or minority ethnic characters (BAME) would be 1,941, about five times the current statistic.
And while these numbers may seem astounding in how small they are–as they were to me–I think this is also something that you can see through experience. Specifically hunting out books by non-white authors can be really hard without things like #ownvoices to bring light to them.
But diversity doesn’t just stop at getting other types of authors out there. Diversity is more than just a numbers game.
Inclusion in Inclusion
Diversity is defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as
- the condition of having or being composed of differing elements: Variety
- especially : the inclusion of different types of people (such as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization
- an instance of being composed of differing elements or qualities : an instance of being diverse
And, in this definition, I think we can find the issue at the heart of diversity talks. Inclusion. A college campus or small town pointing to a number and saying “we have x amount of (insert racial/ethnic group here)” means nothing if they just co-exist. Co-existence is not diversity; it doesn’t give a sense of intimacy, of closeness, of actually being a part of the community.
And I think a lot of us have felt something like this; maybe it was the first day of a new school or joining a team or friend group that someone else introduced you to. If it doesn’t seem like there are many efforts to get you eased into the group—or if they’re just not successful attempts—you’ll feel less welcome, like you’re on the outside.
Incorporating people from different backgrounds into a pre-existing group can sometimes be hard; having to reconcile their ways of doing things with your own, getting over any prejudices that you or other people in the group may share can prove to be tough, but it ensures that people get included.
And in literature—as in life itself—this is the basis of diversity. It’s a process, that can be tough on everybody, from the authors to the publishers to the readers themselves.
And, bringing this back to the discussion we had at Oswego, diversity was just a word. I didn’t have anything I could point to, anything that could make me say “yes, this campus includes me in things”. Oz doesn’t exclude me by any means (though if that’s because it doesn’t happen or because I don’t leave my room, I’m not entirely sure), but it’s not like Oswego is specifically hunting down me or people from my neighborhood or similar backgrounds and asks “what do you like? What can we put in Oswego to make you truly feel at home when your real home is 6 hours away?” Without that concrete connection, the word “diversity” becomes an abstract. But literature can change that; literature does change that.
But, that’s for next time. This was just a brief introduction into the topic, a way to explain what diversity truly means to me. And I’ll be making more posts on this topic covering a range of things: authors of different races and ethnicities, the protagonists and antagonists, side characters, accurate representation and what I consider the do’s and don’ts (I’m not an expert by any means, but who said it’d be just me on these posts?).
And to close off this first post, I’d like to ask you all question: what do you think about diversity in books? How do you think this push to include more stories helps (or hurts) authors and readers–because, I have a few things to say about that as well?
- The CCBC Survey: https://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/pcstats.asp#USonly
- The CLPE’s Reflecting Realities Survey: https://clpe.org.uk/library-and-resources/research/reflecting-realities-survey-ethnic-representation-within-uk-children
- #Ownvoices: https://twitter.com/search?q=%23ownvoices&src=tyah
- Merriam-Webster’s Definition of Diversityhttps://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/diversity