Diversity in Literature
A lot has been written about the lack of diversity in literature (especially YA books).
Because of this, there has been a slew of “issue” books that have been released the last couple of years to offset the deficit. Most people see this as a step in the right direction. Books about being gay or books about being Muslim in America or books about being autistic or books about being a victim of abuse. People view this as progress.
But is it?
When I first started teaching 10th graders, the curriculum at the school was chosen specifically to cater to our large Latino population. We taught novels with Latino protagonists that were about being Latino in Latino families. And…the kids hated them. Especially the Latinos. The problem wasn’t that the protagonists were Latino but that the books just weren’t very good. Students in my 11th and 12th grade classes (also heavily Latino and non-white) were much more into the classic books that we read where the protagonists were more traditionally white European types.
The difference had nothing to do with the ethnicity of the protagonists. It had to do with the quality of the books. In the classic books, the race of the protagonist never came up. It was never an important part of the novel. In the 10th grade books, the race of the protagonist was a constant discussion point and it obviously burned the kids out.
So here’s my challenge: Can’t there be books with diverse protagonists (transgender, Latino, African-American, disabled, autistic, whatever) that AREN’T about being transgender, Latino, African-American, disabled, autistic, whatever? That needs to be the next step in the “diversity in literature” discussion. Just write compelling stories where characters who just happen to be whatever and its’ not a discussion point. I want to read a really great book and learn on page 56 that the protagonist is a gay, autistic Muslim and have those things affect the rest of the story 0%.
If my students have taught me anything about how best to approach diversity it’s to…not. They don’t focus on it. Race doesn’t define them. They are more than their ethnicity. In the end, they’re all just teenagers trying to figure life out and that’s the same whether they’re white or black or brown or whatever.
Instead of obsessing about diversity and making sure everyone has a book that speaks specifically to them, let’s focus on telling good stories. Yes, let’s have diverse characters in those stories, but the best stories are about being human. They shine a light on the human experience that we can all relate to. Let’s have more of that because that’s something that doesn’t speak to a certain demographic; that speaks to all of us.