Welcome to Writing Wednesday! Previously, I’ve talked a fair amount about my own writing, but I haven’t really talked much about the craft in general. So today, I’m going to share my thoughts on something that’s a pretty hot topic in kid lit right now, but which still seems to freak a lot of people out: diversity.
It goes without saying that this issue is in no way limited to children’s/YA books or even books. You’ve probably heard discussion about representation and cultural appropriation, etc pertaining to other media: film, TV, comics, video games. I’d heard about We Need Diverse Books, but I actually didn’t realize how bad it was until I had the privilege of interviewing Stacey Lee and found out that a measly 7% of children’s books had diverse protagonists. 7%. Even if you were to argue that the current 40% of children that are diverse is due to relatively recent population trends, that number is still obscenely low.
The good news is, there’s been much more productive conversation about diversity, particularly in the YA genre. Gallons of digital ink have already been spilled on the subject by people far more knowledgeable than me. It still seems, though, that a lot of people have a knee-jerk reaction to any discussion about the subject. Also, even people who are open-minded and supportive of diversity are finding that it’s a little more complex than just “don’t be racist.” Remember how Saturday morning cartoons tried to be less racist in the 1980s, only to end up with racist tokens whose entire characters were basically only about their ethnicity (consider Super Friends: the Native American superhero was Apache Chief, the Asian superhero was Samurai despite not being a samurai, the Mexican superhero was El Dorado for no discernible reason, and the black superhero was “Black Vulcan”, because in the words of Seanbaby, “In the seventies, when you were black, your super hero name needed to remind us”)? Or consider how media like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was certainly well-intentioned and had a massively positive impact for the abolition cause, also created a racist stock character in its own right, the “Uncle Tom”.
There’s some perception that any criticism in regards to race, gender, sexuality, class etc. is inherently stifling of creativity. I think these forms of critique are actually beneficial from an artistic standpoint, because being aware of your subtle prejudices can make you realize when you’re writing from lazy, overdone stock characters. I recently realized that I had unintentionally conceived a bisexual character as a hypersexual stereotype. When I reworked him, I actually ended up liking him a lot better.
The thing about prejudice and marginalization is they’re complicated topics. A work might be progressive in some ways but unintentionally regressive in others. Or, here’s a thought, members of marginalized groups and debate can disagree on whether something is offensive. (Also known as the “‘but my black friend is okay with me saying the N-word’ does not shut down other black people who call me out on it” principle.) But that doesn’t mean writers should be afraid to think about these things. All of us, even those who like to think we’re progressive, have ingrained prejudices and internalized biases; most people will come from some disadvantaged groups but others that are privileged (for example, I’m Asian and female, but straight, cis, able-bodied, and middle-class). Thinking and learning about diversity can help you be a better person, but also, often a better writer as well.