GUEST POST: Response to “More Thoughts on Diversity in Kidlit”

Posted: November 4, 2015 in Writing
Tags: , ,
James ScottJames A. Scott

I, for one, am disappointed when someone makes a blanket statement such as “I just don’t see how non-white characters fit into my book.”  But I recognize that every book is different and reflects the deep thoughts of the writer.  It also reflects the limitations imposed on the writer in terms of that person’s personal background and perhaps in the worst case upbringing.

On the other hand simply putting diverse characters in a story willy-nilly can, as you pointed out, can cause even more problems.  I prefer to leverage a character’s outward appearance to further my stories in terms of hidden themes or perhaps illustrating an in your face fact.  This is not an easy subject but it must be explored.  As you can imagine, I want to show characters of color, especially those of African descent, in areas outside of the usual sports, entertainment, inner city stuff, etc.  Aside from encouraging “black” kids to take up the sciences, I consider this to be a huge untapped market.

One may think that diversity should be used only if it is part of the story.  But what if the character is the vice-chairman of a large  international bank and we are not talking about him being arrested for driving a fancy car in an upscale neighborhood?  So why should the author “color” him black?  Well, one reason is to access that untapped market. A more noble reason is to educate your readers (both black and white combined) that such a person actually exists.  It’s an unpleasant fact that we humans tend to pay more attention to characters who look more like us, than not.

But the question is how does one do this without being patronizing or inaccurate or stirring up a hornets nest.  Fortunately, for me in the science fiction world, I have a lot of tools at my disposal.

For example, I address the topic of race in HEAVEN’S ANT FARM with a rather different tact.  In this story, I tell of a Holy Nuclear War in Heaven, a result of religious intolerance.  Only 5500 survived the war by living underground.  When the descendants of the 5500 finally emerged from their subterranean hideout 1000 years later they were all the same color — light golden tan.

Turning diversity upside down by making  everyone the same color with a radioactive melting pot is perhaps a strange way to address the challenge.  By the way, it’s a challenge that doesn’t go away in the story.  Point is, diversity in our stories is an underutilized tool to guide our readers to explore the world around them and remind each and every one of them that they can do anything they set their mind to achieving. Something I consider important in kidlit.

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Comments
  1. We live in a diverse society so our literature should reflect that.

    Like

  2. “I want to show characters of color, especially those of African descent, in areas outside of the usual sports, entertainment, inner city stuff, etc. Aside from encouraging ‘black’ kids to take up the sciences, I consider this to be a huge untapped market.”

    An admirable goal, and at the risk of sounding dismissive, I assume you’ve done the research that proves the “huge, untapped market”?

    I’m reminded of a sports talk show during which an older African American asked why there weren’t more African Americans playing in the National Hockey League. The talk show host diplomatically explained the difference between playing basketball on a schoolyard court, which requires only a round ball, and hockey, which requires specialized and expensive equipment as well as an arena with ice, hinting that basketball is a far less expensive way for young blacks to escape the ghetto than is hockey. Right or wrong, he fell back on an explanation based on stereotype.

    Yet the world is filled with stereotypes, whether it’s the gay who speaks with a lisp or the African American gangbanger in the hood. Which conspires to make it easy for writers to take the path most traveled.

    But who’d have thought that presidential candidate Ben Carson came from such a violent youth in Detroit? His story of course has been told, in his new book; but does that mean that a similar fictional account would do well?

    One of my novels, a baseball-themed romance, was once turned down by an agent who told me there was no market for baseball novels. She obviously didn’t bother to search Amazon using “baseball” as a keyword or she’d have found more than 48,000 results.

    Which leads me to suggest that you may have a similar issue with your concept. Unless you’re willing or planning to self-publish, I wonder how many agents will dismiss your pitch on the premise of the conception, whether real or imagined, of “no market.”

    Still, the success of the nighttime drama Empire shows there might indeed be a market.

    Just food for thought. Best wishes to you going forward with this concept.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Stephanie says:

    Certainly, diversity in books is important, and diversity in children’s books is particularly important. I work with African-American and Hispanic lawyers. It is important for children of all races to see images of themselves which are diverse. In other words, we shouldn’t just have characters of all races; there should be characters of all races of all socio-economic backgrounds. We need stories in which not all African-Americans are presented as coming from poverty, or involved in the drug trade or prospering because of sports or hip hop. Some African-Americans (just like some of every other race) do come from poverty, are involved in the drug trade or are prospering because of sports or hip hop. We need stories in which the Asian kid is not the super smart kid being pressured by her tiger mom. We need stories in which the gay character is not completely identified by his gayness. Being gay is one characteristic of a person, but every gay person has many characteristics.

    We must all do the best we can to produce books that are believable and reflect our society. And our society cannot be defined in a few words describing categories.

    The debate about who can write what is difficult. I know this offends some, but white (or straight) writers must write diverse characters. They should do so with care and respect, but to say that white writers cannot legitimately write diverse characters and then say that books without diverse casts have no place is a disguised attempt to silence white writers. I’ve heard this described as merely an uncomfortable place for white writers to be, but I don’t think that’s quite accurate. A white writer has to decide whether to give up writing or write something that will be criticized heavily in some quarters for being insensitive, appropriation, or racist. And yes, all writers are subject to criticism, but there seems to be a difference between criticism that your plot isn’t strong or your characterization is weak and criticism that you have created something that is racist.

    Yes, historically, whites have had advantages in getting published. Yes, white privilege exists. I didn’t have to fight many battles that others had to fight. That does not mean, however, that white writers have nothing to contribute.

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