I just read this (vanilla) blog post by Cheryl Rainfield about why we need diversity in YA fiction. Could not agree more. I won’t say “but it goes beyond YA fiction” because, quite fairly, she *is* talking about YA fiction. She’s a YA author. By the same token, I write spanking fiction so I will talk about diversity in spanking fiction.
But it does go beyond YA fiction or even mainstream fiction. The one stipulation I will demand for cover art on my books is that I do not want the characters shown from the front. Why? I do not want a race or ethnicity assigned to the characters, at least not by an artist. For a reader to enjoy the story and imagine the characters as a certain ethnicity (often the same as the reader) is lovely and what I hope will happen. To present the characters as of a certain race cheats the reader from that experience. It’s also why I generally give very little physical description of my characters unless it is crucial to the story. Natalie has long dark hair as a college student (when Kat first meets her) because hair has been a symbol of sexuality and Natalie is comfortable with hers. Plus, it is a striking physical feature that sticks in Kat’s memory.
I wanted to leave this comment for Cheryl, but her comment box did not have a “send” or “submit” button. Instead, I’m posting it here:
I agree with the need for diversity BUT it has to be more than “paint-by-number” quotas. A “diverse” story written by a white author who has read a few internet articles about India and fetishizes and exoticizes a daughter of immigrants from India is worse, in my opinion, than the ordinary white story because it gives the *illusion* of being diverse when instead it only propagates whiteness as the norm. We also get into questions of the “gaze”, such as when the white main character observes the “foreign” culture with all kinds of judgments. Homesick, My Own Story by Jean Fritz is a great example. Jean’s story is slightly different because she did indeed grow up as a white girl in China. The problem lies not in the narration of her own story but in the way that her view of China and Chinese culture is accepted as authoritative *without* acknowledging that she is a white outsider. In cultural theory terms, this is called appropriation.
Worse, in my mind, is the Harry Potter version of diversity–throwing in “ethnic” names while writing the characters as white. Yes, we have characters named Padma and Cho who allow for “ethnic” actors to play the parts in the films. But are they any different from all of the white characters? And is any one of the main characters not white and straight? “Diversity” has become a popular selling gimmick, and throwing in a token name/character or two is superficial to the point of being insulting.
The gay best friend story who serves as comic relief is another. We don’t just need MORE diversity, we need quality diversity. The buffoon, the Mickey Rooney in yellowface pretending to be Audrey Hepburn’s crazy hilarious neighbor in Roman Holiday, is a thing of a past or should be. (Ever wonder why “Kangnam Style” hit it so big? As clever, perfectly executed, and really well-done as it may be, it fits precisely in the buffoonery category deemed acceptable for Asian characters. Never mind that the original song lyrics are a satiric critic of class inequalities, it’s a yellow guy being funny!)
These thoughts come on the heels of a wonderful discussion with Alta Hensley yesterday (thank you, Alta and everyone who participated!) pointing out the need for diversity in spanking fiction. Why is M/F presumed to be the norm? In DD fiction especially, since many of us hold that especially dear. To continue yesterday’s discussion, I ask why the heroine is always white. Why, if the hero is not white, is he presented as an object of viewing pleasure? I have no problem with the concept of “man candy” (or woman candy) and enjoying physical pleasures in viewing. But when a white author refers to a black man by saying, “Mm, I love dark chocolate”…that goes beyond normal swooning and touches on centuries of the white woman’s imperial ability to view and use black men’s bodies for her own pleasure with impunity.
There is a false idea that all writers are white and all readers are straight and white, or that if there are writers/readers of other variations that they don’t really matter. The answer is always that publishing is a business, and so the best bet is to cater to the white majority.
I’ll finish with an excerpt from Cheryl’s post:
What Can We do To Help?
As readers, I think it’s important to buy and read books that have diverse characters. And it also really helps to talk about, review, and get the word out about those books you’ve enjoyed!
As writers, I think it’s important to start consciously bringing in diverse characters when they fit the fabric of your story. Think about your main character–does she or he have to be straight, white, or able? Or your secondary characters. Think too about your walk-on characters. Do they really all need to be white or straight?
If more writers submit more books that have diverse characters, then there will be more books published with diverse characters. But we also need to help get the word out about the books that are out there, need to buy those books, so publishers will start to see that that books resonate, that people will buy those books, and then they’ll also put effort into marketing and selling those books.
If you never thought about this while reading my stories, that’s perfectly fine. I hope that you focus on the story itself, anyway. But if you ever wondered why you don’t get much physical description, now you know. I want you to fill in the blanks for yourself, but I want everyone to have that very same opportunity.
P.S. For those of you, especially in the US (using this as approximately half of my pageviews come from the US) who argue that the white is majority, I suggest that you take a look at this article questioning how long the US will remain a white-dominated country.
UPDATE: For an example of how readers assume that characters look like them (the readers), here’s an article about the casting controversy for The Hunger Games film.