As person with a strong desire to go into publishing (specifically YA) in the future, I’m aware of how often the topic of diversity rears its head. There are always questions of “if I include this character who isn’t white, is it diverse enough?” or “if all of my characters are Latino, that qualifies as diverse, right?” Even in television I’ve watched countless shows that include either one character of color in a predominantly white cast, or various characters of color in the cast. Diversity is a complex subject, though people may not realize it.
Many people usually believe that a “diverse group” involves a large number of people that aren’t white. Someone may go into a predominantly black neighborhood and describe it as “racially diverse.” Meanwhile a predominantly white neighborhood may be classified as…well white. If a film features a black cast with one non-black actor, they may classify that as diverse because the cast is primarily black. Ultimately diversity means “showing a great deal of variety.” In other words, the cast of Hamilton is a diverse cast because it includes actors of various races and ethnicities such as Latino, black, white, and Asian.
Furthermore, there are various forms of diversity outside of just racial or cultural. A group can have diversity of sexuality, gender presentation, mental and physical ability, and socioeconomic standing. So while a YA novel may include a racially diverse group of people, it’s just as realistic for 1 of maybe 5 characters to be a member of the LGBT community, or mentally ill, or lower/upper/middle class. But, again, this is based primarily on environment. I’ve met people who (think they) have gone their entire lives without meeting someone who wasn’t cisgender, able-bodied, neurotypical, and straight.
As a teenager, many of the YA novels I read were about white, thin, straight teenagers from the ‘burbs. I couldn’t identify with them at all, but I tried to as best as I could just so I could lose myself in the story. As a sort of test when I was a bit older, I decided to stop reading YA novels if the protagonist was white. Unfortunately, it was really hard to find novels with brown or black girls as the protagonist if it wasn’t based on hyper-realism and misery. In other words, many of the books about girls who looked like me were about racism, abuse, addiction, etc. If the majority of YA books (in various genres) only feature cisgender, straight, able-bodied, middle-class, white teenagers, and these books are offered to teenagers/pre-teens who don’t fit this norm, what does that tell them? That these stories either aren’t for them, or that they need to fit this norm in order to be accepted by society. Even if the protagonist of the story is white, sometimes I even appreciate when another character isn’t and has their own story line. Sometimes if the book seems interesting enough, I’ll just read it anyway regardless of the diversity aspect.
This is why shows like Gossip Girl, Girls, Sex and the City, Friends, How I Met Your Mother, etc. are often criticized for their lack of diversity. New York City is a ginormous place. And while it’s normal for people to latch onto people most like them, it’s highly unlikely that every person they meet while going through the motions of life will look/behave just like them. I can’t imagine people living in Williamsburg or Harlem not meeting people outside of their own race. And many people who criticize these shows (or most YA novels with the same problems) are shut down for trying to “force” diversity. You can’t really force what naturally exists, though many may try to deny it. In a post that I may publish in the future, I’ll further elaborate on why diversity is so important. But, simply put, diversity in the literature and media we consume is important because it doesn’t exist in a bubble. How people of various groups are portrayed in the things we consume can ultimately cause us to form opinions of them. This especially goes for the groups that we may not know in real life. It’s also important to note that it isn’t enough to JUST have a diverse group. They need to be positively represented as well. This can help build the self-esteem of readers and maybe allow others to think outside of the box.
I suppose diversity can be easy to forget– okay not easy to forget, but a non-issue if it isn’t really something that effects you as an audience member. That’s understandable. But in the changing world that we live in, it’s an important aspect of media consumption that we need to really pay attention to.
4 thoughts on “The Diversity Myth: It’s complex and necessary.”
Thanks for writing this blog post. I think you’re bringing up a lot of valid points. As someone who is multi-racial, white and Cherokee, I was always disappointed, and continue to be disappointed, in the severe lack of Native American characters being represented anywhere. And, if they are, they are portrayed as drunks or drug addicts or incapable of taking of themselves. Some stereotypes might have some validity but that does not mean that is the only way that any group should be presented.
On the flip side, we need to be careful of writing characters in a manner where they are always or primarily represented in a positive manner. There are always “villainous” characters to be found in every group. In my opinion, the best way to handle writing a diverse character as a villain or an unlikeable character, like the early stages of Chuck Bass, would be to write them really, really well. Make them someone that readers and viewers tune into to watch.
I think that the most diverse book I’ve ever read, written by a white author, was The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. I’m sure you’ve read it, too, but she talked about white classism and the issues it raised for the characters, none of them people of color. As a middle school teacher, I read a lot of YA fiction. I love Walter Dean Myers, Jacquline Woodson and Sharon Draper because their characters are diverse, even though many of them are people of color. Real writing happens when the author strays away from a formula, aka, the rich suburban girl who hates her life, or the vampire genre. Hinton wrote The Outsiders because she said that there were no stories that she could relate to, so she wrote her own. I hope you create the stories about us that you, me and the world want to read.
I understand your frustration, growing up I read so many books with European protagonists and its unfortunate that I only had few African descent or straight from Africa protagonists. Its highly irritating and I definitely want young girls to experience reading a character held with high regards
I think that, when it comes to diversity, we’re headed in the right direction. The fact that people are talking about it more and more and are quite adamant in demanding a change is a very big step. I’m not talking just about the characters in books/movies/tv shows, I’m talking about real change in the industry that creates these things. The #OscarsSoWhite scandal is an example of that. I know we’re not even remotely there yet, these kind of changes take time, but you can already see some effects. This, and the fact that the future generation of producers/editors/publishers will be composed mainly of the same people that are demanding change today (maybe even you), give me reason to believe that we will eventually get there.