When I was growing up I was always conscious of race, it’s impossible not to be when you’re a part of a minority yourself. But it never bothered me when I read books. I just got used to not reading about people of colour. My grandfather was quite another story. I remember I specifically asked for a Baby Spice barbie for Christmas and he very pointedly presented me with a Scary Spice doll. I was furious. Suffice to say he didn’t understand the subtleties between the Spice Girls personalities but ultimately he was (badly) attempting to have me realize the importance of seeing yourself reflected in the media.
Now, there’s a widespread call for more diversity in books. There’s all kinds of people in the world, and they want to see themselves represented. And I won’t deny that I got a little jolt of happiness when I read the Hunger Games and Rue showed up. Except, even when I read books with diverse characters: either characters of different races, or those with disabilities, etc. I often forget about what makes them diverse. I’ll have a moment of “oh, right he’s an Asian character” or “I forgot he’s missing an eye”. On one hand, this is great in a “it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white Michael Jackson kind of way”, but then it also makes me think “is this the right way to do this?”
If I think of all the diversity in my life, it’s never as simple as that. My sign language instructor for example, is caucasian and Canadian, but she’s also deaf. She has a deaf culture. This means she’s more expressive, gestures more, and is ridiculously patient with us hearing folk. I was born and raised in Canada, but my grandfather wasn’t and his culture affects my personality. I love most coconut things, am used to big family gatherings, and know some random Trinidadian slang.
So to take a character and just change their skin colour and capability and call it a day, doesn’t feel like creating diversity. It feels like ticking off a checklist of ‘now I need a minority’, and ‘now I need a person with a disability’, and so on and so forth.
This is not to say, that if someone writes about a latinx character they suddenly have to look up a bunch of Spanish slang words, and decide whether or not it’s racist to put in a scene about a Quinceanera. For one, not all books take place in the here and now. Take Six of Crows for example. Inej and Jesper are both characters of colour from different regions. They both have things about them that create a culture, like Inej’s spiritual beliefs. What’s more, the caucasian characters also have their own traits that are a symptom of the place where they grew up. They all have a culture that affects them, and that is what makes it feel diverse for me.
But maybe I’m wrong and that’s a terrible idea. What if two characters of different races are from the exact same place and share one culture? Singling out one might be inappropriate.
This comes to my question of: Is there a “right” way to show diversity in books?
Is it enough to have characters that are physically different? Or should there more to it than that?
Let me know what you think in the comments!