I originally wrote this at the beginning of the year when a friend asked a bunch of us to share an issue we were passionate about for a story. It turned out she only needed a paragraph. Here’s what I wrote.
We’ve all got issues close to our hearts. One of mine continues to be the issue of diversity in children’s literature and YA. Diversity is a broad term, and it includes all marginalized communities, but I’m particularly passionate about representations of racial/ethnic diversity. To be even more specific, I’m concerned about the lack of racial-ethnic diversity for young viewers and readers, because I know first-hand how it feels to grow up with only stereotypical sexy and sassy maids and mistresses or Latin lovers from the wrong-side of the tracks. And as a woman married to an Asian man raising three multi-racial kids — I’m more attuned to how few reflections of Asian males or multi-racial characters exist for them in pop culture.
Four years ago, I wrote a post here, “How Not to Write Ethnic Characters,” addressed to authors, and it sums up how easy it is to get taken out of a story because of lazy misrepresentation:
“I want to make it clear that I appreciate how difficult it must be for authors and screenwriters to write about ethnic characters who are from a different cultural or ethnic group than their own. No amount of research can provide the complete picture of what it’s like to grow up black, Latino, Asian, Native American, etc. Many writers try to mitigate the Otherness of a character by making them half-white/half-minority, which is fine (I’m all for multiculturalism), but those who go for fully developed — let’s say Latino (since that’s what I am) — characters — should be aware that it’s really obvious when you have no clue.”
In another post, “Dear White Author,” I asked authors to do their research and to please stop describing characters of color in terms of food: “caramel-skinned,” “mochacolored” and “almond-shaped.” It’s lazy and should be avoided.
“I’m not out to play the PC police, but gimme a break. People of color read too, and we want authentic representations, not stereotypes. I appreciate you trying. I really do… But can you (ALL) please try a little harder? Not every teen of color is the child of a service worker in need of a scholarship. Mentioning the “mochacolored” skin and “slanted eyes” of characters you couldn’t bother to even really name is tokenism not diversity.”
In yet another piece I felt compelled to write four years ago, I rounded up the number of Asian male love interests in YA and had trouble (at least at the time), getting to double digits. See, I worry about my sons being barraged with damaging messages that Asian men aren’t considered attractive. It was only a decade ago that a fellow entertainment reporter told me “I didn’t think any Asian guys were sexy until Jin” after Daniel Dae-Kim appeared (shirtless and gorgeous) on “Lost.”
So here we are, a few years later, and we’re still having these conversations. Thanks to the We Need Diverse Books movement (of which I’m a volunteer), explanations about the need for sensitivity reads, hashtag discussions and ongoing debates about the ridiculousness of whitewashing characters, the issue of diversity in books, films, and shows is no longer just a handful of advocates shouting into the void. Change is brewing, but it’s not coming that quickly.
We need to keep having these important (if sometimes uncomfortable) conversations about problematic themes and representations, but we also need to do a better job of recommending and championing more #OwnVoices authors and books as well as those majority authors who “get it” and write well-researched and thoughtful representations.
All that to say, if someone wants to discuss the issue of representation or diversity in anything, really, please don’t roll your eyes or shrink away or ask “Why do you always have to talk about this?” — because this issue is still real and painful and important.