Why I Needed Diverse Books.

When I was in high school, I wrote an article for my school paper about how unfair it was that a person’s race was taken into account when applying for a job. It seemed ridiculous to me that, if 2 people were equally qualified, and 1 was white and the other black, that the black guy should get the job just because the company had a quota to meet.

I wince when I think about writing this. I wince because even though I didn’t say that black people were stealing white jobs, or that white people were somehow more qualified to bag groceries or something, I was still buying into the kind of subtle racism that makes life hell for so many people and is so hard to break down because there are so many excuses that can be made. Look, I said “equally qualified,” not that the black person is less qualified but gets the job anyway. I’m not being racist. I don’t think race should count for anything! Someone shouldn’t get or not get anything based on skin colour or ethnicity.

I wince, because I was an arrogant teenager, so assured that they were right and were not, in fact, deeply sheltered and ignorant.

I wince because now I know that I probably offended people that day. I wince because nobody, not even the teacher who was in charge of the journalism class, thought that there was anything wrong with me writing this and having it be part of the paper.

I grew up in a city that couldn’t get much whiter if it was founded by Whitey McWhiterson. I went to a high school that had about 40 non-white students out of a student body of… I don’t know, probably around 500, maybe? Give or take. I spent entire classes seeing nobody but white people, and I didn’t think anything of it, because that’s how it had always been for me.

But I knew without a doubt that racism wasn’t a problem. How could it be? It was illegal to discriminate based on race, after all, so who would dare do it? Maybe some really really bigoted stupid people, but certainly not the vast majority of people. And racism was always overt. It was racist to deny someone a job or an education because they were black. It was wrong to use racial slurs. This stuff was pretty blatant. And I never saw racism happening, so therefore it must not happen.

The reason this is on my mind is because I’ve been following Diversity in YA lately, and seeing them work to enhance visibility for minorities in YA fiction is inspiring. And I wanted to tell this story because it highlights their point quite well, I think. It’s similar to We Need Diverse Books. They exist not just so that minorities can get greater agency and representation in fiction. They also exist so that dumbass teens like me no longer can have quite as ready an excuse for thinking that the world is white and white.

I think back to the books that I read in high school. The ones that were mandatory reading for the curriculum were books or plays written by white guys about white guys, and the most diversity you can say they had is that they were written by people who weren’t North American. The books I read for fun? let’s just say that I can remember a single example of a non-white character. A side character, best friend of the beautiful white female lead. Any other books I may have read that had non-white characters were books where the entire point was about how non-white they were. They were books about the struggles of a black girl growing up in the American South in the 1800s, for instance, or a Chinese boy working on the railroads out west. Which are good stories to tell, but what they leave is the overwhelming impression that racial inequality is a thing of the past, cruel and overt and currently nonexistent.

I didn’t think such deep thoughts back then. I’m sure I thought I did. But as I said, I was pretty ignorant, and sheltered from how things tended to actually work. I, like just about every other discontent teenager, thought I was experienced and smart and observant and that the system was just holding me back from being taken seriously. Look what could happen if you let people like me have a say!

The problem is that people like me had a say for far too long. And they wouldn’t shut up.

Representation was an echo chamber, with white people making media for other white people, and our words just bounce right back at us and all we hear is that this is exactly what people want to see. Sure, you’ve got to be inclusive, so let’s throw a black guy in the mix to balance things out. Now we’re cooking with diversity! Still not inclusive enough? Ugh, fine, I’ll make this girl be stuck in a wheelchair. Geez, what do you people want? Not many people are black or disabled, you know. There’s no reason to give minorities this much visibility, since there are so few of them. They’re minorities!

And the situation I saw around me, my day-to-day life, backed this up. There were very few non-white students at my school. I extrapolated, and concluded that there were just very few non-white people. Media backed me up on this. TV shows and books and movies all confirmed that I was right.

This is why groups like Diversity in YA need to exist. So that people get exposed to a greater slice of the world than their tiny crumb. So that people know that there are more shades than white. And so they learn it early on, before they have as much chance to start running their mouths and talking about how affirmative action plans are just stupid and unfair because they make race a qualification, and it’s not my fault that I wasn’t born with darker skin.

I didn’t know, at the time, that as much as it’s technically illegal to discriminate based on race, that doesn’t really stop people. I didn’t know that sometimes those quotas exist because otherwise people would, either consciously or unconsciously, not hire black people simply because they’re black people. I didn’t know that other people were still making race a qualification by telling me, in a hundred and one tiny ways, every day, that being white was better. That being white was normal, was default, was the status quo.

I remember, back when I was really young, around 9 or so, being only enough aware of race to think that if I were black, people wouldn’t try to beat me up so much or make fun of me, and that if they did, I’d have recourse to complain because then and only then would people pay attention. A white kid beating up a white kid was normal. A white kid beating up a black kid was wrong. As wrong as a boy hitting a girl. People take it seriously, then. I wished I was black. I was angry that I wasn’t. I thought it would have made so many things so much easier.

I want to cry, knowing what I know now and having thought that. It was so naive. I can handwave some of that because I was a kid, and kids are supposed to be naive, but there’s only so much I can justify, even to myself. All I saw was that minorities get special treatment, and that by being common, I get nothing.

No matter how much awesome representation minorities get, thoughts like this are still going to cross a kid’s mind, because kids are kids and have very little concept of what lies beyond themselves. But as a person grows up and learns more about the world, these thoughts are supposed to change. They’re supposed to grow smaller, not bigger, because you’re supposed to learn that there’s more than just you and that diversity is great and there’s a crap-ton out there that’s worth seeing and learning about and exposing yourself to, and that all of these people are just like you and have the same thoughts and feelings and are worthy of just as much respect that you want for yourself. And that’s why we need greater diversity, all over the place but especially early on, so that the toxic naivite shrinks a little quicker, or maybe never gets as large to begin with.
Maybe it isn’t fair that race gets taken into account when filling out a job application. But it does. Even if you don’t see it, it does. It gets taken into account whether you put a check in a ticky-box saying that you’re of east Asian descent, and it gets taken into account if you were born in the UK and are as white as white can be. The thing of it is, it’s the white folk who get most of the advantages in life, many of them so subtle that you don’t notice it because nobody’s saying, “You get this because you’re white.” So until we can actually start discounting race, entirely throwing it out the window and breaking down centuries of reinforced ideas, it’s got to keep mattering. On all sides of the die. It matters. And it’s cruel to pretend otherwise.

We need diverse books so that people don’t have to keep putting up with the same arrogant rhetoric that I spouted back in high school. We need diverse books so that more people are aware that there’s more to life than just what they see in the mirror, and so that others can see something in the mirror that society isn’t telling them is shameful. We need diverse books to reduce ignorance and increase tolerance. We need diverse books because diversity is reality, no matter how much some try to deny it.

4 comments on “Why I Needed Diverse Books.

  1. Thanks for sharing this with us, Ria! I’m still embarrassed by the ridiculous things I thought as a child or teenager–with the benefit of maturity, I now see them as racist, even if I wasn’t intending to be so–which is why I make an effort to do better and educate myself today.

  2. I definitely had a similar thought about affirmative action when I was younger and also grew up in a very white town and school! I also feel bad looking back on my middle school years with the knowledge that the only black girl at our school was very unpopular :( I also obviously 100% agree that including diverse characters in books in every genre, not just historical or “topic” books, is exactly what kids need to get a picture of the wider world as it really is! Thanks for sharing <3

  3. Pingback: Sunday Links, September 28, 2014 | Like Fire

  4. Pingback: September in Retrospect | Bibliotropic

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