More Elves of Color! Why Diversity in YA Fantasy Matters
This is a guest post from Lori Lee. Lori is the author of young adult fantasy Gates of Thread and Stone, now available from Skyscape. She has a borderline obsessive fascination with unicorns, is fond of talking in capslock, and loves to write about magic, manipulation, and family. She lives in Wisconsin with her husband, kids, and a friendly pitbull. Find her on Twitter @LoriMLee.
As an Asian woman writing young adult fantasy, I’m often asked about my thoughts on diversity in the genre. I tend to respond with a blank look as I wage an internal struggle between giving a lengthy response or a helpless shrug. So many others have spoken more eloquently than I ever could on the topic, but it continues to be discussed because, as many boundaries as young adult books have pushed, diversity is still lacking. Recently, I tried making a list of diverse young adult fantasy books released within the last year. It was so short that I had way too much time afterward to renew my obsession with making unicorn macros.
It’s not, however, entirely inaccurate to say young adult fantasy isn’t inclusive. The genre is populated by a lot of different races: elves, trolls, demons, plenty of mermaids. Total imaginary race inclusion! It does start to get a little strange, though, when you’re more likely to read about a faerie than a person of color. And a faerie or elf of color? Forget about it. Everyone knows there’s no such thing as dark-skinned elves who aren’t predisposed to be evil. Look it up. It’s right next to that bit about how dragons only live in caverns filled with gold. Funnily enough, no one seems to mind when dragon mythology gets turned on its head or rewritten entirely to suit the author’s world building.
More often than not, race—in terms of skin color—is simply not addressed, even in physical descriptions. When race is mentioned, it’s to emphasize the foreignness of a character, like how the character of Tolya in Siege and Storm is described as having eyes with the “Shu tilt.” This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (except for when “foreigners” become caricatures and stereotypes, the mysterious visitors from the East). Like in the example above, it’s simply a means to differentiate characters’ countries of origin. But because their foreignness needs to be pointed out at all, it also reinforces the “white as default” mentality.
But what’s the harm? What does it matter anyway? These are books. Fantasy. Readers know they’re not real.
Well, as I was dutifully avoiding my manuscript edits last week, I came across a Tumblr post about the lack of diversity in children’s media. I gave it a glance and a commiserating nod. Then I scrolled down to the commentary. (You can almost hear the storm clouds brewing.)
People of color didn’t live there at the time except as slaves. (With blatant disregard of the numerous historical evidence already offered.) You already got TWO DECADES of POC princesses. (Two whole decades! SOMEONE MAKE IT STOP.) It’s not historically accurate. (More blatant disregard of evidence with added bonus of having no problem with the animals that weren’t historically present in that setting or with… talking snowmen.)
But the most vehement argument against having a rational conversation about diversity in children’s media was: It’s just for kids.
I’d like to counter that diversity in children’s media—and in young adult fantasy—is important because it’s for kids. Children and teens know that books aren’t real, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t also internalizing the messages. When diverse peoples and cultures aren’t a part of these fantasy worlds, young readers are being repeatedly told that they can’t have adventures like the characters because they don’t look the part, that they are less important than imaginary creatures. They’re being repeatedly told that their exclusion is the norm.
Though I sometimes tire of the diversity question, the subject warrants discussion. Because the more we talk about it, the more we fight for inclusion in our books, then the more accepted diversity becomes. Until the humans in young adult fantasy can be just as varied and interesting as the other magical races, and no one bats an eye when a black elf wants to have a friendly archery contest with Legolas followed by a lesson in hair braiding, the question of diversity will always need to be answered.
Now I’m going to go make more unicorn macros.