It’s no secret that diversity in reading is an important value at Book Riot. We write about it so often, in fact, that we’ve noticed that the same questions come up again and again from our readers in the comment sections of those posts. I, along with Riot Contributing Editors Swapna and Preeti, are going to answer those questions in a series of posts coming out over the next few weeks, so anyone who has asked these questions (to us or just to yourselves) can get a straight answer. Just search the “readdiverseFAQ” tag on the site to find every post in the series, or click the link at the bottom of the post. Let’s get started:
1. What about other kinds of diversity? Isn’t reading diversely important in terms of politics, religion, and where an author is from, as well as race?
Swapna: Reading diversely is important, in all its many forms from race to gender to sexual orientation to religion to country to anything and everything else. It’s so important.
We specifically have chosen to focus on PoC authors for multiple reasons, but one of the main ones is this: In order to effect change, our goal has to be something small and specific.
Telling everyone to read diversely is all good and well, and we shout that from the rooftops every chance we get. But we’ve found that if we focus on a specific, smaller goal, rather than an amorphous large one, we’ll actually see measurable results and we can make a difference within the publishing industry.
This does not mean we are discounting other types of diversity, nor that race is more important than these types of diversity. We constantly get questions about this, asking us why we’re excluding other forms of diversity. There isn’t a hierarchy of diversity here. We aren’t trying to exclude anything or anyone or discount anyone’s experience; focusing attention on one area of diversity doesn’t have to take away from the many other forms of diversity. We’re simply saying that we’re drawing attention to this one specific aspect of diversity right now because that’s the easiest way to make a difference.
Amanda: When we say “diversity” around here, it tends to be a catch-all phrase for “equitable representation,” so we’re not talking about diversity of genre or publisher or format. We’re talking about people. We want everyone to be able to see themselves fairly represented in literature, and that includes people of various races, religions, from various countries, of various sexualities and levels of able-bodiedness, and with different viewpoints. People from all kinds of backgrounds have experienced discrimination, prejudice, and oppression, and have trouble finding themselves in literature. As Swapna says, focusing on one issue at a time is more effective than an amorphous “read more diversely” (which is why something like the Read Harder Challenge can be more useful, with its clear directives).
The whiteness of publishing and best-seller lists is so glaring and mind-boggling, especially considering that people of color make up about ⅓ of the population of the U.S., and that white people will be the minority in America around 2045. It’s this huge disparity and the number of people it effects in sheer population numbers that make us focus on this problem now- that does not mean that other forms of diversity are not just as important, or that we don’t care about them. Focusing on a problem and trying to fix it does not mean you don’t recognize, understand, and care about others, and there will always be someone saying “Well, what about [x issue]” when you are openly trying to make y issue better.
Preeti: Yes! All of the above!
2. What about books written by white people that are about POC? Do those “count”? And as an author, what if I’m uncomfortable writing a character who is a POC?
Preeti: I talked about this in a piece I wrote for Book Riot last year, discussing diversity and authenticity when reading/writing diverse literature. In it, I said, “As a reader of color, I think I relate better to a book about my culture when it’s written by someone of my culture. I joke about how Jhumpa Lahiri rips my heart apart every time she puts out another book, and most of it is due to her beautiful stories and prose. But there’s a part of it (and I’ve discussed this on Book Riot before) that stems from her understanding and her ability to communicate what it’s like being a first gen. Obviously this is very specific to my experience, and my life.”
That being said, I think it’s in all of our best interests if there are more diverse characters, but, those diverse characters should be well researched and real, actual people. It is a daunting prospect to write someone you’re not sure you totally understand, but there are ways to do it, and ways to do it well. If you’re writing a character and you don’t share the qualities that make that character diverse, then have someone who does share those qualities read it. Let them give you notes on that character, and it will be better for it.
But the reason we have to be careful is because the state of the business as it is means that a white author writing a PoC character is more likely to get attention and money to support their book than a PoC author writing from their own experience. So while it is good and true that we should all support diverse characters in literature, we can’t forget to support the diverse authors who create them along with the white authors who write them.
Amanda: In regards to whether or not diverse characters written by white authors “count,” I would say yes in as much as they give more people the opportunity to see themselves reflected in fiction, and that they help combat the idea that only white people’s stories are worth telling. But I would also say no, they do not count in regards to fighting systemic racism or prejudice against authors of color in publishing. I expect white authors who are trying to write about the human condition to include diverse characters but that’s what the reality of humanity is like, but as Preeti said, it’s best to do the work to make sure you’re accurately portraying characters of color in your work and are not resorting to tropes or stereotypes. Having an actual member of that culture beta read your work and offer feedback is the best way to do it.
As far as authors being uncomfortable writing POC characters, I understand- you don’t want to write something offensive or inaccurate, and you don’t want to seem like you’re speaking for any group. But people of color are just people with different experiences than the ones you’ve probably had- which is a statement that would apply to almost any character you’re going to write. And you are, in essence, speaking for all those characters. Just write a human being, do your research into the culture, and have a member of the culture beta-read it.
Swapna: Yup, I don’t have a lot to add here–these ladies know what they’re talking about!
3. How can I, as a non-POC person, relate to a story by/about a POC?
Amanda: There are two things to consider here. First, think about how people of color have been not asked but forced to relate to stories about white characters and from white authors for centuries. The overwhelming majority of the Western canon, which makes up most of what is then taught in schools to all students in the U.S., is white. Most best-seller lists and awards lists are white authors. Most people cast in movies and television in the U.S. are white- even if the characters in the stories originally were not. Everyone else who is not white is expected to accept these stories and viewpoints as universal. Charles Dickens is telling the story of what it means to be human- Junot Díaz is telling the story of what it means to be Dominican. Jonathan Franzen is telling the universal American story- Toni Morrison is telling the story of black people. John Green’s books are about the teenage experience- Meg Medina’s books are about the experience of Latino teens. Authors of color get pigeon-holed, while it is accepted that white authors speak for everyone.
Secondly, let’s talk about the word “relate.” When people say they don’t “relate” to someone, they mean that they have little in common with them- but what does that have to do with fiction? The Hobbit is one of the most widely-read books on Earth, but do we have much in common with an elf, an elderly wizard, a tiny person with giant feet who farms and has never heard of electricity, or an orc? Or consider The Hunger Games– how many of us have been forced to take a bow and arrow to our peers in order to save our sister while battling a dictatorial government lately? Or Pride and Prejudice– I don’t have much in common with a woman raised in a society where women can’t inherit property and are expected to go from parents’ house to husband’s house, and neither do many of you reading this. Our most beloved, respected, and popular books are full of characters the majority of us have nothing in common with, but about whom we enjoy reading because they’re imparting a message about the human experience and because the characters, no matter how different from us they are, have emotions and thoughts we can understand, grasp, and feel empathy for. If we can do it with a Hobbit or an 18th century preacher’s daughter, we can do it with a living human being who happens to be from Cuba or Nigeria or India or Japan.
Swapna: Right on, Amanda! There’s no reason a story by someone who isn’t white can’t be a universal story.
Preeti: All we can do is tell you what it is like growing up with the literature we had access to as women of color, which is to say, what it was like growing up marginalized. The evidence said that our stories didn’t matter, and by extension that we didn’t matter. We found ways to relate to stories about about white kids and white adults, and so why shouldn’t we have the expectation that white readers can find something to relate to in stories about PoCs? Should we expect less of white readers than they’ve expected of us? I don’t think so.
It’s not easy coming into a book from another country or religion that you have no basis for – that much is true. Even now, I still find it intimidating when I’m starting a book from another culture outside of America or India. But that doesn’t mean it’s insurmountable. It’s like any fictional story you’re reading for the first time- you just need a few pages to get situated and then you’re fine.
You can do it!
That’s it for installment 2! Click here for all the Reading Diversely FAQ posts so far, and stay tuned for future posts where we’ll be answering these questions:
- Why does everything have to be political?
- So what’s a “good” percentage to aim for? And isn’t that just filling a quota?
- Am I a racist if I just don’t care?
- Why are diverse books specifically important in children’s literature?
- Isn’t it enough to have at least one PoC character?
- Why is it important to have PoC characters in stories that are about more than just their racial background?
Have a question not on this list? Leave it in the comments, and we’ll do our best to answer it for you!
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