I could have left today with a relatively humorous and inoffensive blog post, but why stop there? There’s one thing that’s been on my mind since yesterday. I don’t have it in me for a full political rant, but I have to mention it. Because I’m Mrs Fringe, that’s why. There was a “campaign” on Twitter yesterday: #WeNeedDiverseBooksbecause Part of me thought this was cool, and I suspect we’ll keep seeing that hashtag for a long time. More of me thought WTF? How is it that we need such a campaign, over 50 years after the Freedom Riders rode through the country, President Barak Obama on his second term as president of the United States…and yet we still have to tell the publishing industry we need diverse books that reflect the diverse people buying and reading those books.
The thing is, while tweets are catchy, they don’t really tell a whole story. Kind of like the various colored ribbons representing awareness for different diseases–ribbons are cute, no one feels threatened by them, they might even match your t-shirt–but they’re a far cry from the messy, painful, and complex reality they represent.
I saw some clever tweets with that hashtag. Saw some not as clever tweets, but well intentioned, the right idea. Still felt sad that it was necessary. I know it is, though. I live in a diverse building, in a diverse city. We are a diverse family. But a few years ago, when Nerd Child was applying for high schools, I read an online comment from a parent who lived somewhere else, bemoaning the fact that the private boarding schools are committed to having diverse classes, stating that this isn’t representative of the “real world.” Umm, maybe not this parent’s real world, but mine and many, if not most (once you branch beyond US borders) others.
Yes, both my boys went (one is still going) to private boarding schools, schools that put thought into the diversity of each year’s class, in addition to test scores, recommendations, skills/talents and after school activities. Both on scholarship. (And don’t kid yourselves, there many more bright and accomplished disadvantaged kids, of color and not, who are qualified that the admissions committees think they’d like to spend 4 years with, and then have representing their schools as alumni. There’s no golden path) But you know what’s beautiful? When I see my boys’ friends, and see how these things do make a difference and carry through. Both have friends from different cultures, different races, different countries. Not just school friends, but friends kept beyond the boundaries of a school day or year.
Still, this trending twitter campaign feels a bit preaching-to-the-choir, no? I have to think the publishing industry includes some of the most culturally conscious people in our society. I mean, books! Reading! Classics! Freedom of Speech and down with censorship! Maybe the marketing/purchasing end of the publishing industry will pay attention to the twitter feed, maybe not. Maybe they’ll take it to mean they should add a title or two to the “multicultural” lists. You know, that small, separate section of the bookstore, stuffed between romance and erotica.
Years ago, when I was looking at kindergartens for Man Child, I went on a tour with two friends, both looking for spots for their own children. We left the school, and one parent said, “I liked it, very diverse.” The other said, “You thought so? I didn’t think it was diverse at all.” Why the different perception? Because to one parent, diverse = many children of color. To the other, diverse = many white children. My way of illustrating that it’s all perception. So point of view in the books we read should represent these different perceptions, if we are going to do more than pay lip service to diversity.
I saw a tweet from a publishing professional that reminded me why we still need this type of campaign. Nothing terrible, definitely not racist, sexist, or homophobic. But it was the equivalent of #weneeddiversebooksbecause some kids want to wear boots instead of sneakers. Umm, huh? Individuality is absolutely important, I’m a huge supporter who rants often about kids being raised and expected to be sheep instead of critical thinkers. But this particular campaign is about diversity. About having characters that all readers can recognize and identify with, not just a default of middle class white girls battling dragons and making the world safe for democracy in Young Adult books, and the stifled white man in suburbia, or cute and earnest young white women figuring out how to get the guy, get that promotion and a good deal on those pumps they just had to have. Diversity of race, culture, religion, gender, socioeconomic class, politics, and sexuality.
I agree, we do need books that recognize and reflect the diversity of our world, our communities. Real diversity, not just the token black/latino/male/lgbtq and not just “issue” books where that difference is the focus of the book, and not taking books that do reflect diversity and sticking them in the corner, on their own shelf, where only those specifically looking for those books will find them.