*written with the help of my speech coach, Avi Jaggi
When I was 7, my school’s theatre put on a Disney classic: Snow White. I figured since Snow White and I are both gorgeous, innocent, and – aside from my slight tan – we’re both the fairest of them all, it’s clear; I’m perfect for the part. Naturally, I told my friends about my plans to audition. They told me that I should be happy, and I really was… until I later realized they meant that I should literally be Happy, the dwarf.
Still, I was determined to be the best Snow White my school had ever seen. But after auditions, I wasn’t Snow White. I wasn’t happy either, and I’m not talking about the dwarf. I didn’t get the part! When my friends heard about this obvious travesty, they didn’t comfort me. They told me I wouldn’t have gotten the part anyways, because it was meant for a Snow White, not a Snow Brown.
As a child, I had no clue that my skin color would make a difference. A few years later, I did some research and then it all made sense. According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, or the CCBC, a total of 10% of books over the past 18 years have contained multicultural content, most of which was stereotypical. Minorities in children’s literature have largely been absent or misrepresented, thereby worsening stereotypes and alienating those who don’t fit the “Snow Whites” of the world. So today, we’ll read into causes, annotate the effects, and finally write out some solutions to help make our society more like Snow White, the fairest of them all.
I figured that if I can’t be Snow White, I must be destined for another part, I mean look at me, I’m the perfect princess…. Or at least that’s what my mommy said. Yet after I poured through children’s classics, there was no role that suited me.
This is mainly because minority authors are forced to write along stereotypical lines. Hannah Erlich, advertising director of Lee and Low publishing house reveals, “Because the senior editors and executives are still predominantly white, there isn’t very much diversity in what is acquired. You have these specific subjects that people of color can write about, but when they want to write outside of those subjects— it’s hard for editors to see where the market is.”
Books about protagonists of color would automatically be about racism, immigration, or poverty. Children’s materials that provide inaccurate depictions of cultures can equally influence children. It’s time for publishing houses to realize that stereotypical books are as good as no diverse books at all. Once companies broaden their way of thinking, authors of ethnicity will see their books on bookshelves all over the country, which leads to the second cause of ethnic misrepresentation in literature: minority centered books don’t sell well in the mainstream publishing market.
Dr. Rudin Bishop, a English professor at Ohio State University argues that there is a perception among teachers and school board officials that multicultural books are only for so called minorities rather than all children. The Huffington Post of June 28th 2014 furthers that as funding for schools decreases, school libraries resist buying multicultural books, assuming that children won’t read them anyways. But, these preconceived notions become a barrier between children and colored characters. When we take away minority representation from children’s books, we tell that population that they don’t have a place in our country’s narrative.
Disney’s Aladdin was my favorite bedtime story growing up, and it was adored by millions of kids worldwide. But if looked closely at, it was probably more racist that Donald Sterling at the KKK rally. Ok, maybe not thaaaat racist but think about it. Jasmine was about to get her hand cut off for stealing an apple. Disney portrayed the middle east as the center of violence, with people trying to kill each other for the most trivial things.
Because of this undying battle between insensitive editors and minority authors, children are fed such stereotypes, which causes cultural distortions to become a part of their thinking. Moreover, in their 2012 study exploring the roots of educational inequality, sociologists John Rury and Sylvia Martinez concluded that inner city youth, largely comprised of low-income, minority students, are routinely reminded of their social inferiority in classrooms, from prominent minority figures being left out of history lessons, to ignoring prominent Black, Hispanic, and Asian authors in English classes. This blocks out children from being aware of other cultures. Stories need minorities as much as minorities need these stories.
An article posted by Roxane Gay named “Where Things Stand” notes that 88% of all books reviewed by New York Times were by Caucasians. She argues that authors of ethnicity face a much steeper climb to make a name for themselves. Since minority authors have such a hard time getting published, few – if any – make bestsellers lists. Hannah Ehrlich explains in another interview, “Editors are risk-averse. There’s a lot of pressure to find the next Hunger Games, so editors are planning for a pop-culture fire starter that can launch a tween fever.” Much like that stupid Bieber fever that half the nation caught…..including me. Editors assume that minority books won’t make it big, so they shove them in the back shelf and pull out books such as The Twilight Saga, Hunger Games, or The Fault in our Stars because they believe those books have a better chance at being successful. So let’s start writing out our novel of solutions.
When I was kid, the library was like a second home. I absolutely loved it there. The books, the people, everything. However, I also remember the utter disappointment I felt when the only books I saw were about caucasians. As much as I loved books, I always had that inkling in the back of my head that I don’t truly belong, But don’t worry, there are solutions we can take to turn the tide.
First, we need to get libraries more involved. The library is the place children probably go to the most, and is the easiest place to get access to books. Furthermore, Pew Research Center emphasizes the important role of libraries as one of the first teachers of young children. If they see books displayed with people of color, or have events for multiple holidays such as Eid, Diwali, or Kwanzaah, children will be intrigued to learn about other cultures, which will make them want to read more books about those themes.
The second way to solve misrepresentation is through raising awareness through social media since, let’s be honest, we can’t live 5 minutes without it. Because of this, it can prove to be a great medium to voice your opinion on. For example, Ellen Oh, a bestselling novelist, once tweeted #weneeddiversebooks which started trending worldwide, brought immense awareness to the issue, and shocked the publishers. People started tweeting their own favorite diverse books and soon it became a huge phenomenon and even got recognition at BookCon. Clearly, this problem is not impossible to solve, but it sure is vital to find a solution. It will not only help out minority authors, but children will also learn to embrace characters, cultures, and colors and who wouldn’t want that?
It turns out that I actually wasn’t the fairest of them of all; so instead of acting, I’m writing my own fairytale. And once it’s published, I’ll be the lead, playing princess Brown Thunder. Sorry, it sounded a lot cooler in my head. Today, we discussed the causes and effects of our diversity problem with books and went through what we can do to get rid of this problem completely. We must all join in to ensure that our country’s story is one of inclusion, diversity, and love. Now, that’s a story worth reading.