Jan 20, 2016

Token Ethnic Diversity Isn't Good Enough - Josephine @ Word Revel

Hi bookworms!

Some time back, when I launched the #DiverseReads2016 Challenge and it's first link up, I told you all that I am planning to feature guest posts on diversity throughout the year! So today, I am here, with your first ever guest post of the challenge, on this season's theme - Ethnic Diversity!

Today, we have Josephine from Word Revel - who owns a gorgeous blog and and is amazing with a camera! She is here to talk about token diversity - incorporating diversity in books just for the sake of popularity and to tick off a check box. - and how it isn't enough. I strongly agree with her, and here's what she has to say about it!

Image Credit goes to Josephine.

The Call for Ethnic Diversity

Over the past couple of years there’s been an increasing call for ethnic diversity in YA books. Aided by the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, this movement has been vocal about the importance of representing diversity in literature on all fronts — ethnicity, sexuality, religion, class, etc.

Ethnicity is a huge talking point because most popular YA books feature white main characters. The fact that many are white protagonists isn’t the problem. The problem is the absence of characters of other ethnic backgrounds.

Given that multiplicity of ethnic backgrounds that youths represent today, literature is doing a huge disservice towards encompassing that. It tends to ignore ethnic diversity and when there’s a supporting character whose Latino or black or Asian, we’re supposed to laud it for the diversity a book represents. That’s the crux of tokenism — including ethnic characters for the sake of it and sidelining them to boot.

Why Tokenism is a Weak Concession

Tokenism means that no true effort is made to represent the minority. Concessions are merely symbolic to appease those who demand ethnic diversity. Tolerating tokenism means allowing for the inclusion of that very dependable Asian friend who is so smart and hardworking but otherwise bland. It allows for that crazy Latino girl and her lazy brother. It allows for “exotic” characters with little substance. In essence, it accepts the bare minimum and calls this progress.

Ethnicity becomes just another thing to tick off a checklist, so that a book has an additional selling point. It supports stereotypes because the mere inclusion of an ethnically diverse character becomes a cause for celebration. This is where tokenism hurts the cause. Underdeveloped characters who exists solely because they fulfil the ethnic criteria are a disservice to ethnic minority groups.

Ethnic Diversity in YA Books

Ethnic diversity in books need to adhere to this core tenet: cultural sensitivity with the recognition that the characters also are individuals. It’s important to strike that balance to do the culture as well as the character justice.

Cultural sensitivity means ensuring that the culture isn’t misrepresented. I can think of two books that were inclusive with Muslim characters whose parents hailed from the Middle East but moved to the US. Sad to say, both books ended up featuring hypocritical Muslim characters. That’s a score for individualism but such a sad move for ethnic diversity. Muslim characters aren’t all too common in YA books and rather than using this opportunity to convey the richness of their religion and culture, these books made a mockery of that.

Given that books featuring ethnic diversity are so few, it’s important to build them up first with characters who are strong representations of their cultures. This will allow readers who have never been in contact with people of particular ethnicities to gain an insight to what makes them tick. At the same time, doing so will finally give readers of ethnically diverse backgrounds books that they can relate to on a cultural level. When you’re part of a minority, every platform that gives you a voice is precious.

5 Books with Strong Representations of Ethnic Diversity

Thankfully, I have come across at least some books with strong characters of diverse ethnic backgrounds:

  1. Dancing in the Dark by Robyn Bavati — Set in Australia, this book is about a girl from an Orthodox Jewish family. She falls in love with ballet but her parents forbid her from dancing because it conflicts with their beliefs and culture.
  2. The Book of Broken Hearts by Sarah Ockler — Despite warnings from her sisters to stay away from the Vargas boys, Jude is drawn to the youngest brother, Emilio. This book must’ve made me feel every emotion known to man. What I remember is the Argentinian culture of Emilio directing a lot of who he is as a character. He had fiery passion inherited from his mother and for that I absolutely wished he was my neighbour.
  3. Outside Beauty by Cynthia Kadohata — Four half-sisters of various ethnic backgrounds grew up under the same roof. While they’re all daughters of the same mother, they each have different fathers. Due to an unfortunate event, the sisters are torn apart and forced to live with their respective fathers. The way their fathers relate to them is very telling of their cultural backgrounds.
  4. There Will Come A Time by Carrie Arcos — Mark lost his twin sister to a car accident and can’t come to terms with his loss. The reason I bring this book up is Mark’s Filipino heritage. While ethnicity isn’t a huge theme, Mark’s ethnicity does come up occasionally and is underscored by his Filipino relatives.
  5. Riptide by Lindsey Scheibe — This book was written with alternating first-person perspectives. One of the two characters, Ford, is a Mexican-American who is passionate about helping illegal immigrants. His ethnicity matters a lot in terms of his life choices. While Grace spends the summer pursuing her surfing dreams, Ford packs away his surf board to focus on an internship that could get him into law school.

How do you feel about books that purport ethnic diversity but end up grossly misrepresenting a culture?

And if you're interested in contributing with a guest post, fill up this google form or contact me via email or twitter!

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