On Diversity in Literature and #WNDB
By Susan L. Lipson
I wish that discussions of the need for diversity in literature (#WNDB, a.k.a. We Need Diverse Books) focused more on realistically presenting the glorious array of humanity in literature than on zealously defying stereotypes. Defiance through diversity implies a defensiveness that ironically gives power to the stereotypes and undermines the very reasons behind the need for the #WNDB movement. I equate this to the use of the word “tolerance” to promote programs of unity among people, while paradoxically suggesting that differences must be “tolerated” (i.e., endured or allowed, implying a superiority of the one who must “tolerate” another). “Respect” is a much more apt term for the encouragement of open-mindedness and social harmony. And “diversity” in literature should encourage and facilitate respect, not enforce tolerance.
Similarly, the inclusion of the term “white privilege” in discussions of diversity in literature only serves as a finger-wagging kind of term to divide—and not even accurately—readers into the following subgroups: white people who have economic, educational, and social privileges and black people who do not. What about the white people who live in poverty—are they still “privileged”? Or the black people who are doctors, lawyers, authors, teachers, scientists, artists, etc.—are they “underprivileged”? Or the white people who are privileged in some aspects, but discriminated against in others—such as religion or sexual identity? Or the black people who are considered “privileged” by the “underprivileged” within their own racial group, and disdained as being “too white”? Or the non-white, non-black people who are left out of the discussion about “privilege” as the social illness that requires the good medicine provided by “diverse books” to heal the world? How can such divisiveness have arisen from a movement designed to grow inclusiveness?
Recently, an online debate I had with another writer about a reference to “white privilege” led to my being questioned about my understanding of “white privilege,” which the other writer defined as “white readers seeing diverse media starring people-of-color as ‘not for me.’” I pointed out that the term “white” in her definition is inadequate, since I teach many Asian students, and I have seen a few hesitate to read books I’ve handed to them that feature black kids as protagonists, whereas I’ve never seen such hesitation about books that feature white kid protagonists. I distinctly remember one such student saying to me, after reading a novel by Sharon Flake, “I never would have picked this up on my own, and I’m really glad you gave it to me. It was really good.” The term “white privilege” clearly is not applicable to a non-white reader who avoids books about “people-of-color” when she herself has brown skin. Also, what is the actual “privilege”—is it a socioeconomic advantage or a naïve mindset about the “underprivileged”?
One of my former students, a privileged black girl with a lawyer and a doctor for parents, who grew up in a predominantly non-black, upper-middle class neighborhood of whites and Asians, once told me that she found it offensive that she, a suburban black girl, had no black characters representing her in literature. I told her that I could relate to that because most of the Jewish kids in books I'd read were nothing like me at all; they showed up in Holocaust stories, or turn-of-the-century immigrant tales, or stories about Orthodox Jewish life, so unlike my own. The absence of people like us in literature is disappointing for us personally, but even more disappointing for the reasons that people unlike us know us only through outdated or stereotypical characters. Diversity must focus on realistic portrayals more than tokenism.
This exploration of the admirable, yet sometimes flawed #WNDB movement leads me to conclude that diversity in literature is not just about characters representing various races, cultures, religions, sexual identities, or physically challenged lifestyles. It’s not just about publishing books by authors who are “people-of-color” or of nonmainstream lifestyles (however "mainstream" is defined by publishers). But it is about opening our minds and our media to sharing stories about memorable, realistic people from all walks of life, as a means of broadening all readers’ perspectives and making readers not just see themselves in characters, but see themselves in relation to both familiar and unfamiliar characters. Diversity is universalism.