We all know that publishing has a diversity problem, but I contend that all of us have a diversity problem. We see the world through a white lens, all of us do because that’s all that we’ve been given. This becomes especially problematic when I work with young writers of color. Inevitably, when I begin a new year and I get those first slips of flash fiction there are the tell-tale signs of whiteness. Blake is running from the monster in this story, or Karen is looking back at her teary blue eyes in the mirror. This would not be a problem if my young writer’s had blue eyes, they don’t. They’re more likely to be named Keisha or Keyshawn than Karen. They’ve been indoctrinated. As voracious readers they’ve soaked up the imagery and normalcy of whiteness and thus have erased themselves. If they are not told to actively write people like themselves into the story then they won’t. Some may even believe that by virtue of including a character of color it somehow makes the story cheap or low rent. Maybe because the only books they see with characters of color are the mass produced series for reluctant readers. And don’t get me started on the aversion to self-publishing. Kids really do judge a book by its cover (btw, colorful and hardback wins every time).
Here are some steps to broadening the narrative in your clubs for the next generation.
1. Read through colored lenses.
Choose a book for the club to read together. It doesn’t matter what book it is just tell them from the beginning that the characters are not white. Kevin is now Kumar and Lucy is now Luz. Talk about how that changed the story for them. Did it matter? Could you keep it up the entire book or were the people you saw in your head still white?
2. Give your writing prompts over to Jamal.
When you’re assigning writing prompts deliberately use ethnic names. How does this change the kinds of stories the students tell. Are there stereotypes that need to be rooted out?
3. Have the talk.
Nothing works like bringing the elephant in the room to the center of the circle. Ask them why the characters they write don’t look like them or speak like them or have names like theirs, if there are students of color. Let them talk.
There’s been a lot of discussion about white writers infusing their writing with diversity. I don’t necessarily agree that white writers have to do that. I think its more important to have writers of color writing the stories themselves, hence ownvoices. However, if you have writers who live and go to school in a pretty diverse area it makes sense for the writing to reflect that. There’s no reason for a kid who lives in Brooklyn to write a story without any characters of color. The same would be said of a kid who lives in Miami neglecting to include anyone who speaks Spanish.
4. Flip the Script
Try an exercise where the writers flip classic bedtime stories and fairy tales. Put Little Red Riding Hood in the middle of Compton in the present day. Make Cinderella queer and Latina. Make Dracula Haitian and Frankenstein Laotian. Allow the backgrounds of the students speak through the tales and have them share.
Let me know how it goes with your groups.