Diversity is important for many different reasons. One of which is in order to gain acceptance of certain groups of people, whether it be race, ethnicity, culture, religion, disability, sexual orientation, etc, you have to spread an understanding of that group. Understanding allows people to see beyond their differences and see that the things that make the group different doesn’t make that group weird and taboo, but unique. How can you expect others to understand and accept “weird” customs/actions/behaviors/beliefs if you do not explain why they exist or how they have come about? Understanding also breeds empathy which goes hand in hand with acceptance.
Two of the few ways to for other people to gain an understanding of different groups is through education and exposure. Education teaches about the group. It answers all the how, what, when, where, why, questions about them. But it is exposure that brings the group to life. That makes them real. That makes other people realize that the people who fall into those minority groups are real people as well. That they deserve to be treated equal and like everyone else.
Books have the ability to both educate and expose. That is if they do contain characters of color and ones that belong to other minority groups as well. Unfortunately, not everyone has the opportunity to live in a diverse community where they can be exposed to all these different groups in real life. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t be exposed to them at all.
That’s where diverse characters come to play. Even though characters in books mainly live in the pages of their stories, they do exist to some extent. If written well, they exist in the mind of the reader. And with all these book to movie (or TV show) adaptions happening, many characters who belong in minority groups are given the chance to live on the big (or small) screen as well. This makes including those kinds of characters even more important.
The characters of diverse backgrounds don’t even need to main characters. As much as I would like them to be and as cool as it would be, characters of minority groups only need to do a few things in a book. They need to break negative stereotypes, and educate and well, expose readers to whatever group they belong to. And when I say break negative stereotypes, I mean shining a light on the flip side. For example, a Muslum who is not a terrorist, and instead opposes ISIS’ extreme beliefs and actions and works to bring peace. An autistic woman who is a part of the community and lives on her own.
While they do not necessarily have to be main characters, it has to be made clear a character is intended to be from a minority group. Most of the time. It was announced a few weeks ago that a black actress was cast to play the role of Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a play about Harry and his friends as adults. This created a lot of controversy because in the film versions of Harry Potter, Hermione was white, played by Emma Watson. However, J.K. Rowling explained that Hermione’s race was never specified in the books. That is a good thing and a bad thing. On one hand, leaving the minority group up to the reader allows for many interpretations based on the physical features described and other descriptions.
Let’s just go back to the Cursed Child casting for a bit and talk about race. An ambiguous description of a character allows readers to draw their own conclusions about what group (or in this case, race) the character belongs to. The problem is, society has programmed us to think a certain way. Honestly, if skin color is not described, I automatically think a character is white. It doesn’t matter if he/she has blonde or black hair or has brown or blue eyes. If skin color is never specifically identified, I think “white”. Even though as someone of East Asian descent, I would love to think a character with black hair, brown eyes, and tan skin is Asian, I still think “white”. It’s the way society taught me to think. When I was younger, I used to think differently. But then I watched the movie adaptions and all those characters that I thought were of different races were all white…
That’s not the only problem with ambiguous descriptions. Besides, automatically assuming things, society has also programmed stereotypes. Without an explicit identifier, readers can also group characters by stereotypes. “Black hair? Almond shaped brown eyes? Bad at driving? Good at math? Must be Asain!” Even though Asians aren’t the only ones with black hair and almond eyes, and they can be good at driving and bad at math. This is also why it is important for characters to break certain stereotypes.
One last thing, as great as it is that diverse characters can help minority groups gain acceptance and help other people better understand them, diversity in books is also important for another reason. It is important to have diverse characters so that everyone can see and find themselves in the pages of books. Yeah, you can relate to characters through other ways. But there’s something about being able to relate to them in terms of how other people treat and view you that is important and special. I can relate to a white girl who’s struggling in school. But I can relate to an Asain girl who’s struggling in school and weighted down by her parent’s and grandparent’s and college’s higher expectations even better. I can relate to her better because not only do we share similar struggles and culture, but because we are treated and viewed by society in a similar manner. The societal expectations are the same.
Diversity, no matter what kind, is important. More people of minority groups, it doesn’t matter if it’s race, culture, disability, religion, sexual orientation, gender, etc, need to be featured and exist. We need more diverse books because diverse characters help people. They help others understand what it is like to be a part of a minority group. It helps those people gain an understanding and hopefully an acceptance of others. It helps readers who belong to minority groups themselves connect with characters like them and see themselves in the pages. For them to know they aren’t alone in their struggles and the way they are treated by society. Books with diverse characters in a positive light cannot do any harm, only good.
What do you think?
Why is diversity important to you?