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While diversity in the media — or rather a lack thereof — has long been an issue, the topic has recently gained an unprecedented spotlight. Often when we discuss “media” the first thing to come to mind is television and the internet; however, despite some sensationalist articles out there, books continue to be a significant media source in modern America.
There are many facets to the discussion of diversity in media, among them the very scope of diversity. Diversity means diversity of race, sex, ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, and more. Each constitutes a deeply nuanced microcosms of identities, the breadth of which may cause some people to think the job of reflecting these identities in media is too daunting a task to approach.
Diverse Literature Teaches Kids About Life
However, if characters in media ideally should be inventive depictions which each have a one-of-a-kind story to tell, the job of painting unique individuals is already half done. In fact, it could be said that in failing to represent uniquity even in its most realistic forms, media portrayals of characters with unique stories to tell are failing impressively at their jobs. How can one hope to depict the out-of-the-ordinary, let alone the fantastic, if even the upper boundaries of the ordinary are dismissed as outlandish?
There are many arenas that are failing to realistically portray diversity in myriad ways. However, one that especially deserves attention is the portrayal of diversity in children’s literature. Children’s literature commonly includes an educational aspect, and books are a great tool for teachers to increase classroom engagement. A book may be trying to teach a child how to spell, how to share, or how to deal with life’s difficulties. These lessons are often taught through the medium of characters, and therefore it is a missed opportunity to not passively teach children another lesson by giving characters character.
Diverse Literature Teaches Empathy
A study conducted by the American Psychological Association in 2013 found evidence which suggests that reading — more specifically, the process of visualizing written scenes — increases empathy. This process is especially invaluable to children, whose values and identities are in the process of taking shape.
As discussed, a major function of children’s literature is often to teach children, and it is absolutely not only possible to teach empathy, it is imperative to emotional, psychological, and social growth. Observing and modelling empathetic behavior is a significant factor in how children cultivate empathy.
Children’s literature which exposes children to diverse characters may play a strong role in teaching them to relate to others, especially when it comes to the depiction of groups that the child has little experience within their day-to-day life. Again, the cultivation of empathy is especially important in childhood, and therefore finding means of improving empathy for people who come from many backgrounds or identify in a variety of ways is important for a healthy social mindset as adults.
In fact, because our brains are not fully developed until approximately the age of 25, it is important to understand and promote the value of children’s literature not just for very young kids, but for elementary school kids, middle school kids, and even young adults.
There is modern evidence that suggests we may currently be failing as a society on this front. In 2011, a study published in the Frontiers in Psychology journal demonstrated that people may feel less empathy when observing painful stimuli, if the afflicted individual appears to be ethnically different from themselves.
Diverse Literature Helps Underrepresented Children
It is not uncommon for Western literature to feature characters and protagonists who are white, cisgender, heterosexual, Christian, and do not have disabilities. This can generate a limited prototypical idea of what people look like, act like, and identify as. In fact, this could lead to the idea that such individuals are the majority without any evidence otherwise.
Depicting diversity in children’s literature could, therefore, have several positive effects on children whose background or identity do not fit the mold of the majority. Chief among these is diminishing the idea among others or even themselves that such children are “other” in a negative way or that they are somehow less acceptable. In this way, representation in literature could bolster confidence and understanding in children.
Diverse Literature Tackles Prejudices
Another powerful way that children’s literature can improve acceptance and diminish intolerance in the long-term is by not only representing minorities, but by actually challenging common discriminatory ideas. Again, this is a very necessary move, considering how long such hatreds can ferment in a society. The outrageous sentiment that Jewish people are corrupt and miserly by nature is a centuries-old notion which can still be observed to this very day.
For that reason, it is not enough to depict a dyslexic child in literature: there need to be dyslexic characters that succeed academically in children’s literature. This is not to say that every minority character depicted in literature needs to be some sort of Mary Sue, because characters should be realistically complex. However, minorities do succeed and they are more than their stereotypes. Not reflecting that fact is a failing at reflecting reality, not an attack on it.
Diverse Literature Reflects Life
While it may be tempting to brush aside the preponderence of white, cisgender, straight characters without disabilities in Western literature as a matter of course which reflects demographics, this is not reflecting demographics. When J.K. Rowling revealed that Dumbledore, a primary character in the Harry Potter series, was gay, there was backlash from the public. This seems largely to be due to the fact that the majority of readers assumed that Dumbledore was straight because this was not stated otherwise in the novels.
However, assuming that everyone you’ll meet is straight is just as outrageous as if one were to assume that everyone they meet is gay. While it is the case that the majority of the population is straight, it is just as much so that case that some of the population is gay. Diversity is not idealism, it is realism.