The Lack of Diversity in Books and Movies Hurts All of Our Kids

84516733Whenever I visit my folks with my son Felix, there are two 10-year-old girls who like to come to their house play. Over the holiday, we were all watching TV and saw an advertisement for the remake of the movie Annie, staring Quvenzhané Wallis (as Annie) and Jamie Foxx (as the Daddy Warbucks-esque character). My wife loves Annie, and she and Felix were watching the ad with excitement. One of the girls, however, didn’t share their sentiment. “My dad says he can’t see Annie black,” she explained.

When Felix seemed interested in it, the girl said to my wife in concern, “No, you have to take him to see the original Annie.”

Meaning, the white Annie.

Obviously people often feel loyalty toward originals of any work, but since this bias seemed based on Annie’s race alone, it was pretty troubling, especially coming out of the mouth of a 10-year-old.

This incident made me think a little more deeply the next day, when Felix and I were at a book store to buy a book for his class Secret Santa. All we knew was that he was playing Santa to a girl. But since his class is predominantly African American, I thought about that Annie conversation in the book store. If I were an African-American girl, would that change the way I saw these books? I couldn’t think of, nor could I find, a single book on the early reader’s shelf that featured an African-American character.

Sadly, this isn’t surprising. A study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin found that of 3,200 kids books published in 2013, just 67 were authored by African Americans, and only 93 centered on black characters. In a moving essay in The New York Times last spring, just a few months before he died, author Walter Dean Myers wrote of how the lack of diversity in kid’s publishing harms not just children of color — who usually don’t see themselves represented in stories except as victims of slavery or civil rights injustices — but white kids as well. Children build a sense of their world through reading, and if white children have no models of thinking, feeling, active, fully-realized characters of color, then it is easy for dehumanizing stereotypes and prejudice to take hold. As Myers writes,

Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books? Where are the future white personnel managers going to get their ideas of people of color? Where are the future white loan officers and future white politicians going to get their knowledge of people of color? Where are black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?

This isn’t to imply that all books featuring characters of color need to grapple with deep issues of race, class, and privilege. Far from it. Part of exploring our common humanity is seeing the ways in which people are fundamentally similar the world over. We all need love, and enjoy companionship, playing games in the sunshine, eating good food (though our tastes may differ), and so on. Ezra Jack Keats, the white male author whose 1962 Caldecott Award-winning picture book The Snowy Day features an African-American boy named Peter playing in an urban winter wonderland, was inspired by photographs in Life magazine that featured a young black boy getting a routine injection at the doctor’s office. “Then began an experience that turned my life around,” Keats wrote, “working on a book with a black kid as hero. None of the manuscripts I’d been illustrating featured any black kids — except for token blacks in the background. My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along.”

Keats’ book is beautiful — a true classic — but to quote Jay-Z, “That ain’t enough, we gonna need a million more.” Jay was referring to the small number of black people in elite positions in our society, but the same could go of black characters in literature and film.

One challenge to diversity in children’s books is that titles featuring characters of color in primary roles don’t sell as well as ones with white characters, and so aren’t picked up by publishers. Books with non-white characters suffer from lack of exposure in part because publishers don’t promote them well, but also because bookstores, libraries, and online retailers sometimes ghettoize these books in out-of-the-way multicultural sections.

Additionally, while there are any number of white authors out there, it seems as though only a handful of authors of color thrive in the market at any given time. Bookstores may favor this small number of authors and give them shelf-exposure, but not make an effort to find others. And, sadly, Ezra Jack Keats aside, many white authors continue to shy away from depicting black characters in any but the most marginal of roles.

Of course, the low sales are part of a vicious circle. The We Need Diverse Books campaign, which raised over $181,000 in an Indiegogo campaign this fall, is working to change that. Their programs include a school initiative that brings a different book featuring a non-white character into classrooms every month; grants named after Walter Dean Myers (“The Walter”) for up-and-coming, unpublished diverse authors and illustrators; and funds to provide young people of color internships in publishing, thereby giving them a foot in the industry’s door.

If you look around online, you can find trolls complaining when Marvel changes the race or gender of hallowed characters, as they did for Nick Fury (who began his comic book existence as a white man, but now resembles Samuel Jackson, who plays Fury in the movie) or Thor (who is currently a woman). Jamie Foxx, who plays the Daddy Warbucks character in the new Annie, addressed this adroitly, telling The Daily Beast that no one rolls an eye when white actors are cast in Middle-Eastern roles, like Christian Bale playing Moses, or Liz Taylor Cleopatra, so what’s the big deal when black actors feature in Hollywood roles that have traditionally gone to white actors? While the Screen Actors Guild hasn’t made available up-to-date or comprehensive statistics on diversity in the film industry, the group does offer financial incentives for projects that include actors of color, as well as women, seniors, and actors with disabilities, so if they’re literally paying filmmakers to diversify their casts then the stats can’t be good.

All parents need to provide their kids libraries at home that feature a cast of characters who don’t look like their kids, and that requires intentionally seeking out such stories. Because if we’re not putting our money where our values are, then publishers and producers will feel no pressure to broaden the diversity on screen or page, and our children will grow up without being challenged to think about issues of diversity. They’ll internalize the white-centric image of the world that they see in their narratives without question.

I feel generally hopeful about the future of diversity in our culture. I’m excited to see the new Star Wars movie, which appears to feature African-American actors in key roles, and also Marvel’s Black Panther movie. Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming just made headlines when it won the National Book Award for children, and you can find lists of books that feature diverse characters on the We Need Diverse Books website, and also here on The Brown Bookshelf and The Guardian. Our future will be, I believe, a more colorful one on the page and screen, but also in our places of work and our government, but only if we work now to lay that groundwork for our kids.

Image source: Thinkstock

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