Tuesday, September 1, 2015

We need diverse books... and diverse movie adaptations of these books too...

     There’s a big variety of movies, but they do have one thing in common: all of these movies are not about whiteness. They are not about white people. They are not about the experience of being white and they are not historical dramas that are just about white people. They’re not about whiteness. They are about really universal and very human themes. They’re about love and they’re about loss. For example, “The Fault in Our Stars” is an incredible book. I love that book so much. John Green, I think, is a wonderful writer. I’m a huge fan of his. But nowhere in his book was anyone’s race ever mentioned.
     So my question with these videos is why are we using white people to tell these universal stories? And what is that saying? I think it’s saying something really dangerous and the message it gives to people of color — and I can say this as a person of color who grew up watching these stories that I related to thematically and didn’t see reflections of myself in them — what it tells you is you don’t really have a place in this world. And this is your place. Your place are these specific speaking roles and you’re mostly credited as your job, like “busdriver” or “waitress no. 2″ or “hostess.” I think what is so insidious about this is that it just creeps in.
     We as a society are so, so well-trained at calling out racist people. We’re really great at ganging up on them on Twitter, pointing at racist people, and evicting them from the social sphere so that we feel really, really good about ourselves. But we really don’t have the tools to talk about systemic racism. I’m not saying that any of these films are racist. I’m not saying that any of these filmmakers are racist. I’m saying that the system that they’re contributing has some deeply racist practices.

As an educator, as an avid reader, and as a woman of color myself, I spend a lot of time thinking about representation in the media I consume. I grew up not seeing very many people who looked like me in the things I watched. I also often didn't read a lot of books that described people who looked like me either. The ones I did read about, I clung to. (Claudia Kishi, you are my GIRL.)

Things have gotten better since I was a kid/teen, but we still have a long way to go. I was thinking about this the other day when I saw this image set on Tumblr.

Some of those are pictures from movie adaptations, and some of them are photos that the original poster decided to borrow. But looking at them all, I couldn't help but notice... there are not a lot of PoC among them. And one of them, whom I had understood to be Asian in the book, actually has her eyes cut off in this photoset. If we're supposed to be able to imagine book characters the way we want to, then why do we always imagine them as white?

I think that Dylan Marron's quote above is important - if the story does not literally depend on that character's race, then why can't we make them any race we want? And actually, in the case of Hermione Granger, casting a PoC could've added extra signficance to issues that books are already discussing.

Some people would defend these choices as being "realistic" and "historically accurate," citing that many stories are located in locations, time periods, and social strata where PoC did not exist. Or they might cite that the characters were described as having physical features generally associated with being white, like having blonde or red hair.

But the big clincher is that... a lot of these books require that you suspend your disbelief anyway. Books that involve vampires, faeries, wizards, werewolves, ghosts, etc. are not depicting real life in the first place. So why is it so much of a stretch to believe that there could be people of color in the same universe, possibly even being central to the story instead of being a side character who gets two lines and then disappears? Why is it so much of a stretch to believe that a person of color could actually have red hair, when we're already supposed to be imagining people who have fangs, pointed ears, or iron teeth?

Some of the responsibility for imagining diversity lies with the reader. I fully admit that I am guilty of imagining white as the default. We can't help it - it's what our society has conditioned us to do. As someone who is now very aware of that, I've been forcing myself to imagine the characters I read as PoC - even when they are described as having blue eyes or blonde hair. It's not unheard-of in fiction, and it DOES happen in real life too - it's not the majority, but it's not impossible!

Why would I do this? Because I DO want to see a little bit of myself in the things I read: if not literally myself, then at least the world I live in - and the world I live in is very diverse. Because I need to consume media that depict a range of races in a range of roles, because when you only ever see characters of certain races depicted in very narrow ways, you start seeing real life people of those races that way too, and I don't want to do that.

But it needs to be more than just me doing this. My imagination can take me pretty far, but it can only take me so far. In a world that relies increasingly on visual media, the casting choices that directors make will forever canonize a character's identity for posterity. Emma Watson, bless her, will forever be the face of Hermione Granger. And I'm okay with that, truly. I'm okay with any of the casting choices I've seen so far, individually (except for when white actors are casted to fill roles that are unequivocally written as people of color, which is something that happens often), but when you put all their faces together, like in the photoset I linked to above... the truth really kind of hits you in the face. We can't do anything to change the movies that have already been made, but what about the books that haven't been adapted yet? Or the books that never will be adapted? If we have the opportunity to imagine a more diverse world, we should do it.

Author Junot Diaz once said the following:"There's this idea that monsters don't have reflections in a mirror. And what I've always thought isn't that monsters don't have reflections in a mirror. It's that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn't see myself reflected at all. I was like, "Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don't exist? And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might seem themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it."

We need these mirrors made. And we need everyone making them - in our heads as well as on our screens.

(Also, check out the official site for the We Need Diverse Books campaign.)

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