Whether it’s due to the heated political climate, growing minority populations or increased overall “wokeness” in America, we’ve recently seen a spike in media looking to increase diversity in the arts, especially in movies, music, and TV. But is it enough?
For example, we’ve seen an uptick in children’s books including diverse characters or straight up discussing race, feminism, and other social issues. According to Lee and Low Books‘ 2017 report, 13% of children’s books in the past 24 years contain multicultural content. Sounds great, right?
Unfortunately, that number falls short when you consider that about 40% of the United States population consists of people of color. To complicate matters, Black, Latino and Native authors combined wrote only 7% of the new children’s books published in 2017, according to Lee and Low’s report. This means that while some of these books may have minority characters, they were all created by a white author who is less intimately informed about these cultures.
When white writers, directors, and producers are the majority creative forces behind an art form, you’re bound to end up with a majority white story being told. When characters of color are included, they often end up being caricatures cobbled together from white writers’ limited interactions with people of color (POC) and stereotypes they’ve absorbed from white-dominated media through the years. While our movies, TV shows and books contain more bodies and names of color, they still rarely include true experiences of color.
How Can We Increase Meaningful Diversity in Our Media?
The easiest solution to increase purposeful diversity in media is to create platforms for POC creators to share their own stories. In this way, self-publishing websites like Lulu have done a great service for minority authors who otherwise might have had their manuscripts tossed in trash bins by traditional publishers who are not like them and who don’t have the context to understand their experiences. When we’re in the position to empower talented POC creatives, we should throw powerful opportunities their way.
We should demand positive, meaningful diversity in the content we consume. Representation matters because it helps us better understand ourselves as well as those around us. Learning more about how others live helps us empathize with them and become allies as they fight against all forms of oppression. For POC, representation is a chance to see people like them succeed and be inspired to achieve their own dreams.
Tips to Promote Diversity in Your Work (For Writers of All Colors!)
- Get POC involved. If you are not a person of color but you’d like to incorporate characters of color into your writing, don’t go by what you think you know about that character’s culture. Get someone who actually shares your character’s background to help you write or proofread your work. Don’t be offended if they suggest changes. They simply want your work to be more authentic and fair. This also applies to POC writing characters of a different background than their own.
- Avoid tokenism. If your white protagonist lives in a town diverse enough for them to have a Latino best friend, there are probably other Latino characters living in that town, too. Don’t be afraid to have multiple POC, and even “duplicates” of a certain background in your story.
- Avoid stereotypes. This goes without saying. If your Asian character is extremely studious or your Black character grew up without a father, sit yourself down for a very frank talk about where these ideas came from and why you associated these plotlines with these groups. Challenge yourself to write characters that go against ugly racial stereotypes.
- Go for realism. Be aware that POC have rich, diverse backgrounds and stories. They are not one-note, stock characters. Their color does not define them. They are people that love, laugh, hurt, desire, hate, eat, sleep just like your other characters. Don’t be afraid to dive deep, give them fears and dreams, pepper their plot with many twists. Let them grow and breathe.
- Support POC creators. Watch their movies, read their books, listen to their music. Encourage the talented indie authors of color you know. Give them your money. Hire them for jobs. Further interacting with POC and consuming their media will also deepen your knowledge of their authentic experiences and help you if you do consider writing characters of other backgrounds into your work.
There are so many wonderful and beautiful cultures in America, and around the world, and all of them deserve to be celebrated. And all people of all colors have stories that deserve to be told. We’re a long way from reaching the authenticity and saturation we need, but every step towards richer diversity in the arts is a good one.
Thinking & Creating in Full Color
This is why increasing diversity in the arts is essential to the mission of Thinking in Full Color (TIFC), an award-winning organization that empowers women of color through education and the arts, and why I’ve spearheaded projects like our coloring book, Girls Who Colored Outside the Lines. In creating the book, I thought about how we all deserve to have heroes who look like us. Growing up as an Asian and Hispanic girl, I rarely felt represented when I turned on the Saturday morning cartoons or read books at my local library.
Girls Who Colored Outside the Lines
Growing up, we all have heroes — from cartoon characters that remind us of us, to famous people who’ve overcome the same challenges we face. But finding these heroes isn’t easy for everyone, especially young girls of color. That’s why we made Girls Who Colored Outside the Lines, a coloring book featuring groundbreaking women of color. We want to tell a dozen stories and inspire hundreds of girls.
I spoke to five of my visual artist friends and found they felt the same way, too. Together, we created this book so young kids of color could see how amazing women of color really could be! I asked each of the artists to choose someone who really inspired them. The final product contains beautiful portraits of women like Malala Yousafzai, Angela Davis, Maya Angelou, Rita Moreno, and more.
When we’re selling our books at markets or events, little girls will come up to the table and their eyes light up. They flip through the pages and get lost in each woman’s story. Then, they smile, and I think that — whether they realize it or not — it’s because they see a little bit of themselves in their new she-ro.
Summer Dawn Reyes
After seeing a need for more authentic representations of women of color in the arts, Summer Dawn Reyes created In Full Color in 2015. The theatrical production was a hit and gave rise to what is now Thinking In Full Color, an organization that empowers women of color through education and the arts. TIFC has received two commendations from the New Jersey State Assembly and the inaugural Jersey City Arts Council's Performing Arts Award.