Diversity in Single Serving Slices

Comments: 1



Earlier this year, Disability in Kidlit asked its contributors the following question:

Why is it that diversity in young adult, middle grade, and children’s literature is often represented as an either/or, without intersectionality? Characters can either be autistic or gay, for example, or a wheelchair user or Black, but rarely both. Why do you think we see so few characters who are marginalized in more than one way?

We thought Day Al-Mohamed’s response required its own post …

I love this question and thank you for asking it!  I want to take a moment to begin with the idea of identity and advocacy and movements.  So, political messaging aside, during President Barack Obama’s speech on his second inauguration he referenced several historic civil rights movements; he referenced Selma, he referenced Seneca Falls, and her referenced the Stonewall riots.

When the world talks about rights and identities, these discussions have been shaped by their history and, in general, when examining these rights movements, while parallels and comparisons have been made, they are still described as separate struggles.  And the sad thing is, by the discourse taking that track, it inevitably erases those individuals who have more than one identity. Whether intentional or not, individuals find themselves relegated to one identity over another finding themselves never fully able to hold close all parts of themselves.

In an article from Britney Wilson, “Black, Female, and Disabled: The Disintegration and Continuation of Struggle” and her experience at a historically black college and university (HBCU) she said,

As I sometimes imagine many black women must have felt during the Civil Rights Movement and Black Liberation Struggles, I realized that my identity consisted of more parts than I had previously allowed myself to admit, and that I had my own issues to consider that were not being addressed. I was not necessarily black or a black woman first anymore because a lack of plans and accessibility problems forced me to acknowledge that while black and black female empowerment oozed from every corner and crevice of campus, I was still in the minority when it came to my disability. [emphasis added]

This seems to be a case where art imitates life, or to be more accurate, a case where art imitates the perception of life. People are perceived as being gay or autistic or black and usually one of those identities is the “defining” one.  If we are already seeing the “real world” in this sort of compartmentalization, seeing it in fiction becomes a natural outgrowth of these assumptions.   Assumptions that if you are, as an example, autistic and Black, the former “trumps” the latter and the story and/or characterizations will highlight that, ignoring completely how family, culture, society, and other environmental factors impact how that individual engages with others and the world around them.

And of course this comes full circle as the depiction in the media and in fiction of specific subpopulations affect public perceptions, which ultimately have a real impact on people’s lives every time their fate depends on how they are perceived by others.[1], [2]

Just as we strive for accuracy in depicting disability in “kidlit” and we engage with advocacy that supports the need for greater diversity (#WeNeedDiverseBooks) in fiction, it is just as critical to recognize that “diversity” doesn’t live in a vacuum, or necessarily exist on its own, like singles slices of American Cheese – individually wrapped. 🙂 We are the sum of our experiences and influences. We are more than a single defining factor.

And that isn’t easy.  Everything we see in the world, even our own psychology, likes “neat and tidy boxes,” our politics and perceptions, and even fiction teaches us to categorize and simplify.  So when it comes to writing we have to be willing to examine, with suspicion, our own character creation and world-building. We should always be able to “Walk all the way around a character.”  That means working hard not to fall into the traps we have been taught. We lament two-dimensional characters in fiction.  Embracing that characters, just like people can have multiple identities and even conflicting feelings about those identities, as well as how that impacts how the world responds to them is a part of good writing, not just diverse writing.

[1] Dong, Q., & Murrillo, A.P. (2007). The Impact of Television Viewing on Young Adults’ Stereotypes Towards Hispanic Americans. Human Communication, 10 (1), 33-44.

[2] Entman, R.M., & Gross, K.A. (2008). Race to Judgment: Stereotyping Media and Criminal Defendants. Law and Contemporary Problems, 71 (93), 94-133.

About Author

Day Al-Mohamed

Day Al-Mohamed is author for the novel “Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn: A Steampunk Faerie Tale,” written with Danielle Ackley-McPhail.  Day hosts the multi-author blog “Unleaded: Fuel for Writers” and edited the anthology, Trust & Treachery, just released May 1st, 2014.  In addition to speculative fiction, she also writes comics and film scripts. Her recent publications are available in Daily Science Fiction, the Crossed Genres anthology Oomph - A Little Super Goes a Long Way, Sword & Laser, and GrayHaven Comics' anti-bullying issue “You Are Not Alone.”  She is an active member of the Cat Vacuuming Society of Northern Virginia Writing Group, a member of Women in Film and Video, and a graduate of the VONA/Voices Writing Workshop.


1 Comment

  1. First I agree we have to stop looking at characters and people in 2 dimensions.The problem is I think we have gotten lazy, and it is not just with writing but everything. Because of Christmas I find myself reading these tiring Christmas stories with the tiny Tim character. I would love to see in one book or one movie why we should care about “Tim” Tim is said to bring joy to all that meet him but that is vague. I think as a writer we need to stop with the vagueness of it all, It is ok to say Tim was a child you would nervously approach and foolishly thought poor child as you took your seat next to him, but after minutes of talking to Tim you realize this child was funny, He seemed to be able to look past his own problems and notice the world and the people around him, Before you knew it you realized you were missing more of the world around you than Tim was, Tim took the time to notice peoples strange habits on performing everyday tasks. Tim took the time learn sounds and smells and could tell you what was going on in the kitchen before anybody started to cook. Tim also had dreams, and because of these skills of observation could judge what he could and couldn’t do around the house. This my friend is what we call writing, it is an author getting to know about their character not just introducing them and then saying “Ok route for the underdog now” This is saying here is a person who has a purpose and it is to show us you are routing for this person because the world be a lesser place with them,