Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Invisible Diversity

Diversity in young adult fiction: There's plenty of great information out there already about that topic. In fact, before I get any further, I'll just leave this here:

Diversity in YA

That's a link to the Diversity in YA blog, founded by fantastic YA authors Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon.  Read it.  Talk about the stuffs on it.  Really.

There, that's done.

Now a little story.

I was driving my daughter to daycare last week and passed a fellow mowing his lawn.  Nothing unusual, except that he was black.  In our predominantly white and Hispanic town, there was only one black family that I knew of, and I had met them a few times and knew where they lived.  This guy was new.  "Yay!" I thought.  "Our town just got a little more diverse."

And it had.  But as I drove on, I thought about that happy-fuzzy feeling that "diversity" gives us (I get it looking around my workplace, for instance--a mix of races and backgrounds and ages all working together) and how, well...

...it's kind of a lie.

Not a complete lie.  Not at all.  The visible diversity that we can see absolutely represents real diversity.  But how much invisible diversity do we encounter?  How often do we dismiss a group as "not diverse" based only on what we can immediately see?

Thinking about it, my little town was pretty darn diverse even before our new neighbor moved in.  A fairly even mix of white and Hispanic families, some who had lived on the same plot of land for generations, some who just moved to town, some who just moved to this country (and not just the non-white folks--we have a decent sized population of newly naturalized Eastern European born citizens).  Farmers who are bound to the land and commuters who jog over to the next big town and live a more urban lifestyle.  People who speak English, Spanish, Polish, and Mandarin.  Gay and straight.  Folks with disabilities and able-bodied folks.  A huge range of educational levels and socio-economic statuses.

Having more people of color in young adult fiction is absolutely a worthy goal, but thinking about the kinds of diversity a small Midwestern town can contain made me consider all the ways that diversity can be invisible--unless we deliberately encounter it.

It also made me the issue of inclusiveness in my own fiction, whether or not it's by including people of color, more present as I worked on a draft yesterday.

A few ways I propose that diversity can be invisible, but no less important:

1) Sexuality.  Unless you're privy to an individual's personal life, their sexual orientation is not necessarily immediately apparent.  And as Malinda Lo mentions in her Guide to LGBT YA, it may not even be important to the story or part of what the audience is "introduced" to about a character.  Still, as writers, we often recognize that every character in our story is  the hero of his or her OWN story. If that's part of his or her story, don't ignore it, even if it's not a "visible" part of the character's self-portrayal.

2) Invisible Physical Disabilities.  We're used to associating physical disability with visual representation--a wheelchair, crutches.  But someone with debilitating arthritis, for instance, might not use a crutch, even though it impacts their daily life.

Let's not forget visual and hearing impairments, either.  Someone can be hearing or vision impaired but not what we think of as "Deaf" (unable to hear completely) or "blind" (again, complete lack of vision).  I have a friend who is severely hearing impaired, but with the use of hearing aids has functional hearing.  Not perfect, and it's still a challenge for him--but he's also not "visibly" Deaf, for example, by using ASL.

3) Other Invisible Disabilities and Variance in Mental Health.  With  more attention paid to the autism spectrum and processing disorders, invisible disabilities are getting more attention than they used to.  Which is a good thing.  Still, an awareness that people might be working through life with invisible disabilities, and that mental health issues are often silent, can help you create a richer cast of characters.

4) Socio-economic Differences.  A group of people might not visibly represent a range from poverty to affluent--but the range might be there.  Recently, we've become more aware that people struggling with poverty don't always look poor, but I haven't noticed this seeping over into how characters are portrayed very often (unless it's a story *about* that issue).  Rich kids are rich and saddled with all the markers as such--new car, expensive clothes, their house has a pool.  Poor kids live in the trailer park and have worn-out sneakers.  Most characters are just kind of comfortably middle class--which seems to be the "default" the way that "white, non-ethnic background" is a sort of default for race.  Diversity means diversity in all kinds of backgrounds--finances included.

5) Language and Culture.  Just because two people share the same race doesn't mean they share the same culture.  Two people might both check "African American" on the census, but my friend from South Africa has a very different cultural background than my friend whose family has lived in Chicago for several generations.  As I mentioned earlier, my area has a decent-sized Polish population, and that makes for cultural differences between people who, though they look very similar, have very different cultures.

And that's not even getting into language.  Speaking a different language, knowing more than one language, speaking one language at home and another at school, learning a language late, or learning a language others in your family don't know--all these can add to diversity.

None of this means that we *shouldn't* continue to include people of color.  But I propose that considering less visually obvious kinds of diversity can make us more sensitive to all ways in which people are diverse.  Being sensitive to this, being aware and inclusive, helps us to write the diverse casts that fully represent the people who make up our world.

It also opens up ways to consider diversity for those times when including people of color doesn't make sense--there are times and places in history and today where it would be out of place, and I'm not prepared to say we shouldn't write about those.  Even in those settings, however, we're still offered plenty of opportunity to engage diversity on other levels.

What are some unique ways you've encountered diversity in books or movies?  What about your own writing?

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