Monday, January 19, 2015

Monday Musings: Writing about Diverse Characters (AKA How not to describe your diverse characters)

[Turns from sniffing a flower and notices readers]

Oh hi, I didn't see you there. Welcome to the post where I go on a bit of a rant.

So everyone knows that there have been big pushes to get more diverse books and authors out in kidlit (yay! #WeNeedDiverseBooks). I am 100% behind this. I love diversity in all of my entertainment, so I am down for some great reads that have diverse characters, worlds, cultures, etc.

The downside (and it sucks that there is one) is when an author tries to write about these diverse characters they come across the problem of explaining that the character is...well...not white.
(Note: diverse characters should also refer to sexuality, transgender, characters with disabilities. But this post will concentrate on the race of a character).

Seriously, having mocha skin is not a compliment. Just because you use a generally well-liked food product to describe the person as different, you're still totally comparing them to food. Am I supposed to think that coffee colored skin is tasty? Also, olive toned skin means they're green right?

This Buzzfeed article perfectly turns that trope on it's head (and yes, I know Buzzfeed is not news, but still this article is spot on). I like this article a lot because it just points out how ridiculous it is when we describe diverse characters with euphemisms and weird food-comparisons. 

Some stand out favorites from the article:

11. She had brown, wiry hair and skin that can only be described as the color of the inside of an apple. The mushy ones not the cool, crisp ones.

2. She took off his shirt, his skin glistening in the sun like a glazed doughnut. The glaze part, not the doughnut part.
And my favorite:
3. His eyes looked like eyes because they were eye-shaped, not almonds.
And speaking of that...
When it comes to describing Asians the go-to is almond-shaped eyes. Almond eyes is actually based on a racist description originating from the 1700s when white merchants and explorers wanted to describe the exotic looks of Asians (mostly women). They probably thought it was a huge compliment at the time. But the fact that it's still used today is sad because it exotifies a whole continent of people who happen to have completely different shaped eyes from one another. It also points out something different as beautiful. The problem is that it still points out how different these people are.

I don't often talk about diversity in my reviews of books, however, my former co-blogger Axie does a great job in this review about pointing out where the story went a little sideways in how it spoke about diversity.

Don't get me wrong, I am very appreciative that there are characters in books that look like me. (Growing up my only role models were Sailor Moon and the yellow Power Ranger and Totoro). However, I think that the way we talk about race and culture sometimes contributes to the problem instead of helping it.

And in my desire to read more diverse books (particularly in YA/MG), I am doing the "Diversity on the Shelf 2015" Reading Challenge hosted by My Little Pocketbooks! So stay tuned for my upcoming post about it.

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