I am rarely conscious of my minority status. I’m just not. Call it a blessing, privilege, whatever you want, but the fact remains that though my identity is important and does shape who I am, but it’s not a definitive part of me.
Yesterday, however, I became acutely aware that I was the only visible minority in the room, and my professor confirmed my thoughts, admitting that she wanted to seek my perspective on the topic of why multicultural literature is important but didn’t want to single me out, either, for being the token minority. I appreciate her honesty, it’s just a very weird feeling to be so acutely aware of something that usually is not on my radar, and who would have thought it would crop up in children’s literature class, of all places.
But in some ways, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. We discussed multicultural literature in class this week, and I found it mildly uncomfortable listening to a group of white women discuss vetting an author’s background to see if they (white authors) were creating authentic works of fiction concerning people of color.
Not only did this attitude make me uneasy, it also misses the point entirely of one of the articles we read for class, wherein the author summed up my thoughts on the matter quite nicely. It’s not imperative that an author stick only to what they know, what they have experienced. I don’t believe that for a moment. However, it is important that the author has attempted to understand the culture/people they are writing about, that to paraphrase the author, they have gone inside that culture rather than writing solely from an outside perspective.
So that’s part of what’s on my mind after class today.
The other thing that I can’t stop thinking about is how surprisingly raw it felt as I spoke my feelings out loud to a class of peers who, I’m pretty certain, don’t understand firsthand, why I thought it was important to have multicultural books in the collection. Maybe it’s because I’d just had a similar conversation over Thanksgiving with Julia, about how both of us felt frustrated by the lack of books that spoke to our experiences growing up not as immigrants adjusting to a foreign culture, but as Americans with two distinct, equal cultural identities.
Or maybe it had to do with my lack of sleep, but I found myself on the edge, emotionally, as I realized that as a child, there were no books written for me, or about me. I read books about immigrants, books about Japanese-Americans living in internment camps, books about Jewish kids who identified first and foremost as Dutch or German or whatever and then as Jews, if at all, but there were no books that spoke to me, that told my story.
There were no books talking about what it’s like to have two cultural identities, nothing that reassured me that it was ok to feel confused, embarrassed, to want to fit in. Nothing that taught me to be proud. I never read a book where the character’s ethnic or religious identity wasn’t somehow just a facet of who they were rather than being the predominant trait about them, and don’t you forget it. I told my classmates that I genuinely believe that having access to these kinds of books would have helped me process and understand being different while being more or less the same, and attempted to convey how powerful an experience it was to get to college and find out that yes, in fact, there are plenty of books out there that talk about growing up South Asian in the diaspora. The books I read in that class had a profound impact on me, but it took 19 years and a chance offering of a class in South Asian diasporic literature to realize that there were books written by adults, for adults, that talked about these experiences and conflicts.
But there remains nothing for kids.
And that, to me, is a big, big hole in contemporary children’s literature. It’s not the only gap – two of the standard texts used to discuss gay parenting with humans as the protagonists, My Daddy’s Roommate and Heather Has Two Mommies are nearing 20+ years old. The fact is, America, and by extension, our classrooms and communities are growing ever more diverse. California will be a minority-majority state in less than forty years. Now, more than ever, there is a need for quality children’s literature written for minority kids, not kids who’ve just arrived from a foreign country (though acknowledging their experiences is also important), but kids who are growing up here, who are American, but who straddle two or more cultural identities in their daily lives.
Those stories need to be told, but they haven’t, and it’s made me determined that, as soon as I think of a suitable plot line, I’m going to try to write such a book. Someone needs to do it, so why not me?