I guess this isn’t directed towards any book in particular, but the trend of books from loooong ago up to now, in the present day.
I’ve always been a proponent of diverse casts, whether it’s from sexuality to ethnicity in books, but what happens when authors make diverse characters the enemy? Or what about this: POC as the enemy for the white-casted main characters that the book follows? I’ve seen this in highly controversial books in the last year, but I hadn’t truly experienced it until recently. What I want to point out in this post isn’t just how bad or negative it is (those are just adjectives that barely cover the surface of things), but the emotion behind it. How would you feel if your culture was made the enemy of all-things-white? How would you feel if your already marginalized voice was made the enemy of the predominant race in a society that is still subject to racism, despite half a century since attaining equal rights?
Recently I started this historical steampunk romance (fine, you can call it a bodice ripper) where the enemies who have done atrocious things throughout Europe were the Mongols. And although I can see how the author started this idea, as Mongols were nomads that basically conquered every land they could throughout history, the role they played in the book was essentially a group of people that terrorized Britain and other parts of Europe. Their past actions basically contributed to a lot of racism and prejudice that is shown in the book, especially as the main character is half-Mongol (from being raped). Sure, it may reflect history – albeit one side of it – but also take in the consideration of writing such a discriminate story for this present day. Because even though this may be historical fiction, that’s not to say that it’s an excuse not to relate it back to real life presently.
I’m not Mongol, but I am Chinese. I’ve visited Mongolian villages in China and learned a lot about their history – the kind of history you don’t see in AP history classes. Because sometimes no matter how much you put into research, there’s always an aspect that you might miss, especially from a personal standpoint. I’ve sat with people in Inner Mongolia and drank yak milk tea they made and listened to their stories while looking at the border that separates the side of China in Inner Mongolia and Outer Mongolia. And seeing that group of people become known as horrible people who ruined the lives of the Europeans in that book? Vastly disappointing. I couldn’t finish the book after that. In history, you can take into account tendencies of a nation, be it their nomadic attacks or notorious reputation, but you can’t forget to take into account the other parts of their culture: the traditions, love, family values, and passion that makes up a society. By placing them into ONE group that perpetuates them as something synonymous as “evil,” then you’re not looking at the as human beings. It seems like you’re looking at them like something… else.
I keep going back to this experience and relating it to what we see in real life. You have a kid who picks up a book who sees that, “Oh! The bad characters here are dark-skinned and horrible people.” Then they see a dark-skinned person in their class and may equate that with what they read in the book. You think this doesn’t happen? In elementary school people pointed their pinky fingers at me, thinking it was equivalent to flicking me off with the middle finger. They called me out for eating dog meat, told me I couldn’t do things because of the shape of my eyes, and made me feel isolated – in my own neighborhood, no less. These were children around 8-11 years of age. Now when you think of how they may pick up a book that casts POC as enemies, those feelings will be even more reinforced. That’s like saying, “Hey, these people look different so of course we’re fighting them. They’re not like us.” And then you start seeing this discriminate story again, but now in real life.
If people don’t realize they’re reading such things, or they refuse to see the harm of it, then that’s almost something past the privilege they live. It’s just the absolute inability to put themselves in other people’s shoes and imagine what kind of emotions surrounding this particularly situation would create. When people are labeled things like “drama-causing,” “hypersensitive,” and “taking things too far,” they’re essentially shushing the voices of the hurt party, putting them under a category labeled “to mute or ignore” because of the major problems that could seem so minor for someone who won’t just take the time to try to understand from another perspective.
Justina Ireland writes a really great blog post discussing the dark-skinned aggressor trope, and how extremely harmful it can be – especially in a Young Adult book.
We see this construct in many facets of fiction, such as Westerns where Cowboys versus Indians or thrillers where the American hero (usually white) faces down a dark skinned third world villain. It’s a popular construct, and one that relies on othering people of color to make it work.
But what is difficult is realizing that these same constructs of white versus not white … exist in the real world and have a real impact on how readers perceive a story. The same cultural programming that lets us immediately recognize that the Topi and Shotet are “bad” with relatively few details are the same ones that lead to real world racial profiling and structural inequality in treatment of minorities.
The bottom line is that books like Carve the Mark and The Continent both utilize AND reinforce cultural white supremacy. It’s only because of cultural white supremacy that readers are able to code these cultures as evil. And because readers code brown-skinned people as evil in a literary context the cognitive paths for them to code brown-skinned people as evil in a real are reinforced.
It is said that history is written by the victors, and that has never been as evident for me as when I started learning history from multiple perspectives. In elementary school, we’re taught “In 1842 Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” praising a man who not only did not first see land in America, but also used violence and slavery against the indigenous people of the land to take things from them, while forcing a religion upon them and introducing debilitating disease. We learn about the absolute executive power of presidents and how great the founding fathers were in seventh grade Civics, without adding the fact that many of them were plantation owners who lived on the labors of slavery. I learned in AP World History that America sought to impede European influence in Central and South America through the Monroe Doctrine, but saw in IB Spanish the detriments of America’s own involvements in El Salvador, and how it essentially fueled the civil war that exploded in the 1980’s. The point I want to highlight it that there are always more sides of the story, but from the young ages of our lives we see the side that the victors want us to see. And that is not the most realistic, nor reflective, side that society should be presented with. That’s the side that looks away from other perspectives, with both a narrow mind and narrow heart. And that, unfortunately, is the side that some people have up until adulthood and onward.
How does this correlate to the topic? Let’s think about it. Literature, writing, stories – be it non-fiction or fiction or a fiction account of non-fiction events, they are read and they are processed. Readers listen to books; they are influenced by them; they create ideas with them. I learn from history books. I also learn from fictional books as well. But it is so easy to fall in a category of story-telling that only leads to one side’s views coming out. It is easy to fall back into what some have always learned through the history books, and have seen reflected back in real life: a harmful, non-stop cycle of negative reinforcement towards certain topics (be it racist, sexist, or any other prejudice against a group of people) that is both written in words and reflected through the actions seen in real life.
If this is still not getting through, let me give a simple example. I am a young Chinese girl who loves reading. I pick up a book, and see one of the oriental characters getting made fun of. Whether it’s being called a “chink,” comparing their face to a shark because of their squinty eyes, or even making fun of an accent. It does not get addressed in the book. That is extremely disheartening to me and I feel sad that the author chose to reflect my culture and people in that way throughout the whole book. There may be a young Caucasian girl who loves reading as well. She may pick up the same book, and see one of the oriental characters getting made fun of. But since the matter is let go and never addressed, that kind of behavior seems fine to do for her. I mean, she saw it in a book – why can’t she do it in real life? This may seem like a dumb question, but keep in mind that kids and teens are extremely vulnerable and heavily influenced by the things they see in stories. According to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion:
Adolescents and young adults are particularly sensitive to environmental—that is, contextual or surrounding—influences. Environmental factors, including family, peer group, school, neighborhood, policies, and societal cues, can either support or challenge young people’s health and well-being. Addressing the positive development of young people facilitates their adoption of healthy behaviors and helps to ensure a healthy and productive future adult population.
Okay, so this sentence was pretty clinical. But the fact I’m getting to is that seeing microaggression in stories certainly does not foster a sense of positive development for people. Literature is a pretty direct reflection of society, no matter if it’s in a fantasy, science-fiction, or paranormal setting. We are still seeing the thoughts the author chooses to present, which is what she or he is living in. And if we can’t get these microaggressions right in literature, how can we expect to progress as a community and society in reality?
Words are so powerful. They can shape a person’s thoughts. They can shape a society’s views. And none more so than Young Adult literature, specifically targeted towards a large – and important – part of the society we live in. Because what is our future but our youth? They’re the ones who will be leading the world after we’re gone, so it’s up to us to foster a safe and effectual learning environment for them to grow in – starting with the words they read.
Before you hastily call someone “dramatic” or “annoying,” place yourselves in their shoes. Imagine you’re a young, influential person and ask yourself how you would feel reading those words. How would you feel if you were made the enemy of a majority group? I know I would feel hurt, betrayed, disappointed, and even shamed at some point. I see new movies that come out and reinforce the white savior trope, or read a passage in a book about the dark-skinned enemies that like capturing the main character’s white country’s citizens to hold as hostage, and can’t help but feel disappointed with how “far” we’ve come. Because really, if you’re making POC as the enemy or reinforcing the belief of white society saving a minority, than I don’t see how different it is than the train of thought in 1700’s Europe. The fact of the matter is: it’s not the 1700’s. People are reading from across cultures, countries, and experiences. So when are Young Adult stories going to catch up with the amalgam of diversity that the world presents us?