The other day I read a couple of blog posts about diversity in publishing. They were posted by a publisher who publishes diverse books. I was super excited at first, but then I realized “diversity” in these posts meant race, gender, and gender identity. I looked at the publisher’s guidelines. They want books written by “people of color” or about non-white races, non-white cultures, and non-traditional gender identities or sexuality. The request for non-traditional family structures in the stories intrigued me, until I learned that “non-traditional” meant “same sex.”
While all of the things this publisher focused on are important, there’s more to diversity than skin color and gender identity. When I was a kid, I never read books with kids like me. There weren’t any, even though I came from a white, middle class family. A lot of people might argue that all the books I read had characters like me, but there’s a lot more than skin color or economic status to a person.
I would have loved to read a book with a character who shared my struggles, but there weren’t autistic characters in books for kids or teens. I never saw books with characters born with arthritis or mentally ill parents. I never read a book that had a mom with severe asthma. Disability wasn’t a thing when it came to publishing for kids and teens, apparently, but disability was a daily part of my life.
These days, disability appears more in books, but the characters still aren’t particularly diverse. Most of the autistic characters I’ve come across (and there haven’t been many) are either low-functioning or geniuses who are great at computers and math. Even though I can sort of identify with them, I’m a high-functioning autistic of average intelligence whose talents lie in the arts and humanities. Most mental illness I’ve seen in books, which isn’t much, is portrayed with dubious believability. It generally seems to go away by the end of the book simply because someone loved the character enough or the character loved someone else enough. That’s so far from reality it’s sad.
So, when I hear people talk about diversity in publishing or the workplace, I think, “Finally! It’s time for people like me and my family to see some inclusion!” But then people go on to discuss about the importance of having more women in the technology sector, showing people of color in books and movies, and including people of diverse sexual and gender identities. These are all excellent things to do, but there’s so much more to diversity.
What about the disabled? Being in a wheelchair seems to be acceptable these days, but invisible disabilities like mental illness are still severely stigmatized. Autism is acceptable, but only if you have talent with computer programming. Non-traditional family structures (i.e. step-families, foster siblings, adopted kids) show up sometimes, but the very real struggles those situations involve aren’t always portrayed in a realistic manner or at all.
We need to push for true diversity, where all minorities and marginalized groups are included. Don’t put limits on what’s diverse and what isn’t. True diversity includes people from all groups without a second thought. It sees people as people, each as important and valid as the next. It celebrates the differences of each individual, but it also celebrates the similarities. It expects equal representation and treatment for everyone regardless of what group (or groups) an individual identifies with. True diversity is a beautiful thing, but we still have a long way to go before we reach that goal.