Written by: Kristel Issa
The importance of representation in literature is recognized on a broader scale. The #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign that launched a few years ago is just one of many examples of concerted efforts to give marginalized people a voice and a sense of inclusion. However, there’s still a long way to go to close the diversity gap amongst authors.
The industry pays lip service to the need for representation in the book world, but rarely is it that publishers are making the investment to pay creators of diverse backgrounds. Books about people of color are increasing and yet — authors of color are not.
For example, in 2017, only 7% of new children’s books on the market were authored by Native American, latino, and black authors combined — just 1% more than 2016. The rest of the books publishers are supporting are written by white authors.
Thirty-seven percent of the U.S. population are people of color and yet only 13% of children’s books over the past 25 years reflect multicultural experiences. If you were to look across other genres, you would find the numbers are similar.
But here’s the thing: Of those books written about African-Americans, a mere 29% were actually written by African-Americans. Again, that’s another issue that spans the Native American and latino communities as well as multiple genres. To address this, people have began using #OwnVoices to support authors who write about their own multicultural experiences, however, publishers — traditional and non-traditional like us — must actively support authors of color.
Change doesn’t happen without understanding why it needs to occur.
We’ve identified a problem, but is a lack of authors of color really a problem? Are underrepresented people being inadvertently hurt by a lack of stories that reflect their experience?
The answer is a strong YES. When a child sees themselves in books, movies, and media of all variety there’s a visible reaction. I’m sure you may have seen the video of the child with one arm who meets a woman who lost hers to the same disease. He runs and hugs her and the joy in his expression is clear.
Well, the truth is, reading about the experiences of people of color is just as critical for non-POC. If we want to build a better society, we can rely on books to show us how.
According to an article in the Scientific American, researchers at the New School in New York City found evidence that reading literary fiction improves one’s capacity to comprehend what others are thinking and feeling. The results give a clear picture of how avid readers have greater empathy and emotional intelligence.
In fact, the hardwiring of the human brain is affected by reading. If you read the word “kick,” for example, the regions of the brain related to the physical action of kicking are activated. If you read that a character climbed a rope, the area of the brain associated with gripping and pulling, increases in activity.
Even following a plot, requires readers to know what characters are thinking, how they might feel, and to be able to rationalize their behaviors. Psychologist Diana Tamir of the Princeton Social Neuroscience Lab proved that people who read fiction often have stronger social cognition. Using brain scans, she found that the areas related to understanding what others are thinking lit up while reading.
Dutch researchers had students read newspaper articles about liberation day in the Netherlands, riots in Greece, or the opening chapter from Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness, which begins with a man inexplicably going blind. After reading the story, the students’ empathy levels rose in the short-term and they scored even higher on the empathy testing a week later.
All of that is to say, books written about the experiences of people of color are a start. Books written by people of color would be a bigger step towards driving prejudice, hate, and ignorance out of this world.
If you are a POC, an immigrant, or someone who has lived on the margins of society, we want to hear from you. Please let us hear your story.