2016 might just be the Year of Diversity. Everyone (or at least everyone on Twitter) is waking up to the fact that our books, movies, and TV shows are strange pale worlds, completely cut off from the reality of everyday life. We now have friends, colleagues, neighbors, even relatives, from cultures that are different from the one we grew up in. This is what real life looks like now. So why don’t publishers and film makers acknowledge their bias, or worse, continue to perpetuate cringe-worthy stereotypes of the Other?
Thankfully, Diversity Champions everywhere have stepped in to reverse decades of mis- (or non-) representation. We need these tireless supporters to push against monocultures and create a richer world of fiction in print and on screen. We need them to condemn cultural appropriation and stereotyping. And we definitely need these folks to force change, like the pulling of ‘A Birthday Cake for George Washington’ by Scholastic earlier this year.
However, a hidden danger lurks beneath this clamor for diversity. With the rush to celebrate anything different, we are giving out congratulatory hugs to every character that is not mainstream (read: white), without cross-checking the facts. Would such-and-such person really live this way, speak like that, or even have that name? Aziz Ansari’s character in Master of None, for example, was diminished by his name – Dev Patel – completely at odds with his Tamil Muslim origins. Yes, the show was ground-breaking, but did Aziz choose ‘Dev Patel’ to fit with the average viewer’s construct of Indianness? Troubling, to say the least.
The portrayal of South Asians, in particular, is still evolving. It is painful that this still needs to be explained – South Asia, the Middle East, South-East Asia, and East Asia are very different regions. Each of these subdivisions of a vast continent has unique histories, language groups, and cultural ties. South Asia is particularly diverse. Our people represent almost every race and religion. We speak hundreds of languages and have distinct social practices. We don’t all wear saris and bindis, practice Yoga, celebrate Diwali, or enjoy Bollywood movies. And no, we don’t speak Indian/Pakistani or perform ‘Indian’ dances at the drop of a hat.
This is where Diversity Champions really need to up their game. When reading (or watching) a ‘diverse’ story, check the facts. Question things that fit too neatly with your ideas of a certain culture or people. We need Authenticity, not just Diversity. Stories should be grounded in real people; they should showcase (and celebrate) genuine differences in culture and perspectives. We definitely do not need Coldplay’s strange exoticism nor do we need picture books with Indian princesses who live in the Taj Mahal. Marginal diversity can be more damaging than a complete lack of representation.
This post is the second in a series called Cutting Chai, a place for musings on indie publishing.