Navdeep Singh Dhillon argues that, all too often in books, movies, and TV shows for children, non-white characters are only defined by their “otherness.”
Growing up in England during the 1980s, where blatant racism was perfectly normal, sucked, but at least I knew where I stood. Institutionalized racism is confusing—and my daughter Kavya was all of three when she felt the isolating pain that only institutionalized racism can bring.
On New Year’s Day, we are heading out to brunch, and Kavya’s sitting on the stairs, her head in her hands. Crying. I ask her what happened. In most cases, we verbally abuse the pain-inflicting object, followed immediately by a good stomping, and that sorts things out. But this time is different. In-between muted, heaving sobs, she says something that I hadn’t expected for at least a few more years: “I want yellow hair. Like Rapunzel.” She points to the large, manga-eyed, blonde princess with tiny toothpick-wrists, smiling on her t-shirt.
It’s one of those parenting moments where time stands still. I fight the urge to say, “Rapunzel’s hair is stupid. She can go to hell.”
My wife, Sona, sits on the stairs with Kavya and tries to comfort her. Sona’s parents don’t really understand the heaviness of what Kavya is saying, and view it as just a random tantrum.
Unlike some parents I know, I don’t have a problem with Disney princesses, of willful mermaids disobeying their fathers, or the inexplicable absence of the mother, of parents disappearing from the narrative through death or being lost at sea. The stories are wonderfully told, with lovely artwork and tension. And that’s what’s important to this storytelling Papa. Morals Shmorals.
Disney has taken the passive princess trope from the Brothers Grimm and turned her into a badass, with the exception of the whole waiting for the kiss and a man to rescue her (Frozen to the rescue!). On a side note, there is something slightly off-putting about a prince who sees the dead body of a beautiful young girl in a clear coffin, and his first instinct is to kiss her. Then to assume she must want to marry him without even asking her. I hope I didn’t ruin the Brothers Grimm version of Snow White for you.
Instead of berating Rapunzel for her physical appearance, I ask Kavya if she knows who my favourite princess is. She looks up at me. “Who?”
“Princess Kavya.” I say, touching her nose. She starts crying even louder. After a bit, she says, “Why do you like Princess Kavya?”
I hold her tightly in my arms as we make our way to the corridor, where there are large cabinets encased in large mirrors. She looks at herself nervously at first, then with a bit more playfulness. “Because you’re you.” I say. “And there’s nobody in this whole world like you.”
Then I plagiarize from a book we recently read together and tell her I love her through and through. She mopily adds that she loves me more than a lot. I tell her that her middle name Kaur means princess. I leave out the part that Kaur is a combination of Kumara, which means Prince, and Kuwari, meaning an unmarried girl. “You’re a real princess. So is your daadi-ma, Navreet bhuee, and Seerit bhaina (her cousin).” Kavya squeals in laughter at the thought of her grandma as a princess. “And they all have black hair,” she adds.
“Yes,” I say. “But it’s not important what color hair you have.”
Kavya’s takeaway from that conversation was that after brunch, she wanted me to find her a video of Cinderella with black hair. She wasn’t really upset because of the lack of yellow hair. Mulan has black hair, so do Pocahontas and Jasmine, but they are pretty irrelevant as their movies came out in the 1990s, and their engagement now comes in limited capacity—cameos in other people’s shows, or as part of the Disney princess franchise.
A princess figurine collection I bought Kavya a while ago featured all of the princesses. I thought this would be a good thing. Turned out that all of the white princesses had large, flowing dresses and were able to stand properly. The brown princesses (Princess Tiana wasn’t there) are the ones that kept falling over because their feet are skinny and glued together. It must be a cultural thing. So Kavya got bored with them and opted for the sturdier princesses.
Outside the realm of movie land, there’s television land to contend with, including the TV series about that princess who was once going to be the first Latina princess: Sofia the First. Then they changed their minds, but kept the “f” in her name. The real problem is that Kavya doesn’t see herself in the stories she reads, what she sees on television, in films, and soon she will understand that white is not just a useless crayon color, but is the default for normal. Thankfully, she hasn’t had her skin color pointed out to her. Yet.
Some of my students, who are in their 20s, suffer from these same feelings of self-doubt, where they muffle their own voices or those of other students because it’s in contrast with what has been presented to them as normal. In almost all of the introductory creative writing courses I teach in New York City and New Jersey, regardless of how diverse the students are, the characters for their first stories are always white. I mean, race-neutral. That’s the polite term for it, right? It’s the only way they assume a story can be told because that’s all they’ve seen or read.
Even well-intentioned reading lists help to cement the status quo. One university, where I teach literature and writing, has a mandatory reading list of the “classics.” We instructors have to choose from this list and every single one of the writers is white, male, and dead.
A white character is presented as normal, a character we can all relate to, with universal problems, and the mere presence of a character who isn’t white immediately implies that their otherness must play a major role in the characterization. With this line of thinking, it inevitably ends up with the character being presented as caricature, where their otherness becomes their defining character trait.
Many extremely talented writers, who know all about complex characters, story structure, and the art of writing kickass stories, choose to create a mythical land that resembles our own, except it’s inhabited entirely by white people. Or race is so incompetently handled, it’s shocking, like with John Updike’s Terrorist, about an angry Muslim, who hates America, conveniently wants to be a truck driver, and plans to set off a bomb in the name of Jihad. In that same novel, an angry African-American character, a bully from the hood, whose mother is a crack addict and names him Tylenol Jones because that’s what crack addict mothers from the hood do. Top Ramen I’m assuming is choice #2.
Shockingly, The New York Times review of Updike’s 22nd novel suggested he did something much more profound than what he actually did. He wrote a book filled with intense emotion and lovely sentences, but ultimately it’s a world he doesn’t know, with hollow caricatures instead of complex characters, a novel which he spent too much time researching and not enough time weaving an actual narrative around. It’s a complete departure from his other stories, which are told with very human characters. Integrating race into a story is a craft-based issue, whether you’re a writer from a particular community or not.
In a workshop at the CUNY Writers’ Institute, there was one editor who would constantly critique my work specifically for the “ethnic” aspects, and it was incredibly grating, even when he was being patronizingly encouraging. It’s not like I was writing things with plot and characters or anything.
My wife, Sona Charaipotra, and her business and writing partner, Dhonielle Clayton, are calling bullshit on this whole approach of excluding certain voices, with their book packaging company, CAKE Literary. Whenever Dhonielle comes over to hash out concepts or work on outlines with Sona, Kavya assumes she’s come over to play with her. So that’s what usually ends up happening, which would explain why Kavya referred to Dhonielle the other day as, “Kavya’s friend and Mama’s worker.” I wouldn’t put it past Sona to say, “Worker, I’m going to put my feet up. You go and entertain my child!”
I’ve never really understood what CAKE Literary does—just the term, “book packaging,” sounds like the cloak and dagger of the publishing industry, so I’m glad Sona wrote this guest post for Latinos in Kid Lit, that not only clarified what it is they do, but more importantly why they’re doing it.
Junot Diaz (who I’m taking a workshop with at VONA this summer!) interviewed Toni Morrison at the New York Public Library and perfectly captured the “why they’re doing it” sentiment at about the hour mark:
“Shifting the narrative center of the telling, the very fact that you were sitting across from these writers as a sort of a strong kind of a north star and saying, listen you don’t have to—by default, write for a white audience, I would think that a lot of what you said really unlocked a lot of these books.”
Here is a tiny snippet of Sona’s piece on Latinos in Kid Lit that makes me momentarily sad, but also hopeful of the types of stories CAKE Literary will create, as well as the change in the literary landscape, that Kavya and millions like her, will grow up with thinking of it as “normal.”
“Growing up as a little brown girl—one of the few, back then—in small-town, suburban central New Jersey, books were my escape. I caused a ruckus alongside little Anne in Avonlea; I mourned Beth along with her sisters in the harsh winter of Maine; I honed my grand ambitions like Kristy and her babysitters’ club; I even swooned alongside Elena over the brothers Salvatore when The Vampire Diaries was originally released. (Yes, I am that old.)
But if you’ll note: in all those books and the hundreds of others I devoured, I never really saw myself, or anyone remotely like me. The majority of characters in books for kids and teens in the ’80s and ’90s were white. And, according to Christopher Myers in his recent New York Times piece, “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature,” the majority still are today, by quite a landslide.
Why is this worth discussing? Because it hurts. A lot. It’s a hit to a kid’s self-esteem to be told—silently, but oh so clearly—that their story is not worth telling, that their voice is not important.”
Now go read the entire piece here.
If you still haven’t had your fill of CAKE, find them on www.CakeLiterary.com, and connect with them on twitter @cakeliterary or Facebook. And if you just can’t wait for their novel, Dark Pointe, add it to GoodReads. I lied: you’ll still have to wait. Add it anyway.
Originally appeared on NavdeepSinghDhillon.com; Images courtesy of the author