I was planning on doing a different post today, but after this week’s conversation in the book blogging community, I felt the need to write this. It’s a post that’s been forming in my mind for a while, but it’s also a direct response to the video that’s been circulating this week (I’m not going to provide a link to it, because I don’t want it anywhere on my blog). I know this isn’t (or it least it shouldn’t be) necessary, but I’ll start off this post by saying that I am a straight, white, cisgendered female. And I think diversity – both in and outside of books – is a wonderful thing.
I grew up in an über-Republican pocket of Southern California. I also went to Catholic school for twelve years, four of which were spent in an all-girls high school. Lets just say, diversity wasn’t something I got a lot of growing up. I actually have a distinct memory of someone asking me, during my freshman year of high school, if I had any black friends (and when I responded that I did, they laughed at me). There was always an undercurrent of discrimination everywhere I went. And, while I definitely didn’t support it or take part in it, I also didn’t spend too much time exploring why diversity occasionally made me uncomfortable. For a long time, if I saw a gay couple holding hands or a man wearing a turban, I would shy away and stand by while those around me made jokes about them. My teachers and parents would take me on field trips to the Museum of Tolerance, but then teach that homosexuality was wrong. It’s only now, looking back, that I can see the irony.
Diversity means understanding. – Stuart Scott, Sportscaster
In high school, I had to take four years of religion class. My senior year, that class was “World Religions.” After years of Catholic school, I was surprised to find that this was a religion class I actually loved. I was fascinated by the different cultures and their beliefs. Having an Arabic last name (my dad is a Palestinian immigrant), I was no longer annoyed when people assumed I was Muslim. (Although I would still get pissed off when people called me a terrorist, which happened more than you’d think.) Learning about Islam gave me so much respect for Muslims, because it’s a religion that takes more dedication than I can imagine myself giving. That was also the moment I realized two things: that discrimination is a result of ignorance and fear, and that I didn’t want to be part of that.
In college, I was exposed to more diversity than ever before. There were more than two African American students in my class, and I met and became friends with people who were openly gay. As a history student, I learned about different cultures. I was shocked by how westernized my education had been. I had taken “World History” twice without ever learning how beautiful and rich the cultures of China and Africa were, or that, while Europe was futzing around in the Dark Ages, the Islamic Empire was pretty much redefining the world as we know it (during this time, they made the first books, so that right there is a win). The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn. Turns out, other people and cultures are kind of more interesting than my own.
On a whim my sophomore year, I enrolled in an ancient world literature class. This was the first time I’d really read diverse books with the purpose of reading diverse books. I don’t remember everything we read (it was eight years ago), but I know we read The Epic of Gilgamesh, Beowulf, and The Ramayana. I learned that Noah wasn’t the first great flood (and that the Bible had borrowed A LOT from other cultures – did you know the Norse god Odin was crucified?), that epic poetry wasn’t just a Greek thing, and that literature is the perfect forum for encountering and learning about people with different beliefs, cultures, etc.
I’m not going to lie: after that class, I didn’t read a lot of diverse books. I wasn’t reading all that much anyway, but I also wasn’t seeking out diverse books. It just wasn’t something I realized I should be paying attention to. Which is part of the reason I love this movement toward more diverse books. One, you’re more likely to pick up a book that features diversity in your search for books that are just plain good. And two, because literary diversity is more publicized, it’s so much easier to think about it when you’re picking out a book to read.
For me, I want to see diversity in storytelling sources because we live in a very diverse society, and the stories are for the whole society. That’s really important. – Lynn Shelton, Filmmaker
In the last three years, I have been reading much more, and reading much more diversely. I actively seek out books that feature diverse authors or characters, that are set in areas of the world I’m unfamiliar with, or that feature opinions that are different than my own. And I’ve noticed something surprising: I’ve become a better person.
I think there are two reasons reading diversely has affected me in a positive way. The first, is that I’m exposed to more cultures, religions, sexual orientations, political opinions, ethnicities, and general life experiences. I’m a firm believer that intolerance and prejudice are a direct result of ignorance. People fear what they don’t understand, and, in many cases, they lash out. Reading diversely is a great form of education, and, in my case, it made me a far more accepting person. Now, even when I encounter things with which I am unfamiliar, I’ve noticed that my initial, instinctual reaction is not one of fear. Which is a total life game changer.
Honestly, that would be enough for me, and is, in itself, worth purposely reading diversely. But I experienced another, unexpected effect. Because I was reading about so many different people and experiences, I was able to identify with the characters I was reading in new ways. Seeing myself in these characters, even though we may appear different, made me more confident. Which, in turn, made me a much nicer person.
Basically, this is my really long way of saying that reading diversely is important. For everyone. Now that I’ve been conscious of my reading decisions, I’ve noticed an enormous, positive change in my personal life. I love reading diversely, because one of the best parts of reading is exploring things that are unfamiliar to you. And when you are able to identify, on a basic human level, with someone whose life is worlds away from your own, that makes a huge difference in how you see, and treat, others.
It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength. – Maya Angelou, Poet & Civil Rights Activist