It’s 2017, and yet the vast majority of the literary canon is white and male. As such, girls and children of color rarely see authors, protagonists, or settings that resemble them or the experiences they’ve lived. Many schools have taken up the call to read more “banned books” and diversify their literature curricula to better reflect the reality in which today’s youths live.
The importance of diversity is multi-fold in today’s globalized world. Firstly, children need to see role models and heroes that look like them if they’re to believe that their future can truly hold anything. “Representation Matters” is the rally cry for making sure young people see people who look like them achieving success.
Images of little black girls dressing up like the main characters from Hidden Figures circulated the internet shortly after the release of the blockbuster that told the long-secret story of the black women who helped launch rockets into outer space during the Space Race. Similarly, after Moana debuted, people indigenous to the Pacific Islands became more visibly proud of the rich history and cultural practices that have been left out of the mainstream media or commodified to
In addition, diversity benefits both white children and children of color by normalizing differences. In her popular podcast “The Longest Shortest Time,” host Hillary Frank talks with parents and experts about the best way to teach children (specifically white children) how to navigate a world where some children look different from them. Noted Danish professor Brigitte Vitrup has studied both academically and by experience the way white parents talk about race to their children.
Many well-meaning parents think that teaching their children that “everyone is the same” and not drawing attention to difference is the best way to keep children away from developing racist tendencies. However, in practice, teaching children that race is not a topic of discussion makes race seem “bad” and inaccessible. Parents rather need to make race a common topic of discussion and welcome questions about culture, race, language, and clothing. That way, they learn to talk about the differences properly and have a better understanding of them.
In the same way, teachers need to help students “normalize” difference by allowing them a forum to discover, explore, and question differences appropriately. Literature is a perfect place to help students empathize with characters different from themselves in several capacities. Unlike many other school subjects, English and literature require students to assume a new identity to fully understand the motives and actions of the characters. This required practice in empathy and “theory of mind” helps students internalize difference and come to peace with it.
Diversity in the literary canon will prove invaluable to an increasingly diverse student body and world at large.