Monday, June 30, 2014

Why We Need Diverse Books

Recently, I had a rather interesting* Facebook discussion with one of my brother's friends about the issues surrounding Chief Wahoo. He felt the logo should stay. I respectfully disagreed using many footnotes. But even though it lasted less than a day, I've been thinking about the conversation ever since--how attached to a corporate logo an average person can be. How easy it is to not understand...
This is the feathered fellow, in case you don't know him.

I grew up just south of Cleveland, so this happy, smiling face is pretty much everywhere you go. It's on T-shirts, and sweatshirts, and baseball caps. We had Tribe days at school when the Indians were good enough to be in the playoffs.  A lot of people in the area love the Indians. They really, really want  Chief Wahoo to say. They see it, in part, as a tradition, in part as respect and honor. It's part of the culture. Part of tradition.

But get this--there are no federally recognized tribes alive in Ohio today. (And I'm not counting the countless people who "claim" to be part-Fill-In-Tribe-Here.) Not that you would know that from the many place names, cities, and other landmarks that use words derived from one of the many native nations that once populated the state. No, Ohio is very much tribe free, and that's because of a long and complex history of relations between Euro-settlers and people native to the area.

The Northeastern Ohioans who root for the Indians each year are not alone, though. Many people in that area--or in DC, where I live now (hello, Redskins), or in Illinois, where I went to grad school--love these images of Native Americans.
Grown Men (and Ladies) Cried During His Last Dance
That's not surprising. When your childhood is defined by ballgames with your family, rooting for the tribe, or when you picked a college because of the way your dad cheered when he took you to see Chief Illiniwek dance at halftime, or even when you watched Disney's Peter Pan and cheered for Tiger Lily's rescue and sang along to "What Made the Red Man Red," it is understandable that a person would have a real, emotional attachment to these images. To these ideas of what Native Americans are.

Ah, childhood...

For many, the images that are so hateful and hurtful to the people they represent are comforting, happy memories that have become part of their identity. To see these images as racist is to admit that maybe their hands aren't completely clean. That maybe, they were--are--wrong.

I've found from experience that people do not, on the whole, enjoy being (or admitting to being) wrong.

This dude is totally right. Totally.

This is why We Need Diverse Books.

The issues of diversity are already out there, but right now, many diverse populations are being represented by stereotypes. They are being seen in popular culture as nothing more caricatures that turn whole groups of people into types. Into things.

And let me be clear--a so-called "positive" stereotype (Native Americans are warriors, Asians are smart) is still a stereotype that can and does do real harm.

We need diverse books so that the representations change. We need diverse books because everyday, children are given shirts with the red-faced clown you see above, but they aren't given books with realistic representations of people whose experiences might be different than theirs.

We need diverse books because it's a little bit harder to chant "Save the Chief" after you've read "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian." Or at least, it should be. Once you've metaphorically walked a mile in another person's shoes, it should be harder to look at Wahoo and smile.

We need diverse books because it's harder to see others as "those people" when you've read a book that makes a character feel like a friend--or like you have felt.

I grew up without these books. It took me a long time to find them, a long time to even begin to understand the complexities of history and culture that go into a people. I decided to go to school to study these issues, and I still don't feel like I'm there yet. But for a lot of children, all they have--all they'll ever get--is Chief Wahoo.

We need shelves of books, so that Chief Wahoo and his ilk don't stand a chance. We need to give kids new heroes--realistic heroes--to root for.

We need to make sure that these hateful, racist images don't get to be the only or dominant representations out there. We need to fight for these stories the way the other side fights for their out-of-touch images.

We live in a diverse world, so we need to hear diverse voices. We need diverse stories that represent characters as individuals, so the public doesn't learns to see people rather than types.

We need diverse books.

*by interesting, I mean it was not pretty.

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