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Diversity has been a hot topic since I started working in the publishing industry and probably a long time before that. We live in a society where our racial and apartheid past has a huge influence on the way we currently view relationships between different races.
|Image courtesy of Looks Like Me|
Black Panther was a major influence and inspiration on the next generation of black kids. Looks Like Me, a UK talent and casting agency dedicated to raising the profile of underrepresented groups, commissioned photos where kids recreate the Black Panther characters.
It was evidence of the power of representation. I like to tell this story about my grade 8 class who got excited when we read Diekie Vannie Bo Kaap by Zulfah Otto Sallies. Everyone read, finished and enjoyed the book. We later performed scenes from the same book and it was the most interactive I’ve have ever experienced my fellow class mates with a book. It was also the first book where I could see my town, my people and some of my culture being authentically written about.
But for me the power of Diekie doesn’t just lie in its authenticity, it lies in the diverse characters in the book. There wasn’t just the maid cleaning the kitchen and cooking. Or the irresponsible taxi driver cutting you off or the blue overhaul worker making the main character feel unsafe. These characters were people I knew – people who were both right and wrong, educated and uneducated, successful and unsuccessful. They were just people, not stereotypes.
At the LAPA Uitgewers Writer’s Indaba in June this year Sophia Kapp cautioned Afrikaans writers about not just creating characters of colour that they know and are mentioned above. I want to add to that. Writers need to be careful about how their main characters interact or even think about other races. With the #BlackLivesMatter movement I think we’ve all become more vigilant about racial profiling. If your heroine, who forgot to lock her car doors, suddenly remembers when a group of blue overhaul workers crosses the road in front her, I immediately judge her. While safety must always come first, why does she associate danger with the race or class?
In the past (and I'm glad I haven’t read such characters in recent years) I’ve read romances where people of colour represent the negative aspects of humanity: laziness, self-entitlement, unattractiveness. It is a method sometimes used to show how the white hero or heroine possesses these traits – is the good in the world. I have come to ask myself: Does the character really possess good traits if it has to be compared to stereotypical version of another race? To me as a reader of colour it shows a lack of maturity in the character and the writer, because I never assumed every white man I have ever met is a racist or slave owner.
In her TED Talk, The danger of a single story, Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, talks about how one story creates stereotypes. Representation is a necessity, but diversity in the portrayal of racial characters is a bigger necessity.
There is a spectrum of diverse white characters in books. That is why we don’t see Mr Darcy or Voldemort in every white man we encounter. And that is where a writer’s power lies, they show not to judge a book by the colour of its cover.
Source: Jasper, M. 2018. Kids Recreate the Black Panther Character Posters in This Awesome Photo Series