During a recent trip to Chicago, my daughter and I were walking outside the Art Institute of Chicago when she observed, “English is the language I’m hearing the least here. It’s refreshing.”
Now hold that thought, and please indulge me for a minute as I hop down a rabbit trail. (I promise it’ll make sense, eventually. Well, maybe promise is too strong a word. Let’s just say I hope it will make sense.)
When I was a kid growing up in the 1960s, I was fortunate enough to attend an interracial school. Perhaps because of the heightened racial tensions we were experiencing in American culture at the time, our teachers made a point of helping us little white kids to appreciate “colored people” and even taught us Negro spirituals like “Rock My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham.” (At the time I assumed the song referred to Abraham Lincoln!)
I recall being encouraged to understand that we are all equal and all alike inside. In my childish mind, I took that to mean, people may come in different colors, but inside we’re all the same–a white person like me. I also took it to mean that a person’s color was something I was to pretend I did not see.
Now, I’m guessing you learned better than that long before I did.
But as an adult, thankfully, I do see things–particularly people–differently. I still believe we are all equal and that as humans we share many common aspirations, insecurities and needs. But it took me longer than I’d like to admit to come around to the dangers of ignoring a person’s race, or more importantly the culture associated with it. White people like me seem particularly good at making this mistake. We act like we don’t see a person’s color or race, when of course, we do. Just like people of all races “see” others who are different from themselves. For whatever reason, we see this “not seeing” as a good thing, as if being Asian or white or hispanic or black is an unspeakable impediment to be tolerated or ignored. But a person’s racial heritage and color is not something to overlook like it’s a flaw; it’s something to be esteemed and celebrated.
And so, that brings me back to my daughter’s comment about finding it refreshing to be surrounded by different languages. (We live in a very homogeneous part of the Midwest, so while I was pleased about her observation, I wasn’t exactly surprised!) It made me think about the stories I’m creating for young readers her age and a bit younger. How often do I include a character who’s outside my white, middle class world? How can I help kids understand the importance of appreciating people inside and out?
How about you? Do you lean toward the familiar or do you intentionally branch out to create characters that reflect a broader worldview or culture or color? Let me encourage you to think of ways you can enrich a young reader’s world–or make it refreshing, as my daughter would say–by incorporating more diverse characters in your story.
Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not asking you to change a main character’s name from Pete to Pedro, and call that “diversity.” You know better than that. I’m simply suggesting that when it makes sense, or maybe even when it doesn’t initially, consider how you can build richer worlds for your readers by word-painting with all the colors.
I promise I’ll do the same.
Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it. ~ Henry Ford