Chatterbox: When “Diversity” Isn’t Actually Diverse

September 9, 2016 by Jeann @ Happy Indulgence | Books, Chatterbox


Lately the diversity debate has been strong, and I thought it was apt to share my thoughts on when books misrepresent diversity. It’s great to see more authors including multi-cultural characters and people from different walks of life in their books, and it’s definitely refreshing to read about characters who aren’t your standard Caucasian girl in a middle class family living in America. While it’s great to see yourself represented in a book, it’s actually quite disappointing when it’s addressed incorrectly or in a misrepresented way, which happens more often than not.

When is diversity being used as a cheap marketing tactic rather than actually representing a culture? The key problems I’ve had with “diverse” books is outlined below:

1. Cultural Misrepresentation

We all want to read diverse books that feature different cultures, subcultures, mental/ physical conditions and sexual orientations. But when so called diverse books do feature them and they’re not given the accurate representation or attention that they deserve, it creates another problem. Those who are actually from said cultures can tell that it’s being misrepresented or type-casted, and it creates an even bigger issue. Because for readers who don’t know any better, they’d think it’s great that it’s diverse and that diversity is being represented, but actually, it isn’t really done properly with justice.

2. Incorrect Language

There’s also books that include cultural heroines, or mythology from different cultures, but with issues when it comes to that. For example, The Girl From Everywhere featured a Persian love interest and a half-Chinese main character, but you could’ve slapped any other culture onto there and it wouldn’t have made a difference to the story. Jo from Word Revel covered the incorrect Chinese used in this novel perfectly. Then you’ve got Cress which included Chinese titles that were used incorrectly covered by Tory from Paper O’Clock. There’s also criticism that Love That Split the World misrepresented Native Americans.

If we as readers are able to pick up these errors in Chinese writing, then why has it never been picked up in the publishing process? For instance, if you really wanted to do it justice, why not conduct more extensive research on Google to ensure you’re properly representing the language or the culture – or get it checked by a Mandarin speaker through the publishing process to ensure it’s correct? Of course, I acknowledge the hundreds of dialects in China that the novel could be featuring, which I’m definitely not an expert on.

3. Characters from Different Cultures

Where are the books that actually do feature say a Chinese/Indian/Filipino/Italian or other cultural family living in America/England/Australia? Out of the hundreds of YA books I’ve read in my life, the only books that I’ve read that have done this well are Australian YA which champions diversity in an accurate and representative manner. Such books include The First Third by Will Kostakis (Review here), The Book Thief by Markus Zusak or Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta, which we all had to study in high school.

4. Mixed Ethnicity is Not Represented Well

I asked Jo from Word Revel to provide some thoughts around the representation of mixed ethnicities and how it’s represented in fiction. You can read her full post here.

I’m of multiracial descent, was raised in a bi-ethnic household and lived abroad most of my life. My family moved around a lot when I was younger until we finally settled in Singapore, a nation that prides itself in its multiracial society. This reality sheds a little light on how misunderstood people who cannot be neatly boxed in are. It’s also an internal struggle of identity. With a Caucasian parent and an Asian one, where do I belong?

Intricacies on a cultural level, sadly, are hardly represented in YA literature. Yes, The Vow by Jessica Martinez examines what it means to be caught between two countries, and two different cultures. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz touches a little on what it means to be Mexican while living in the USA. However, such concerns are a rarity.

Granted, I have read a number of newly published books that featured multiracial characters over the past year. Notable ones include The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig, London Belongs to Us by Sarra Manning, and The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness. I’m absolutely delighted by the increasing inclusion of multiracial characters. However, the multicultural backgrounds weren’t all too pronounced in these stories.

During my teenage years, I found only one book about a biracial character. I don’t recall the title but it was about a Filipino-American girl visiting her relatives in the Philippines for the first time. It meant so much to me to read about someone discovering her roots. Knowing that there were others out there who also could relate meant the world to me.

While it’s great to see that more books featuring diverse cultures and themes being published, I still think we have a long way to go when it comes to actually representing cultures in an accurate way. While I can appreciate authors and publishers ensuring there’s more diversity in the books that are published, I think readers would also appreciate more care when it comes to representation and accuracy. Books that simply mention or feature cultural representation are simply capitalising on the fact that we’re all hungry for diversity.

What do you think of cultural representation in ‘diverse’ novels? Do you have any recommendations for novels that do this well?

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Jeann is an Aussie YA blogger and mum who loves to read and recommend books! You can usually find me fangirling about books on my various social media channels including Twitter @happyindulgence, Instagram and Youtube.

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45 responses to “Chatterbox: When “Diversity” Isn’t Actually Diverse

  1. bookwormgirls123

    Oh, I completely agree! It's so neat when diversity is incorporated well into books, but when it's not, I'd actually rather it not be there. If you're going to write about something and GET IT PUBLISHED, you need to do your thorough research and make sure you're completely accurate with what you're saying.
    My recent post I love my library so much. What about you?

    • Yeah, while it\’s a great thing to have it included, sometimes it can be more harmful if you\’re misrepresenting the culture/etc. or if it\’s just a stereotype.

  2. […] If you have been existing on the Twitter for the past month, you may have noticed some conflict going around concerning diversity in books and its necessity. I personally think that diversity is extremely important to be represented as accurately as possible whether that be #ownvoices authors or otherwise. Jeann from Happy Indulgence posted a blog post about misrepresentations and inaccurate portrayals of diversity which I think is a great discussion and it can be found HERE. […]

  3. Thank you Chantal! It's so important if someone wants to write diversity into their novel, to do it well and not just use it as a throwaway or stereotype which is even more frustrating. I don't think an author with intention to do it well is necessary taking anything away from another author. What they should try to do is focus on doing it empathetically and with research.

  4. This is such a brilliant post, Jeann! Sorry for the short comment I'm about to leave, but you've said everything brilliantly and I feel like there's nothing else I can really add. Misrepresentation can be so harmful especially when it's put across so much that it becomes "normal" to majority groups. I wish authors would do adequate research before writing about certain things. It's even worse when authors aren't willing to listen to criticism from the actual group they're writing about – that just seems so ignorant to me.
    My recent post Rapid Reviews: Cinder, Daughter of Smoke and Bone & A Darker Shade of Magic

    • No problems, it can definitely be harmful if everything thinks it's great representation when it definitely isn't. Yeah, I can see authors trying to do better now which is a good sign for change!

  5. Oh, the language errors is something that really peeves me, Jeann! I am Norwegian (so I speak and read Norwegian, plus I can read Swedish and Danish) and I live in a French-speaking country. And more often than not, when there is either French or a Scandinavian language included in the books I read, there are mistakes. Very easily fixed mistakes, and it really makes me mad that not enough has been done to make the foreign language mirror what happens out in the world!
    I have had the same problem with culture, too, and it makes me sad that this continues to be a problem.
    Great post!
    My recent post Thirsty Thursday and Hungry Hearts #82 – Her Halloween Treat

    • I'm so glad that you say that Lexxie! It seems to be something so simple but it's often passed by in the editing process which is frustrating, because sometimes googling will fix it right up itself. Yeah, I hope to see more representative books soon.

  6. paperwanderer

    I agree with all your points! Incorrect language really frustrates me too. I wish I could read that biracial book about a Filipino-American teenager because I'm always on the look out for books with Filipino characters. I'm hoping to read Iris and the Tiger by Leanne Hall soon because a friend recommended it – an Australian book written by a biracial author. Another book blogger friend shared some books on her instagram which I want to check it out:

    I've only read a few books with biracial characters: The Agency: A Spy in the House by YS Lee, Skim by Mariko Tamaki and The Astrologer's Daughter by Rebecca Lim. Each of these books explores different but still tense experiences of growing up with two cultures (or lack thereof in the case of The Astrologer's Daughter which shows what it's like to grow up without the knowledge of another culture.) Though I'd love to read a book with a more balanced portrayal of the great things about two cultures as well as the things that cause tension (which is why I love Melina Marchetta.)

    As for good book recs, I liked Becoming Kirrali Lewis and Cloudwish (an example of a well-researched book that follows a character outside of an author's immediate culture). I also recommend The Sea Is Ours: Tales from Steampunk Southeast Asia which is my favourite scifi anthology ever. It also has short stories set in Singapore & I reviewed it here:

    • Ohhh I have heard of Iris and the Tiger, it sounds fascinating! I just received a book with a Filipino character in the mail, it's called Something In Between by Melissa De La Cruz. I hope you enjoy that book if you check it out!

      I actually haven't read The Astrologer's Daughter but some of my blogger friends weren't a fan so I put it aside. YES I love Melina Marchetta as well, she is so freaking awesome! I can't wait to read Cloudwish, I've seen it recommended. I liked Becoming Kirrali Lewis as well, even though things got a bit convenient towards the end. Thank you so much for all your wonderful recommendations!

  7. kourtnireads

    I agree with pretty much everything you've said here. It's great that authors and publishers are trying to be more inclusive, but it's so important that it is done correctly. Because like you said, if it's not accurate, it seems like the author or publisher is including diversity just to either make money (because hey! This is one of the only YA books that represents X culture) or to avoid criticism for lack of diversity. But I think inaccurate representations can be just as harmful if not worse than no representation because you're feeding into stereotypes and giving people the idea that this is how a certain culture is or how a certain group of people live and you're just completely missing the mark. If someone doesn't know anything about the culture being represented and they read your book to learn more, you had better be giving an accurate representation of it.
    Great post on a very important topic!
    My recent post WWW Wednesday (9/14)

    • Yeah, unfortunately a lot of what I've seen is addressing it and just including it in a throwaway or non-representative manner which can end up being harmful which is a shame. I comnpletely agree, I don't want to see it done just on a shallow basis but actually do it properly you know? Thanks for your comment!

  8. THIS. I completely agree. The least we can do is have all those elements you've mentioned – incorrect representation, incorrect language, etc – checked before the book is published. Thanks for sharing and, as always, fabulous post! <3

    • I know, there are so many frustrating things about it and I look forward to the day where it's just the norm. Unfortunately so many books are just including it for the sake of it.

  9. Yeah, it's definitely a hard topic to broach! Despite all the research and everything that goes into it, I think it's a hard one to get right because of cultural misappropriation. I just want to see a diverse character who's actually a person and not just their stereotype you know?

  10. I think this is one of the things that scares me away from writing and putting anything I write out there for people to read.

    I have no idea how to write characters that would be considered diverse. I grew up in a very small town around mostly straight white people. Writing characters with cultures and lives I have never encountered is nearly impossible without messing something up. I don't want to misrepresent or offend anybody.

    And not having these types of characters in any book I potentially write brings on a whole different kind of scrutiny. I guess the best choice to make would be to go the fantasy route and be as original as possible.

    • I really don't want to put anyone off from writing diverse characters into their novel, and I'm sorry that I may have come across that way. Thank you for the honesty in saying that though. I love your solution in focusing on fantasy and being as original as possible. My point is, if diversity is going to be included in the novel, to not stereotype or misappropriate it. Research and checking with your group who are in the diverse, no matter how small it is, speaks volumes for its accuracy. Thank you for speaking up Marie!

  11. Couldn't agree more! There's this balance that authors are teetering where the need for diverse books is warranted and for it to be culturally appropriate. This is why I believe it's more important to look at authors with #ownvoices and look to them as leaders. Like you said earlier if they could research a million ways to murder someone, they can do the same and make sure their books are correct.

    As for me being Filipino, I have only once read a book from a Filipino girl's perspective. One book out of the many books I have read, just one. It was written by an author who is Filipino herself and I could easily relate (finally). I really believe that it's important to voice our opinions and I'm so glad you brought this topic up. Kudos Jeann <3
    My recent post Review: ‘Legacy of Kings’ by Eleanor Herman

    • Thank you so much for your support on this topic Giselle! I'm sick of getting excited about a book that is so-called diverse, and then being sorely disappointed because it's not actually done with justice. I love own voices books, but I also love authors who set out to write diverse books and put the research and the effort into it to do it well.

      I actually received a book with a filipino main character in the mail this week – Something In Between by Melissa De La Cruz.

  12. Ah, this is such an incredibly important topic, Jeann! You've done such an amazing job outlining it, too! This is hard because of course I have thoughts on it, but I worry that people will feel like it isn't my place? But I mean, I am 100% for appropriate, responsible diverse representation, so there's that. While obviously the authors have a responsibility to do their research and try as hard as humanly possible to ensure they're providing the most accurate information possible, I think that the real failure lies in the process. I mean, it's easy for ONE person to make an error, but how do literally DOZENS of people also make these errors? Like you said in reference to the Mandarin language errors, I can see how one person could make a mistake, but you'd think that with such an important issue, there'd be SO MUCH fact checking- and there simply isn't, which is where I think things are really falling apart. Not that the author should have no accountability, of course- just that it goes so much deeper than that.

    I also think that, aside from outright errors and misrepresentation or (even worse) stereotypes, there are many ways that someone can experience a culture. What I mean is, not everyone from a particular culture (or race, or ethnicity, or sexuality or gender identification or disability or ANY aspect of life) has the same experience. So sometimes, I worry that authors are being a bit too judged by ONE person's experience, when really, we all experience things differently, so of course a character- and most certainly a diverse character- would too. Again, I don't mean this in terms of misrepresentation, because that is not ever going to be okay- nor should it! I just mean, I have seen some people criticizing authors- even authors using own voices!- for the way they portrayed something, but I feel like it is entirely unfair to critique someone in that way, especially on their OWN experiences.

    I also do get what Cait was saying about the fear of authors getting slammed. I mean, I think that there's a line between education and shaming. And if an author genuinely is trying, I think shaming sends the worst message possible, because it IS preventing people from trying their hardest to write diversely. Because if they get 99% of it right, and make one mistake… well, isn't that better than not even trying? I guess that is my viewpoint. And then of course hopefully everyone would learn from the mistakes that ARE made, and it would lead to fewer instances of misrepresentation, but at the same time still encourage diverse writing. But those are just my two cents haha. Or novella, whichever 😉 Awesome post, Jeann!
    My recent post DNFing: Why I Cannot be Trusted

    • Thank you Shannon, it's something that's been on my mind for a while and I thought it would be perfect timing to raise this discussion. Everyone has a place in this discussion Shannon! All voices are important when it comes to this topic.

      Yeah, that's the thing – if we don't have a diverse range of editors, publishers, authors, then it's not going to be representative of diverse stories, if that makes sense. That's a kettle of fish I don't really have the brain power to comment on.

      I see your point when it comes to the own voices too, and judging things like dialect is something outside of my experience. Perhaps I'm wrong in assuming that the language was incorrect and I need to do research to see whether it is actually correct – in another dialect (there are literally 100s of different Chinese languages outside of the norm).

      I don't want authors to feel like they can't please us when it comes to diversity, or that "you're damned if you do, and you're damned if you don't". What I'm saying is that if you're going to do it, at least try to do it right. Don't just include a character in there that is diverse and just include them as a stereotype. Unfortunately this is something that I see far too often.

  13. anotherafterthought

    Cultural misrepresentation is a bit of a doozy especially when there's an active intent to do and "mean well". The dangerous thing, I find, isn't that there's a lack of authorial intent to write these settings or characters into fiction but it's that they aren't able to be vetted in the same light as Team Internet's scrutiny. It's a difficult thing because how can you properly account for the hundreds of Chinese dialects if you're trying to soundly "represent" the voice of one (see: "1") Chinese perspective. Notice how I didn't say MC since we're the new meta protagonist via. tag-a-long side character-ism?. But I digress. So then when readers come to the realization (canon or otherwise not) "oh, look, you didn't specific they're Hakka…I totally thought they were Hunan!", it's a bit too late and no one really wins.

    That's why I find that specificity and research goes a long way to narrow down the voice trying to be written. Bonus points for allowing intersectional dynamics to shine through too; which is a whole another topic in and of itself. It doesn't have to always be "right" but at the same time it can't be based on some far reaching stereotype being perpetuated.

    But yeah, I won't even get into works that have pretended to know wtf they were talking about when based on newsworthy outlets or alternative media. Don't even get me started with cultural appropriation and exoticism. I'm ouuuuuuuutta here.
    My recent post [Alternatives] – Movie Review – The Light Between Oceans (2016)

    • I love that point that you made Joey, you are completely right – there is no way you can represent all dialects and no single person can point out and say that something is incorrect. I do appreciate the authorial intent and the intent to do it right, particularly for #ownvoices authors. But more than recently, I'm seeing so many "diverse" books throwing in cultures, subgroups, LGBT characters – who aren't even given a mention or a second thought, as a bid just to be diverse. That's not good enough.

      I love books that feature intersectional diversity, because the author has made a conscious effort to include it. There aren't enough books like that. Hopefully they become the norm.

  14. WEll, this is the Catch 22, isn't it. It's so difficult because we WANT authors to represent more diversity but then it's so hard to do it right. Actually, the book that I reviewed today has a bit of that – but it's not cultural diversity but sexual orientation. (It's the linked up review, if you're curious.) It was one of those cases where I felt like a lot of diverse sexual orientations were included, but then it felt a little bit like they were thrown in for no other reason but to be more diverse. And I wrote a note about it in the negatives part of my post, but I actually kind of cringe at doing that because part of me says that there are plenty of people who WANT those characters there, and who am I to say they felt forced? It's a really tough question, and cultural diversity is similar!
    My recent post Assassins: Discord by Erica Cameron – Review, Author Playlist & Giveaway

    • I know, there is nothing more frustrating to see when it's just thrown in for the sake of it, or because peopel are asking for it. That is not enough. It needs to be done well and properly.

  15. inlibrisveritas

    Diversity is definitely tricky. I think a lot of authors fall into the Google trap these days. Instead of asking someone with knowledge on the subject, they simply google the hell out of it. I mean it is easy to do that, but it's important to get that second, very real, opinion from someone with more personal experience than a list of articles that may or may not be more knowledgeable than the one searching.

    I'm biracial as well…and honestly I think the only MG and YA books I've read with a African American/Caucasian character was Rick Riordan's Kane series, which I really liked because it also had some big cultural differences between the sibling due to growing up in different places. But I completely agree with you, there needs to be more.
    My recent post Sunday Post (219)

    • I completely agree, I just came from a Writer's Festival and they were saying when it comes to diversity, googling is not enough. If you want to do it properly, check with people of that culture or group to see that it's okay. There are not enough biracial books, at all!

  16. Emily

    I'm so glad you're discussing this!! This is a tough topic because I do appreciate authors recognising different groups of people, however I don't think the mere inclusion of a diverse character is enough – misrepresentation and stereotypes especially irk me. I think this is one of the reason authors are scared to write about different cultures and create diverse characters. Personally I think that's just seems like cop-out and excuse not to dedicate as much research as the other elements of the book. The "lose-lose" situation (getting slammed for not trying or trying then being accused for doing it wrong) is discouraging but I still think authors should try properly and do thorough research to produce accurate representations and avoid unintentional offence. I don't agree with the severe backlash authors get in their approach to including diversity but I think reader criticism enables helps with greater understanding. You addressed some really great points Jeann 😀
    My recent post The Versatile Blogger Award

    • Yeah, I am finding more than ever that just including someone from a different culture or subgroup is meant to be "diverse" when they don't make an impact to the story at all. It really irks me when they're just stereotyped to the side. I do think it's a bit of a cop out sometimes, and I DO understand that it can be discouraging to get slammed if you're going to do it – but if you're going to do it, do it well or not at all. I don't think that authors should get backlash for it though – it seems unfair if they didn't set out to do it. Thank you Emily!

  17. Khairunnisa Putri K

    I love this post! I agree with you, diversity is tricky, you don't give it, people become angry but if you give it wrong, more people become even angrier. I, for one, would rather not see any diversity at all than seeing a diverse but stereotypical character. Don't get me wrong though, I'm an Asian and Muslim so I know how it feels to want to be represented. I enjoy some good diverse stories but I also agree with what you said that authors could have incorporated ANY CULTURES into a story and it wouldn’t have made a difference. I guess what I'm saying is, it's either do it right or don't. And I'm actually scared to say this because the internet is so scary these days when it comes to diversity :')
    My recent post The Joy and Struggle of Reviewing

    • Thank you so much! I do agree that I would rather not see any diversity at all than see a stereotyped, misrepresented character. It does make me feel pretty deflated when I pick up a so-called diverse book and see that it's full of stereotypes or not done well at all. I agree, do it right, get it checked out, do your research.

  18. lekeishathebooknerd

    This is the best post I've read all week. The thing that gets me is that so many ppl don't actually see it for what it is. I'm not saying that I know a lot about different cultures, but 90% of the time, I can spot misrepresentation a mile away. The language misrepresentation is a really big issue for me. I'm African American and I speak Spanish (not really well), but if I'm reading a book with say a Latino character and the author throws in some dialogue between characters that are offensive, it pisses me off. Most ppl don't know that there's a difference between Latinos and Hispanics. You have to research this stuff.
    My recent post Waiting on Wednesday #45 – Level Grind

    • Thank you for reading this Lekeisha! So many people cry out and say a book is diverse which is fantastic, but half the time it IS misrepresented which is upsetting. Which is not to say we don't appreciate what has been done, but yeah it can sometimes be offensive. I actually didn't realise that either, so thank you for the education too!

  19. thepinkdragonrider

    Hi Jeann, sorry in advance, this is going to be a heck of a reply.

    Thank you for weighing in on this topic, Jeann. To be honest, you've voiced my thoughts exactly. Misrepresentation grinds my gears more than lack of representation – in saying that, it's not that I'd prefer to be not represented at all, but seeing a part of me twisted into something unrecognizable and based completely on stereotypes (coughCindercoughcough) and then for people to say "YAS THIS BOOK IS CHINESE INSPIRED! WAAHOOOO!! #DIVERSITY! *shares book and puts said book on a pedestal for most amazing representation every (exaggeration)" deepens my exhaustion.

    I get the 'Catch-22' that authors are faced with, but really, it's not good enough for them to say 'well damned if I do, damned if I don't', and write rubbish anyway. I agree with you – my Mandarin is asinine but even I could have told Meyer that her honorifics were used completely wrong. It is not hard to consult with someone who is Chinese or has lived experience/understanding of Chinese culture. If authors are aware that they are treading on ground that is outside their knowledge and understanding, the simple answer is to research. thoroughly.

    If authors are willing to research 842342390 ways to murder someone with a fork for their story, they should be willing to research a culture. And I am certain that there are plenty of people who would be more than happy and comfortable to share their knowledge.

    "Books that simply mention or feature cultural representation are simply capitalising on the fact that we’re all hungry for diversity." YES, YES, YES. And I appreciate that we're getting 'seen', and I guess it's a baby step, but we definitely have a long way to go. I'll admit, my kneejerk reaction when I see an Asian character on screen/in a book is OMG YES FINALLY! *clings onto them for dear life* but, as you said, it's because I am deprived. But, it's not enough to slap an ethnicity onto someone and call it a 'diverse' book. That does nothing to create truly, meaningful diverse narratives that can broaden our perspectives and understandings of each other.

    ANYWAY, I harp on about this book all the time, but 'For Today I Am a Boy' is brilliant and really captures a dysfunctional family dynamic that is torn between a traditional Chinese and 'Western' perspective. I recently read a book called 'Black, White and Other', which deals with mixed identity.
    My recent post The Rose Society by Marie Lu

    • No problems cw, I was so nervous about this post but it seems like we're all so hungry for diversity that even if something is done incorrectly – people are still willing to accept that. But yes, seeing books that are stereotypes does grind my gears because hey, that's not actual representation you know? (Despite the fact that I love Cinder and the Lunar Chronicles)

      I know, it's kind of tough for authors now but I think having some of it there and trying to represent it properly is better than not having it at all. And not having it at all is better than just doing it half heartedly. I do think that it needs to be handled better than not just putting it in there for the sake of it. And getting someone to check it through the editorial or proofing process is one way to do that.

      Research is important in writing so why should research for a culture fall behind? I see this excuse used so many times but it is disheartening to see.

      I definitely agree, I am HAPPY when there are asian characters in fiction. But when they are massive stereotypes, that's when I get upset. Because it is not enough. Give us a voice. Give us representation. Maybe pretend that we're all different people with different ambitions and thoughts an actions.

      Thanks for those recs, CW!

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