On the last day of the KLA/MLA joint conference last week, I attended a session titled “Why We Need Diverse Books.” I believe the #WeNeedDiverseBooks initiative is one of the most important social movements going on right now. I believe diversity is the most important frontier for collection development in libraries.
The session presenters recommended a variety of publishers who are good sources of diverse titles and gave examples of successful diversity programming they had done at their own libraries. For me, the most interesting point raised was the need for foreign language titles in a diverse collection. Language is an essential facet of cultural diversity, and yet our diversity collections are still predominantly written in English. A truly diverse collection which serves a truly diverse community should have resources in a multiplicity of languages. Too often, this gets overlooked in collection development efforts. I think this is a point well-made.
I walked out of this session asking myself another question which sometimes gets neglected in our discussions about diverse books:
How do we get white dudes to start reading diverse books?
The most important goal of diversifying our collections is for kids (people of all ages, in truth, but especially kids) to have the opportunity to pick up a book and see themselves in it. Any ethnicity, any culture, any gender—whoever they are, everyone deserves to see themselves in the stories of their community.
That’s the most important thing.
But it’s also important for people to experience diversity in the stories they read, see, and hear. It’s important to be exposed to different ideas, different perspectives, to learn that the world is very different for other people than it is for you. To see the world through someone else’s eyes and experience it through someone else’s sensibilities.
This is how we build understanding and acceptance, foster empathy and appreciation, forge mutual respect.
Everyone wants to see themselves in their stories. So how do you convince people to read, see, and hear stories about people who aren’t them?
It’s a universal truth of all human societies that whichever group wields the greatest power and influence will dominate their society’s culture. Whoever the dominant group is in any given society will be the group overwhelmingly most depicted in the stories their society produces. This dominant group is also unlikely to be willing to cede any of their prominence.
They become the cultural “norm”—the yardstick by which diversity is compared and judged. They become accustomed to seeing themselves in the leading roles of their stories. And so the dominant group of any given society is typically the least exposed to any sort of true diversity. They’re also the group most likely to feel threatened by diversity.
Therefore, the dominant group of any society is the most in need of exposure to diversity. They’re the ones who most need to be taught how different the world is for those members of society who aren’t them.
In my world, cis-gender white males constitute the demographic which wields the greatest power and influence over my culture. Therefore, in my world, the people most in need of exposure to diversity are cis-gender white males.
If I want my society to be less riven by prejudice, if I want to create a society which values diversity and respects all, then it’s essential to get cis-gender white males to read diverse books. However, book sale and library usage data, anecdotal evidence, and my own experience all converge to make it abundantly clear that cis-gender white men are the demographic least likely to want to read books about people who aren’t them. By and large, they don’t seem to be all that interested in diverse stories.
So… How do we convince them to diversify their stories? How do we make diverse books something that cis-gender white men want in their lives?
How do we market #WeNeedDiverseBooks to white dudes?