By Guest Contributor Ellen Oh, cross-posted from Hello Ello
Recently, there have been more Asians on TV than usual. This makes me happy because it is such a rare event. Spotting an Asian on TV always feels like trying to find Waldo. And when I do spot an Asian on TV or in the movies, I jump up and down and get overly excited, like I’ve spotted some rare species or mythical creature, like a unicorn or Big Foot.
So you can imagine my exuberance over watching the Knicks and Jeremy Lin. What’s not been so cool has been the media response to him. Lots of people have lots of opinions on him and race plays a huge factor in it all. Why? Because, like Asians on television shows and movies, Asian pro athletes are few and far between. Jeremy Lin’s performance is irrevocably linked to his race. He is considered an Asian “anomaly.” Let’s focus on that word “anomaly.” Meaning, “to deviate from the expected”–an irregularity. It is in this way that the media lifts up one man and backhands an entire race.
Asians have long been the silent minority in this country. It’s gotten so bad that when someone makes a racist remark toward Asians, they just shrug it off and make it seem like you’re the one making a big deal about nothing. Or they think it’s funny. Like a couple of white guys who think they are being clever by opening up a restaurant called “Roundeye Noodle shop” in Philadelphia. And then they are surprised when people get offended? The roots of that racist remark stem from Asians being called slanty-eyed chinks. If anyone thinks “Roundeye” is not racist, you should come explain that to my youngest daughter who had the singular pleasure of being told by two boys in her class that her “small Chinese eyes” were ugly compared to her friend’s “blue round-eyes.” She was in kindergarten and only 5 years old. She cried for days. Words can scar you for life.
Later on, after I got involved and all the participants were made to apologize, a mother of one of the boys contacted me and told me that her son had acted the way he did because they had moved to the area from a small town in the midwest and they had never seen an “oriental” person before. I decided not to go into why I object to the word “oriental” and instead focused on what she was saying to me, this excuse she was feeding me. She was trying to laugh it off instead of taking it seriously.
To be honest, it really bothered me … but it also gave me food for thought. It brings me back to my original point. We are still the silent, unseen minority. And sometimes we have to fight that overwhelming feeling of not belonging. Of feeling unwanted in a country we love and are proud citizens of. I know as a child, books were always my refuge from that horrid sense of being different and hated. But when I look at publishing today, I wonder if my kids will feel the same way.
As a YA author, I’ve found the lack of diversity in publishing profoundly sad. I’ve been particularly disturbed by what I find in the YA sections. Bookshelves filled with cover after cover of pretty white girls. (See Goodreads Best YA Book Covers List)
The difference between the Middle Grade section and the YA section couldn’t be more divergent. Picture books and middle grade books don’t have the uniformity that YA does. They are bright and bold and diverse.
I love this cover so very much. And it’s a great book. But it feels like only in the Middle Grade section would you find a gem like this. It makes me wish my children would stay in the middle grade section for as long as possible. Because it is safe and welcoming for them.
Putting pretty white girls on all your book covers is the book equivalent of what all our fashion magazines do. An idealization of beauty that is unrealistic and dangerous to our youth. And it isn’t the right thing to do. Seeing a person of color grace the cover of a YA book is like spotting the Loch Ness Monster: you wonder if you’ve truly seen it and if you’ll ever see it again. How sad is that? To say that only pretty white girls can sell YA books is not a business model that publishers should approve of. And it’s not true. We need look no further than the gender-neutral and iconic covers for The Hunger Games and Twilight series to see the truth.
The feminists have been after the fashion industry for years and yet nothing’s really changed, even with all the research that shows a correlation between teenage self-esteem and these magazines. But let’s face it: there’s a big difference between fashion magazines and books. We see fashion magazines as light entertainment. But books are an important part of our school curriculum. We teach our children about the importance of reading. And we send them out to the library and bookstore to look for books to foster their love of reading. But then they get there and the majority of the book covers resemble the covers of our fashion magazines.
We need for publishing to break this trend. Stop idealizing white beauty. I would rather there were no models gracing YA book covers rather than see wall after wall of only white ones. It’s time for publishers and booksellers to act more responsibly. They have the ability to influence entire generations of young people. Tu Books is already paving the way with multicultural YA titles and covers. They have seen the need in the market, and they are answering it. It is up to booksellers and readers to support them, make it clear that their endeavor is important, and help it become a success. Then maybe more publishers will follow in their footsteps and help change the current landscape of YA book covers.
We need to teach our youth the beauty of diversity. Beauty does not come in only one color. It does not come in only one size and one shape. And maybe when our teens grow up exposed to diversity, then they will grow into adults who embrace it.
And then maybe their children will never call another child ugly simply because they do not match the ideal of white beauty.