Writer: Kayla Cha | Photo courtesy of Unsplash
Representing people of color in children’s realistic fiction,
“Diversity means including real people throughout all levels of fiction (and nonfiction), representing real struggles and challenges—and the complete mundane ordinariness of life, too!” —Kate Sullivan
There is something special about seeing ourselves represented in media. Through fiction, for a moment, we are able to step into a different world in which we can be a warrior, a princess, a lawyer, an artist, in love, a prodigy—we can be anything we want to be. As children, whether it be Hermione Granger or Peter Pan or Iron Man, we admire these characters, dress up like them for Halloween. We find and mimic traits we find relatable, traits that give us confidence, traits that we want to see in ourselves.
Television for children is meant to give them the self-esteem to pursue these identities and futures. It is so important for children to see themselves as confident, passionate, intelligent people. They should be able to look at the screen and visually see people like themselves represented in this manner.
According to the Children’s Television Project at Tufts University, there is a correlation between low-self esteem in children revolving around the depiction of specifically racial groups in fictional media. The authors state, “kids notice differences” and that “media misrepresentations of ethnic groups can cause confusion about aspects of their identity among children of these groups.”
For children of color, there is something even more personal about seeing their own physical features represented in realistic fiction. It is special to see themselves portrayed as real, human characters. Characters that go to school, fall in love, have hopes and dreams just like regular people do. It should not be a long, hard search to find characters that make people of color feel comfortable and seen and normal. But unfortunately, this is not always the case.
Oftentimes, when an individual sees a character that represents their ethnic background on the screen, the portrayal usually revolves around harmful stereotypes. When they are a young child, it is not as easy to see the blatant stereotyping, but growing older comes with realization. First year nursing major Marisa Moy recalls the characters and TV shows from her childhood. The first place she remembered seeing an Asian American girl was in the cartoon television show, Ni Hao, Kai Lan (2008), which somehow, did not feel like a “regular” kid’s show. Of course, Ni Hao, Kai Lan was a popular, educational and well-liked program but Kai Lan’s character revolved wholly around her ethnic identity, while other kid’s shows taught lessons about friendship and acceptance. Other children’s shows, such as Dora the Explorer (2008), included these foundational life lessons while still integrating culture and language, which is what she wished to see in shows that represented her culture. When children are able to see that they have the ability to be creative, inquisitive, adventurous, funny, kind, smart, it allows for the confidence to step out into a world of new and unfamiliar experiences.
As more diverse fictional media is being created, while helpful to push the inclusivity narrative, these characters still lack relatability.
“I can’t resonate with Turning Red because there’s something not realistic about [it],” Moy said. It was exciting to see Mei—another female, Asian main character on screen—but for the majority of the film, she was turned into an animal. DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) coordinator and LEAD (Leaders Engaging & Advancing Diversity) scholars instructor, Elisia Sanchez wishes people of color were represented differently, because “now, we’re masking race and identity behind… little dog characters,” like making Mei in Turning Red into a fox, or Tiana from Princess and the Frog into a frog, or Kuzco from The Emperor’s New Groove into an llama, or Joe from Soul into a non-human being, or Lance from Spies in Disguise into a pigeon. After a while, it gets tiring.
Instead of pushing minority groups into a narrative, people of color should be able to exist as they do in real life—normally. Mundanely. Sanchez recalls Rugrats (1991), an animated series with a diverse cast, that “had actual lessons going on.” Sanchez states, “Those are the types of shows I wish kids had.” Sanchez explained that Rugrats viewers continued “to see different cultural narratives.” People of color were represented without turning into an animal or becoming a stereotypical side character. Let it Shine (2012) was a movie that first year biological science major LJ Freeman appreciated for this reason.
“I was so excited,” Freeman said, “thinking ‘finally a movie with an all black cast.’ It had quirkiness and had multiple personalities, not everyone was the same.”
These characters did not have to be a wizard or a political leader or a warrior to be significant. They were simply “real, unstereotyped people.” They had multidimensional personalities that did not revolve around a “type.” They did not have to fit into a box of what diverse characters should look like. Movies like Let it Shine teach children that they are able to come as they are and express themselves in the ways they feel comfortable.
Children of God do not consist of one race, but all. We are all called to be stewards of this world, and we must teach future generations that they can exist normally.
Freeman continues, “It’s great for you [as a child] to see a person,” on television and think, “that’s my role model… not only just as a person, but as a Christian person.”
Children of color are worthy of love and they are worthy of representation. In Revelation 7:9, it states, “Behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” Under God’s kingdom, we are one. There is no one race that is above or lesser than the other, and this narrative should be demonstrated to children as they develop and learn to interact with one another.
In the future, Sanchez hopes for fair media production that represents every culture in unison—media that provides a shift for the next generation and puts to rest some of the biases displayed on TV. “As children grow during their developmental stages, it is important that they are able to identify with who they see on the television screen,” Sanchez continues. “This is why I wish there were more children’s stories about the beauty of diversity. Especially as we are raising the next generation of believers, children must be able to know that differences are okay.”