Fiction Mirrors Life: How Representation Can Highlight Social Issues

photo credit: flickr: /jmorgan/

I was at a restaurant a couple weeks ago with an African-American couple and their children. At one point, their three-year-old son ran away from a jolly, bald, Caucasian man. The man was smiling, had his hand out, and continued to try to get his “high five” from the little boy even after the obviously uncomfortable preschooler had defensively tucked himself against his father. No matter how many times the child said no, the man still had his hand out, still smiling, “C’mon! Give me a high five. You can do it.” Mind you, this wasn’t an uncomfortable exchange. It all happened within a span of 15 to 20 seconds or so from the first, “High five?” to the fourth or fifth.

There was an assumption there that once the child was with his parents, they would encourage him to interact with this stranger, this white man, but that is not what these parents did, and he didn’t seem to mind. He smiled cordially and said, “Y’all have a good night,” and walked away.

The parents immediately turned to each other and began speaking urgently before they looked up at me, debating if this was something they should say out loud.

“What was that?” I asked.

“Have you ever asked yourself why they do that?” The husband questioned.

“Do what?” I responded.

“Why do they insist on pretending with our children? They approach black children like they have the right to them from birth to junior high. They touch their hair, hold out their hands for high fives, all happy and nice, and as soon as they get too tall or hit a certain threshold, they turn on them.”

I could assume that the “they” here is Caucasian people, but in truth, it’s not; Really, the “they” being referenced is the majority of the world. Like all kids, ethnic children are adored by everyone. Society loves the innocent wonder of babies, the easy giggles of toddlers, and the natural and honest flow of little kids, but bias against children of certain demographics starts as young as four. You know: Preschool. Often, those biases do not touch the children they are directed against. They are strangers, but more perversely, it is necessary to consider that those same strangers are also caregivers, teachers, mentors, church members, and more. We see this ethnic bias of children represented in many forms of entertain, but the most recent example that comes to mind is Neflix’s Raising Dion.

According to a Yale study, “Findings suggested that when the preschool teacher and child were of the same race, knowing about family stressors led to increased teacher empathy for the preschooler and decreased how severe the behaviors appeared to the teacher. But, when the teacher and child were of a different race, the same family information seemed to overwhelm the teachers and the behaviors were perceived as being more severe.”

Another example would be the study Harvard did on adults working or volunteering with children. The study states that the “(h)ighest levels of negative attitudes were found toward blacks across all stereotypes measured (lazy, unintelligent, violent and having unhealthy habits), with Native American, and Hispanic/Latinx seen as similarly negative on several stereotypes. These were most pronounced toward adults, but seen even toward young children aged 0-8 years.” This same study looked at teenage rates, with findings that “black teenagers and Native Americans (are) close to ten times more likely to be considered lazy than white adults. Black and Hispanic/Latinx teens were between one and a half to two times more likely to be considered violence-prone and unintelligent than white adults and white teens.”

These findings and other studies out there are all trying to get us to see one thing: at some point, these little people stop being so little, and the moment they do, if not before, they are seen as villains rather than children.

During that conversation with those parents, articles and studies I had perused or delved into went through my head. Books I had read also flitted through my mental Rolodex, and I had to realize that this was an aspect of parenting that I hadn’t looked at, even when the idea of it had been forcefully shoved in my face. Specifically, the first book that came to mind when speaking to them was Rick Riordan’s Red Pyramid.  

The main characters in The Red Pyramid are Sadie and Carter, two biracial children from an African American father and Caucasian mother. Sadie, who stays with her white grandparents, looks Caucasian. Carter, who lives and travels with his father, looks African American. At some point, we will talk about all of the battles Rick Riordan and other authors have gone through just to have the cover reflect the character when the main protagonist has skin tone, but for now, let’s look at what Carter says about being a young, black boy.

Although we see many, many examples of micro-aggressions and issues with not only being black, but being biracial, in The Red Pyramid, we also see some very frank conversations and inner dialogue. One of these is in Chapter 6, when our main character remembers his father telling him, “Carter, you’re getting older. You’re an African American man. People will judge you more harshly, and so you must always look impeccable.”

Later, in Chapter 21, Carter’s inner dialogue also states, “Here’s the thing—I always get a little edgy around police. I remember when I was like seven or eight and still a cute little kid, it wasn’t a problem; but as soon as I hit eleven, I started to get the Look, like What’s that kid doing here? Is he going to steal something? I mean it’s ridiculous, but it’s a fact. I’m not saying it happens with every police officer, but when it doesn’t happen—let’s just say it’s a pleasant surprise.”

There are other books I could reference, other studies I could bring up, but the second realization I came to when considering this subject was that in the process of trying to normalize ethnic fiction, we can’t forget that fiction is a true representation of life, and things that children deal with are most often portrayed in these books. Just as this couple was hyper aware of the fact that their three-year-old child would not always be considered adorable, and may even be considered a menace based on his skin tone, we have to remember that these moments should be appearing in the literature we provide our children. That is, if we provide them books about kids like them. This is a huge part of ethnic fiction normalization. Ethnic children need to be able to see themselves, their struggles, and their triumphs in the characters they read, so that the conversations ethnic households are having, situations these children are experiencing, and goals they are focused on are not only reinforced, but validated. There are billions of books in the universe, but how many of them are giving us what we need for the conversations we must have?

Normalize ethnic fiction. Represent ethnic realities.

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