Reconsidering “Diverse” As A Category

A picture of six children of various ethnicities are sitting and smiling at the camera. Above the image is text that reads, "Students come in all ethnicities, faiths, and orientations." Beneath the image is text that reads, "Representation matters."

“Why is this such an issue?”

I recently saw a post online that got me thinking. Someone wondered why it was such a big deal that a certain national book vendor was offering a “diverse books” collection that could be optionally removed from any book fairs the company was hosting. I’ve seen a lot of angry commentary about this book vendor’s decision, and it’s become clear to me that using “diverse” as a category within the library has long overstayed its welcome in my book vocabulary.

 Let’s start with the basic issue: We live in a diverse society. That is the baseline; that is the norm. But by creating a “diverse books” collection, the major book vendor is implying that those books are, by default, NOT the norm. That they can be pulled aside and assigned a label implies that they are not part of the baseline, that they are outside what is expected. That in and of itself is problematic.

On Book Fairs and “Opting Out”

The motivation for creating this collection and for allowing potential book fair facilitators to “opt out” of having that collection as part of their book fair, implies that “diverse” books are controversial. Since those books are almost entirely by or about non-white and/or non-straight characters, that implication means that the existence of non-white, non-straight people is controversial. That message is not good for our non-white, non-straight students.

As author Tanisia Moore told Rolling Stone, “I don’t get to opt-in to being Black.” 

Representation Matters

This book vendor is one of the largest, if not the largest, book fair vendor in the US. They have a gigantic market share. They have enormous clout. When they preemptively decide what is “allowed” or “not allowed”, they are, like it or not, making a statement. A lot of folks are angry at the direction of this particular statement, because it goes directly against providing students with what is necessary and important in reading material.

We need to provide equal representation, mirrors, and perhaps most importantly, windows that can help readers see the world beyond themselves, and in themselves. Studies have shown that pleasure reading increases moral development, prosocial behavior, and empathy (even when controlling for pre-existing empathetic personalities). Students are more likely to read for pleasure when they feel connected to the material. 

A lot of folks (and I’d count myself among ’em) feel that “diverse” should not be a label into which specific groups are placed, because that implies anything not in the “diverse” category gets considered “normal”. Whether that’s directly expressed or simply implied, it’s not okay. Separating out “diverse” content says not all students get to feel connected to their reading. 

Where Does An 800 Pound Gorilla Sit?

There are a lot of places where school librarians are under both direct and indirect attack. This book vendor’s choice to both market a “diverse books” collection and offer to NOT provide those specific books was seen by some as agreeing with and furthering the efforts of book censors and banners who have been working diligently to vilify librarians and remove anything they don’t personally agree with, regardless of the fact that those people are a minority of the population, and irrespective of the wishes of the larger population.

There’s an old joke: Where does an 800 pound gorilla sit? Anywhere it wants. This book vendor is the 800 pound gorilla. It made a choice to sit down with those who would censor and ban books. They are pre-censoring their own materials in order to appease a small group of loud bullies. 

Educational Malpractice

I realize that there are some schools that won’t allow a book fair to happen if certain titles are included. But dicta that either implicitly or explicitly tell kids who are non-white or non-straight that they don’t belong is educational malpractice. Educators should think very carefully about utilizing a company that supports educational malpractice. Some might argue that the important thing is that at least some books are available that represent some of the students. But, again, what message is that sending?

Educators are supposed to make decisions that best support all of their students. Choosing to deny media representation to groups of students is antithetical to good educational practice. Therefore, electing to use a vendor service that censors student representation is another form of educational malpractice. I don’t throw that phrase around lightly.

Windows, Mirrors, Sliding Glass Doors

As the adults in the room, we’re supposed to help the kids, whether those kids are in kindergarten or heading off to college. We need to provide kids with models and mirrors that let them see that they are valuable for who they are. And we should be giving them the ability to imagine themselves accomplishing great things. That’s done by giving them resources and materials that show people like them doing great things. There are no caveats for “unless they are diverse.”

Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s metaphor of books being windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors is wonderfully apt. And it doesn’t only apply to some kids. We teach all kids. So we need to present a variety of materials that provide windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors for ALL kids.

Period.

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Author: Steve Tetreault

After 24 years as a classroom English Language Arts teacher, Steve became a school librarian in January 2022. He has earned an M.Ed. (2006) and an Ed.D. (2014) in Educational Administration and Supervision, and completed an M.I. degree in Library and Information Science (2019). He is certified as a teacher, school library media specialist, supervisor, and administrator. He is an old dog constantly learning new tricks!



Categories: Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

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1 reply

  1. Well said Steve! What’s most ridiculous to me is that the people who don’t support having a wide range of books in schools assume that teachers and librarians are forcing specific books on students. When students choose to read books, it’s usually because they have a personal connection to them or they want to learn more about the types of characters/situations. Either way, it creates more empathetic, informed, and intelligent students.

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