BY SARAH CAVAR '20
English class curricula are fairly predictable in their homogeneity, especially prior to college-level courses. Throughout my high school career, despite two Advanced Placement English classes and four years’ worth of excellent teachers, our curriculum sorely lacked diverse representation. To my knowledge, of all of the assigned works I read throughout high school, less than 10 were authored by someone who was not a white man. Less than five were authored by women of color. There was no LGBTQ+ representation, and very little representation of any non-Western nations or cultures.
Representation is something that many young readers take for granted. I myself have grown so unused seeing myself mirrored in works of literature that I have stopped looking. When I do happen to find representation, I find myself taken aback and almost confused. Other members of marginalized groups, I expect, also experience this sense of disorientation: it becomes strange to see someone like me in a work of fiction.
Some may discredit the importance of media representation, especially in the face of more tangible issues facing marginalized communities today: housing, health, and life-and-death situations that plague communities. People say, “Why care about how many characters look and identify like you, when you could be worrying about ‘this’ instead?”
There are two primary reasons to care: empowerment and empathy.
Look at the way straight, white and cisgender boys, even in early childhood, confidently dominate interactions. As they grow, they continue to do so, usually with increasing vehemence. This phenomenon makes perfect sense, considering that the heroes of their favorite novels are usually just like them. If a boy’s favorite superhero is a straight, white, cisgender man, that imbues the child with the unconscious message that he, too, can be a strong hero. They’re the same sort of person, after all.
Conversely, what do marginalized people see? When we walk into bookstores, we are relegated to “special” sections that don’t intersect with one another at all. For example, the “African American” section is in one corner, the “LGBT” (or sometimes simply “Gay and Lesbian”) section is in another and the “Disability” section is in a third. So many people identify with all of these labels, and yet, they are expected to stay silent as their identities are cordoned off from each other and from the rest of the human experience. Furthermore, authors who fall into one or more minority categories are often deemed too “niche” to be read in schools, or too niche to be read by anyone other than those who fall into their specific demographic (consider, for example, the label “chick lit”).
As long as schools continue to teach curricula that call certain people (Shakespeare, Dickens, Fitzgerald, etc.) “writers” but insists upon calling Austen a “female writer” and Morrison (if they even bother to teach her work) a “black female writer,” they send a harmful message to marginalized students. That message says, “In your own experiences, you will never be the ‘default’. To be normal, to be successful, to be a model person, you must become something you are not.”
Furthermore, reading, and especially reading fiction, helps people learn empathy. Thus, fiction helps us learn something uniquely human: the ability to feel acutely for others, to share in pain and understand it as real and valid. Fiction is a means of, as psychologist Andrew Solomon said in Literary Hub, “putting [one]self in other, often uncomfortable shoes.” Why, though, must these shoes always be uncomfortable for marginalized people who are always forced to be the givers of empathy towards the overrepresented and never the recipients of that same empathy?
It is imperative to consider another frightening implication of literature as a way to learn empathy. Readers are learning not to empathize with marginalized groups, because people belonging to these identities are so seldom represented in literary works, even less in those which become “popular” and “mainstream.” In the case of fiction as a way to learn empathy, minority underrepresentation is a means of desensitizing the population to minority struggles.
Today, as movements among oppressed groups gain more attention than ever before, it’s about time that literature and school curriculabegin to honor them. It’s about time that young people of all identities have someone they can look up to and someone they can hope to become. Privileged young people should learn to empathize with the “other.” If we begin to teach such works to marginalized students, they may have a chance at the assured confidence that privileged students now take for granted. Representation matters; it is empowering, inspiring, and often life-changing.