Here at Lantana Publishing, an independent publishing house dedicated to challenging the lack of diversity in children’s books, we have been watching the Oscars’ ‘Diversity Debate’ unfold with interest.
Hardly a day has gone by in the past few weeks without the news reporting that another industry heavyweight has waded into this dispute. Follow the #OscarsSoWhite and you can see the world’s reaction to the 2016 Oscars shortlist unfold: Hollywood power couple Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith, as well as esteemed director Spike Lee amongst others, have made it clear that they intend to boycott this year’s ceremony, while meanwhile, the debate has reached all the way to the White House. Barack Obama recently made his voice heard, commenting on the importance of everybody working within the film industry getting a “fair shot”.
While semantics might seem unimportant given the gravity of an issue that even the American president has seen fit to comment on, the inflammatory labels that have been applied to this news story – row, scandal, problem, furor to name but a few – threaten to turn what could be a debate into a cartoonish battleground: the gung-ho ‘for diversity’ team facing their bullish ‘against diversity’ opponents. Media coverage seems destined to turn the issue into a simple binary or a story with a clear-cut trajectory, moving from uncomplicated problem to solution.
In this vein, many commentators have lambasted Helen Mirren for her claim that “it’s unfair to attack the Academy”, because she speaks from a position of white privilege. However, it appears Mirren was not intending to dismiss the current criticism of the Academy, but inviting us to dig deeper and find the root of a wide-scale problem that simply reaches its culmination in the Academy’s nomination process. More often than not, it is her initial statement (in defence of the Academy) that is criticised as opposed to her later support of diversity in the film industry more widely. In fact, Mirren was adamant that “the issue we need to be looking at is what happens before the film gets to the Oscars – what kind of films are made, and the way in which they’re cast, and the scripts.”
In order for this to truly be a ‘debate’, defined as a public forum in which people exchange views and thrash out an issue, we need to accept that there are not only two sides to the argument; there are not simply two teams waving ‘yes, diversity’ and ‘no, diversity’ placards at each other but a whole spectrum of angles and views which deserve to be considered if we want to move forward to create a fairer and more tolerant space in which the arts can flourish. Under this aegis, the diversity debate should not simply be about awards ceremonies but about grass roots; not simply about race, but about the fair and equal representation of gender, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, age and disability in all walks of life and in all facets of arts production. To pounce on Mirren’s statement as simply ‘what you would expect’ from a celebrated white woman is to undermine the terms of this broader debate.
As a representative of the publishing industry, we would be the first to point out that this conversation is welcome – we strive to give authors and illustrators of minority backgrounds the opportunities to publish stories that celebrate their diverse and multicultural communities, beliefs and customs, and are aware of how unusual this makes us. What we know from experience is that it is a conversation that is complex, and should be on a large scale, taking into account many different industries and areas of public life – not just Hollywood. In fact, the attention shone on the film industry over the past few weeks – although a welcome call to arms – has created a glare that might prevent many from seeing the lack of diversity inherent in other industries.
There have been several high profile campaigns drawing attention to the lack of diversity in children’s books, not least the interest that transformed the Twitter #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign into a fully-functioning not-for-profit with a mission to promote diversity in publishing. The attention heaped on film, and the Academy’s failure for the second year running to nominate any actors from ethnic minority backgrounds, begs the question of why film generally makes the headlines more often than other media. Does the fact that films feature actors (and often those who have reached celebrity status) make the industry’s lack of diversity any more damaging than the corresponding lack of (fictional) characters from black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds found in children’s books?
Surely, if we are to acknowledge that the Oscars’ ‘debate’ is actually a complex and nuanced discussion about the endemic problems within cultural representation, we also need to be aware of the fact that many of the people who work in high profile industries have their outlooks shaped by the books they read in their early years, before they even enter a career. Perhaps, as well as looking at the film industry and questioning why there are not more roles available to people from minority ethnic backgrounds, we should also consider the inequalities at the heart of book production that see barely 5% of the UK’s and US’s publishing output represent authors of cultural minorities.
Challenge the lack of diversity in children’s books and we may go a long way to educating future generations about the importance of every art form representing humanity in all its myriad forms.
To find out more about Lantana Publishing and their high quality, multicultural picture books for children, visit the website: www.lantanapublishing.com.