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Why is Diversity Important in English Literature?

When it comes to English literature courses, they’ve struggled with diversity for a long time. Most of the writers we learn about are what many teachers call “male, pale and stale“. By that, I mean that we tend to stick to writers who look similar, have similar life experiences and write about characters a lot like themselves.

Don’t get me wrong! We study Shakespeare, Dickens, Wilde and all the other “greats” for a reason! There is a whole lot that we can learn in literature by reading their work. However, they aren’t the only ones with amazing texts that deserve to be studied.

If we don’t start to diversify the English curriculum now, we’ll miss out on so much knowledge and art that could do us a world of good. There’s a reason why we push for diversity so much these days!

It’s all about making literature less elitist and exclusionary. It’s about using the stories we tell to make the world a better place. You can’t do that if you’re only reading the same kinds of texts over and over.

That’s why people have pushed for diversity so much lately. We want to make sure it helps to prepare students for the real world – a world where there are lots of people who look, think and act differently.

Here are some of the biggest reasons why it is important to add diversity to the English curriculum.

People Used to Be Excluded From the “Literary Canon” on Purpose

Once upon a time, people from minority groups didn’t have access to all the world had to offer. This could be because they were the “wrong” gender, defied gender expectations, a person of colour, part of the LGBTQIA+ community, neurodivergent, disabled or even the “wrong” religion. The world was a hostile place where horrible things happened to them. In some places in the world, this is still true now!

One of the many ways that society mistreated these groups was to prevent them from being able to take part in literature. How did this happen? Well, these groups went through so many injustices:

  • Violence, genocide and enslavement.
  • Stripping of basic human rights.
  • Lack of access to education.
  • Longer hours and back-breaking labour.

When these groups managed to overcome all of these obstacles, many more followed.

Say you were a black woman in 1890s America. You could read and write. You (somehow) had enough money and time to write a book and share your ideas with the world. Could you just publish a book and leave it there? No! You had to find a publisher that wouldn’t discriminate against you. Even if you did get that far, it would be hard for you to find an audience of eager readers.

How can you be expected to join the literary canon if no one is going to publish or read your work? It could be the best piece of writing in the world! No one would be able to tell, though.

Diverse authors weren’t left out of the literary canon because they couldn’t write as well. It’s just that Dickens didn’t have to deal with half the challenges they did.

So, we should take the time to fix this injustice. Give minority writers the recognition they deserve.


Reading Diverse Texts Improves Empathy

Did you know that reading fiction makes you a more empathetic person? Scientists have found that people who find themselves transported into stories tend to be kinder and help others more. As the BBC article I linked states, fiction has quite a few advantages over journalism when it comes to increasing your empathy.

One of those advantages is that you get to see the inner world of people in a way you don’t really get to in journalism. You understand how they feel and what they think. Often, you realise that they aren’t. so different from you.

If you add diversity to your reading list, you can extend this empathy to more people than usual. Their struggles might be different, but they react in ways that you might find familiar. Their thoughts, feelings, worries and goals aren’t as far off as you might have first thought.

A person called Heather Conrad has written an article on why this is true. She goes through the ways that reading fiction is different to spending time on the internet and how we can use a diverse reading list to combat the hate we’re surrounded by.

Personally, I think empathy is a good thing because it helps to make the world a better place. If we were all just a little more empathetic, maybe there wouldn’t be so much poverty and loss in the world. However, there are also some more selfish reasons to become a more empathetic person:

  • Doing certain jobs better (medicine, teaching, marketing, social services, parenting).
  • Maintaining strong relationships.
  • Solving arguments or disagreements effectively.
  • Improving social skills.

I know it seems hypocritical to talk about the selfish reasons. However, empathy isn’t all about helping others at your own expense. It’s also about helping you to get on in the world.

It Prevents Fear and Xenophobia

The idea that diverse reading lists prevent fear and xenophobia comes from how you build empathy. There’s this really famous article called the Parasocial Contact Hypothesis that explains why this works so well in film and TV.

You might have already heard about parasocial relationships already. If not, they’re one-sided relationships. On one side, you have a fan who feels like they know their favourite content creator, celebrity or artist on a personal level. On the other side, the influencer they love has no clue they exist! Even if they do, they don’t spend any time thinking about them (unless stalking happens).

Imagine you occasionally said hi to a neighbour in the hallway of your apartment building, but they thought you were best friends. That’s the level of what we’re talking about. Usually, it’s much less creepy, though.

It’s much easier to develop parasocial relationships with people when it feels like they’re talking to you personally. That’s why so many vloggers and streamers deal with them! However, that doesn’t mean they’re limited to those platforms.

Parasocial relationships can develop from any platform or medium. It’s also very common to develop them with fictional characters! As long as you can separate reality from fiction, they’re perfectly healthy.

There is a positive side to all this, too. When you have a parasocial relationship with a character, you feel like they’re your friend. So, if you develop these relationships with a diverse range of fictional characters, it’s almost as good for destroying hate as having a diverse group of friends!

How can someone justify being homophobic or racist if they empathise with lots of gay and POC characters in the stories they read? It’s much harder!


You Get to Explore Issues That Impact Our World Today

There are some amazing quotes about the benefits of reading out there. This is probably one of my favourites:

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies… The man who never reads lives only one.”

George R.R. Martin – A Dance with Dragons

It really is true! People who read get to experience things others don’t. They see the world in new ways, appreciate their own lives and understand how to make a change. That’s even more true for people who read books by diverse authors!

In the last school I taught at, the students in year 7 had to read The Breadwinner. It’s a book about a young girl growing up in Afghanistan. When her father is captured by the Taliban, she has to pretend she’s a boy to feed the rest of her family.

I was teaching at a boys’ school where some of the kids had said some pretty misogynistic things. This book helped to change things a little, though. They realised how sexist ideas could hurt people and empathised with the main character a lot.

The truth is that diversity is the best way to read about things you’d never understand otherwise. People from underrepresented groups go through things most others never even think about. That means they see the world in ways you’d never imagine. So, the stories they tell are unique.

For example, in the West, we don’t really have to deal with the worst effects of climate change yet. There are lots of people who have to leave their homes right now, though. Reading about them could change your mind.

You get to see the world as they do and notice how different it is from your own life. That will make you a more knowledgeable person in the long run. That’s great if you want to do well in other subjects!

Diversity in Literature Helps Underrepresented Groups to Heal

As I said before, things were bad if you were part of an underrepresented group in the past. Of course, things are better now! However, we still have things we need to work on.

History doesn’t just go away. We change laws, sure. That doesn’t make all the bad stuff disappear, though. There’s still a great deal of catching up to be done when it comes to wealth, art, media and society. Years of oppression don’t just go away overnight.

It’s like breaking someone’s leg. You can apologise and make sure it doesn’t happen again. That’s a great first step to take! The person is still injured, though. They need to go through a long healing process. That process will take time and some help from professionals. If it doesn’t heal properly, they won’t be able to walk well until they get even more help!

Up until now, we’ve been making sure none of this happened again – for most groups. Now it’s time to allow them to heal. Diversity and representation are part of that healing process. We have a lot of art, wealth and other things to catch up on!

If you have a lot of “privilege”, don’t feel guilty. Lots of the people who oppressed others aren’t around anymore. Or they’re old and watching the times change around them. They’re the ones to blame, not you.

Give people time to heal. Try not to stand in their way as they try to correct the issues of the past. It’s not an attack on you. It’s just an attempt to right the wrongs of years of oppression. You don’t have to give up the books and art you love. We’re just accepting extra ones into our hearts as a society.


We Can Feel Heard

When I was a little girl, I thought I was ugly. I thought I was the only person like me in the world. It made me feel so alone. Why? Because all the “pretty” girls in the media looked nothing like me. I didn’t know many other mixed-race kids, either. I thought there was something wrong with me.

Then, there was the fact that no one in my family really understood the struggles of a mixed kid – let alone one who had a unique mix like mine. It took a long time for my mum and me to figure out my hair. I didn’t quite understand why I felt like I had to change my personality to match each of my cultures. Plus, no one quite understood why I had an Indian accent on some words.

Around the age of 12, though, I started to go on the internet more. That gave me access to the diverse range of stories on Wattpad. I got myself a Tumblr account at the age of 14. Suddenly, I was surrounded by diversity! I even got to engage with posts by Blasian kids like me. They had similar struggles, even if their mixes weren’t identical to mine.

I saw beautiful people of all races, genders, sexualities and body types. I got to understand that it’s a great thing to be part of three different cultures! After a while, I got the courage to blog about my own experiences. Hopefully, someone like me would see it and feel like they weren’t alone, too.

Many people have similar experiences. I’ve seen autistic students light up when they realise that the main character in The Curious Incident of the Doc in the Night-Time sees the world like they do! It feels great to be heard.


You Can Learn Different Stories from Different Cultures

So many people love to learn about Loki, the God of Mischief. Have you heard of Anansi the Spider, though? He’s an interesting trickster god from West African mythology that I just love!

My dad is from Jamaica. He used to tell me stories about Brother Anansi when I couldn’t sleep as a kid. The stories were hilarious! They opened up my eyes. To be honest, I think they’re one of the reasons why I love to tell stories of my own now.

All cultures have their own fun and interesting stories for you to learn. They’re all so unique! They show how people can live and think in different ways. We get to see how people’s struggles might be different from our own. It’s really fascinating to see how time, location and experience can create new stories and views on life.

The interesting thing is that they still show that we’re all human, though. As Robert McKee said in his book Story, it doesn’t matter where a tale might come from. It doesn’t matter what strange or unique experience a person might go through. They could be going through a breakup or trying to climb the highest mountain in the world. We don’t have to experience exactly what they have. What matters is the feelings and experiences that connect us:

The archetypical story unearths a universally human experience, then wraps itself inside a unique, culture-specific expression.

From the introduction of “Story” by Robert McKee

Basically, we get to see how people from different cultures and upbringings might react to things we’ve felt before. We get to take note of how life experiences might shape the way we feel about an event. We recognise ourselves in stories that come from all over the world.

Diversity in literature gives us the special ability to feel connected to people from all over the world. That really is special.


It Helps You to Think Outside the Box

So, now you’ve experienced stories from all over the world. What can you do with that? Well, you get to think in unique ways!

Here in the west, we tend to get stuck thinking quite similarly. We’re very individualistic, and we have our values set in stone. To us, the world works in one way – and one way only. The thing is, that’s not true. There is so much variety in people’s outlooks on life. It’s up to us to appreciate it.

If you can think outside of the box, you can become a much better storyteller. You can come up with characters who don’t all think the same. Your stories won’t have to have the same heroes and villains as those in the west. Plus, you could even convince us to think differently!

It’s not impossible to think outside of the box if you don’t read diverse stories. However, diversity sure does make it easier!

Thinking outside of the box doesn’t just help storytellers, though. It can help us in so many different fields of work!

For example, teachers.

Another great example is cultures where people put more value on nature. For example, in Maori culture, people are seen as being connected to the land around them. Many of their cultural practices are a lot friendlier to the earth. We could learn a thing or two from them to help us with climate change!

Diversity can help you to think in unique ways no matter what job you want to pursue in the future. It is a benefit to you!

Knowledge About All Kinds of Literature Is a Right

As a young person, you have a right to a good education. You have a right to know about the world you live in. We all do! It helps you to function in the world and make choices with all the options in mind. You’re not truly free to choose if you don’t know what all the choices are.

No one can pull the wool over your eyes if you have a lot of knowledge. The media can’t sell you fake news. People can’t get you to vote for them based on lies. You won’t believe everything you hear online (for more info on this, read my post on fake news).

Plus, getting a good education helps you to open up options for your future. You get to decide what path you’d like to go down and how you’d like to leave your mark on the world. That’s why it’s so important for you to do a wide range of subjects early in your school career. It lets you try everything out so you get a full understanding of what you can do with your life.

I go on and on about this with my students. A good education makes you free. The more you know, the freer your mind is.

Diversity in literature is a huge help for that. It introduces you to all new schools of thought and philosophy. You learn to think outside of the box that is your culture and consider how other people might see the world. You might learn things you don’t like, but that will just empower you to help change the world!

That’s why dictators like Stalin tried to control education and the media. If they squash diversity of ideas, they control their people. Don’t let yourself be controlled.


You Don’t Have to Give Up the “Greats” to Increase Diversity

Making literature more diverse doesn’t mean I’ll force you to give up on Shakespeare or Dickens. You don’t have to say goodbye to Hamlet or Of Mice and Men. They will always be classics, and we should always appreciate them. After all, it’s not true diversity if we get rid of all writing from white men!

Really, it isn’t about choosing which books to love and which to ignore. That would be silly. It would deprive students of stories and texts that they deserve to understand.

My goal is to figure out how to teach students more stories over the course of their school life. It isn’t to replace the ones they currently learn.

Of course, we are going to have to prioritise at some point. There is only so much you can learn in the couple hours you get for English lessons each week. However, technology has so much to offer us! We need to start making the most of it!

Who says we can’t ask students to listen to audiobooks for homework? Who says we can’t give them an anthology of extracts to check out? Why aren’t we getting through books quicker so that students can learn all sorts of writing styles?

The goal of English literature isn’t to analyse one book to death until you can quote it in your sleep. It’s to learn how to analyse any book you get your hands on and learn how writers create meaning. It’s to learn how to use words to impact the people around you.

So, let’s get back to that! Let’s read more widely and experience the diversity of the world together! Who knows? You might find some stories you love along the way!

Good luck!

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