This is Part One of the episode. Click here to listen to/read Part Two.
For this episode we looked at a bunch of texts:
This is a clean transcript of the episode. If you would prefer the original, unedited version, please let me know!
Welcome to Marginally Fannish, a show where we aim an intersectional lens at some of our favourite media and their fandoms.
You’re listening to the first part of our episode on race and representation. As three Indian fangirls of mostly Western media (but also Bollywood!), we have a LOT of thoughts about this episode’s theme. We didn’t want to stop talking, which is why we divided this episode into two parts.
In this part, we describe our different interpretations of intersectionality and how we first first came across the term. We discuss how much we all owe to black women and black activists in the US for our ongoing conversations about diversity. We talk about our feelings about the term “non-white” and “person of colour” (spoiler alert: they both make us uncomfortable but one more than the other). We complain about token diversity in fantasy, science fiction, and Harry Potter. We talk about how much we love the idea of a black Hermione but also how her tackling of S.P.E.W was super problematic (you need to be a good ally, Hermione!). We chat about our colonised minds and the struggles of identifying with white fictional characters. We discuss the importance of Own Voices and also how media creators can use their privilege to be more inclusive and empathetic. We end Part One by talking about how scary the world would be if our Hogwarts Houses defined the rest of our lives. Find out why we think the Hogwarts Houses resemble the Hindu caste system (and why it makes us very uncomfortable!). We would prefer more integration and intermingling among the four Houses please!
Parinita: “It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world and it is nkali. It’s a noun that loosely translates to be greater than another. Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali. How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.” That was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story”. Hi! My name is Parinita.
Sanjana: Hi, I’m Sanjana.
Aparna: And I’m Aparna. And today’s episode is about race. So let’s start by talking about intersectionality because the best way to talk about race, or anything for that matter, is to view it through the lens of intersectionality. Which is a word that I was introduced to very recently. I think I identified with the theory of it already but the word for it, I have gotten to know better only in the recent past. Apparently, it was coined as part of a research paper, I think, in 1989 by a Professor Crenshaw to describe how different marginalised identities intersect and overlap. And I feel like this is essential to understand a complex and realistic experience that is a person’s life rather than a simplistic this-or-that picture that we all grow up consuming or understanding. I’d like to know what both of your views on intersectionality are. Sana, what is your interpretation of it?
Sanjana: So, like you, I recently started reading up a little bit more about it to understand it better. And what I’ve understood about it is that it’s a sort of a concept. I’ve understood it as a concept that helps explain disparity in society – that helps explain it to the other side maybe to try and get them to see that it’s not just one thing that you face in general or it’s not just one thing that holds you – that –
Sanjana: Defines you. Or even places you in context with everybody else. But Parinita, you’ve been reading a lot about intersectionality.
Parinita: That’s right.
Sanjana: A more clearer voice on what more –
Parinita: No, I found it really interesting. So just before I talk about what I think about intersectionality, did you guys come across the word because of this podcast? Because you knew that that was my lens of this podcast?
Parinita: Or had you come across it otherwise?
Aparna: I think I’d come across it because I read a lot of pop culture –
Aparna: Reviews and articles and discussions. But I never really looked up what it means.
Aparna: Or like tried to understand where it’s come from and what it actually is supposed to define. Turns out different people define it differently also. So that I started doing only after the podcast.
Sanjana: I, to be honest, only read the word when you had sent us an overview of your paper just to read in general. Just for general feedback, not when we were talking about this podcast at all.
Sanjana: And that is when I came across the word. And I very vaguely looked it up so that I would understand what you were writing better. But it is because of the podcast that I found it necessary to understand it better for my own self.
Parinita: So, like Paru, I also discovered this word online. It’s really become a buzzword of sorts because it’s used in a lot of different contexts online. Especially with popular media representations and things. But also with discussions of feminism online. And from my research, what I found is that the term – it basically traces its roots to black feminism in the US. So what Paru said, Kimberlé Crenshaw’s article. And it analysed how not only gender but also race and class affect the lives of black women. So that’s where it started. But now like I said, with internet conversations and even within academia, the scope of gender, race, and class has widened. So now intersectionality’s scope – it basically looks at how different multiple and complex social inequalities interact with each other. So, for example, your life is significantly better or worse based on where you live and on things like –
Parinita: Your gender, your class, your race, your sexual orientation –
Parinita: Your ethnicity, which part of the country you’re from, which part of the world you’re from. Like we see that in India so much now with the recent protests, right? Like the national origin is such a huge question and your religion is such a huge question.
Parinita: Also, what you guys said was absolutely what I think of intersectionality as well. But reading more about it, it’s such a contextual thing. Because you can be marginalised in some cases and you can be privileged in others. Some of your identities can be –
Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah.
Parinita: So in India like gender would play a bigger role for me just because as an Indian woman you know walking in the streets and just –
Sanjana: Yeah, yeah, yeah!
Parinita: Whereas for me in India my national origin or my race didn’t play any role. It’s not something I thought of at all. Whereas now that I’m in England in the UK, with just this sort of national discourse that’s become so anti-immigrant and anti-foreigner, I’m much more aware of my race and I’m much more aware of my immigration status than I would be in India. And even though I’m –
Parinita: Like in a university setting in the UK, so I’m like really privileged otherwise as well and in terms of class and stuff. So it’s a really complicated sort of thing. And within the context of fandom, so I started thinking about intersectionality because I thought it was a really interesting thing that I had not thought about. Like I’d not known the term. But I had encountered a lot of these diverse perspectives in fandom. So things like how disabled students would navigate Hogwarts or why there need to be more diverse Time Lords in the TARDIS. Like there’ve so far been only white men. Like until before Jodie. It was all white men.
Sanjana: And! And!
Parinita: Until Jodie and now! The newest Doctor!
Parinita: Which –
Sanjana: Like it couldn’t have come at a better time.
Sanjana: Like oh my god!
Parinita: I mean we’ll talk about it later as well, but it opens up so many more possibilities and so many more exciting possibilities that I can’t wait to see where it goes.
Parinita: What I have found, in conversations about intersectionality and also about diversity in general, in like children’s book publishing or in popular media and stuff, there seems to be a really heavy focus on race. It’s usually through the lens of race that all these We Need Diverse Books and things –
Parinita: At least in Western media, that’s what it’s talked about. In India, it might be more caste-based or region-based or perhaps language-based.
Sanjana: Gender-based in India, I would say.
Sanjana: Gender-based in India.
Parinita: Yeah. Whereas in the West, it’s very heavily focused on race, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Parinita: Because even though the talks began with racial diversity, just like with intersectionality, it has expanded the scope. So that there’s sexual orientation, religion, class – all these other identities. However, I still do think that among intersectionality scholarship but also among talks of diversity, the heavy focus is still on race in Western media. And that’s why I’ve tried to expand the identities in my own podcast you know in terms of the intersectional themes that we’re looking at.
Parinita: Just so that race is a good starting point, but other categories shouldn’t be overlooked based on that.
Parinita: And black people in the US seem to be paving the way for so many movements and so many like conversations about diversity. Because they work so actively to highlight their perspectives. I was reading this research paper about a network of black podcasters. And essentially, they’re making fan podcasts and just discussion podcasts in ways that highlight their perspectives in media which erases their experiences largely. One of the texts that we listened to for this episode was the Black Girl Nerds episode, right? And –
Parinita: Black Girl Nerds is an example of this. So, when Game of Thrones, the last season was out, I discovered their recaps. After every episode, they would just talk about the episode, what they thought. Like what the three of us do on WhatsApp, they did on a podcast.
Parinita: But because Game of Thrones is such a white world, like there’s mostly white people in charge, so they would be talking about it from the lens of the two black characters that were left in the show.
Parinita: And I found that so interesting because it just opened up my mind so much because it’s not something I would have thought of doing myself.
Parinita: And this is something they do all the time in popular culture, highlighting their perspectives and also working with each other. So, it’s not just an isolated thing where they want to make money or whatever. But they are actively collaborating with others and promoting each other and I think this collaboration is such a crucial component of any form of activism even if it is something like what we’re doing.
Parinita: So another of the texts that we looked at this time was a Reddit thread about fandom and about how there is a lack of POC in fandom and I’ll link to this in the transcript of the episode. But the term POC, it’s an acronym for person of colour. And, Sana, you said that you hadn’t heard of the term POC, right?
Sanjana: No. So when we were looking up stuff to read about this episode, I was looking up stuff to read, and I was Googling various terms and this came up. This thread sort of popped out and I had to Google what POC was. I, yeah, had never heard of the term.
Parinita: Yeah. Which I’m not at all surprised by because it stands for person of colour. And one of the people in the thread did point this out – did critique the term – because it’s such a US-centric term.
Parinita: Because everywhere else in the world, we’re not measured against white people. Like in India, we’re not –
Parinita: Right? We’re all people of colour in India.
Sanjana: Within our people of colour also we have various shades.
Sanjana: No what I mean is like India also has their own person of colour –
Sanjana: Gauge happening.
Sanjana: Yeah problems.
Parinita: Yeah like light-skinnedness versus dark-skinnedness.
Parinita: Which has so many … which caste and which class and which part of the country.
Parinita: So in the thread itself, some people were trying to talk about instead of using the term person of colour, you can use diverse ethnic backgrounds or non-white. But I find the term non-white a little problematic. Just because –
Sanjana: No, no, it’s quite problematic.
Parinita: Right? What do you think of the term non-white?
Sanjana: Very – very – not little problematic. Quite problematic!
Parinita: [laughs] Yeah. Why do you think it’s problematic?
Sanjana: It’s a little worse than person of colour. Like we are the island of white and everybody else floating around is like far away and not – non-white.
Parinita: I absolutely agree with this. And it’s something that I had – well not an argument, more maybe a debate, with Jack, my white boyfriend.
Parinita: Who was saying that he prefers the term – not prefers, but when he’s talking about people who are not white, he prefers to use the term non-white and I was like that makes me uncomfortable for precisely the reason you said, Sana. Because it positions you against like white is normative and everything else is othered.
Aparna and Sanjana: Yeah!
Sanjana: Exactly. It sounds like we are up there in a fort you know.
Sanjana: Yeah. It’s talking down.
Sanjana: Sort of.
Parinita: And I mean I do understand why non-white is like a sort of convenient catchall term.
Parinita: And person of colour is also not a great term. But I prefer person of colour to non-white.
Parinita: And so in the thread itself, in response to this critique, a responder shared a video about the origins of the term woman of colour.
Parinita: Which featured this feminist called Loretta Ross. And she described that the term came to be coined as a form of solidarity among different groups of oppressed women. So it was supposed to be a political designation and not a biological one. So it’s not literally about the colour of your skin. Because white is also a colour. Right?
Parinita: So it’s a political identity. And in the video, it’s a really short video and I’ll link to it. But something that she said was so interesting was that the origin of the term has been forgotten because history isn’t documented and it’s not preserved and it’s not taught.
Parinita: And that really made me think of the protests in India that are happening now the anti-CAA and the anti-NRC ones. Where there was this excellent video by Raghu Karnad. I don’t know if you guys have seen it. It’s called “Remembering Emergency and the Student Protests the BJP Doesn’t Talk About.” So it essentially talks of how people in India, we don’t learn about the history of protest.
Parinita: Right? Like we’re not taught, even though the BJP like they did student protests, the current BJP members.
Aparna: Yeah! Protest is such an important part of any movement or the development of any group of people. But it’s in the best interest of the government to not encourage you to know about protests obviously. So, it’s sort of successfully been forgotten every time.
Parinita: Yeah. And it’s such a huge part of democracy. Like the right –
Parinita: To question your government. And now they’ve positioned protest as something that’s anti-national.
Parinita: But the fact that you care so much about your country and about protecting your country, how can that be anti-national? So I thought that it was a really interesting –
Parinita: Interesting analogy.
Sanjana: So talking about race and general diversity in the texts and the universes that we meet, focusing on Harry Potter in particular, there was this very interesting Twitter thread that was by someone called Darren Chetty. Which was very similar to the thoughts that I’d had when I was just generally noting down thoughts without reading anything. That there is diversity – like the universe as such talks about diversity – but within the magical world. Like it does talk about inclusion and stuff but very allegorically. I wanted to read one of the tweets that he had written. “So a story that has so much to say about racism on an allegorical level at the same time depicts people of colour as marginal without actually exploring their marginalisation.” I thought that was very interesting because there is like the house elves and giants and the pure race of wizards and –
Sanjana: The Mudbloods as the bad word is.
Sanjana: And I just thought that was a very interesting take on it. For a text that does that is basing all this on race and the history of how people have been treated. But you’re still not addressing –
Sanjana: Actual anything. What did you take from that?
Parinita: What that made me think of, this metaphorical racism, and again – like it’s really easy to read the Harry Potter series I think as something that really talks about like you said inclusivity and just non-prejudiced attitudes and everything. But it’s not a radical text at all because it’s –
Parinita: It’s so allegorical. And it’s similar to science fiction where you know aliens and robots usually take the place of other races and cultures. So there’s this whole colonising new planet narratives without –
Parinita: Exploring what that actually means. Or the history of colonising. For example, in Doctor Who, there – there were two black companions. So there was Martha and Bill. Were there any others? Well now currently there’s Ryan.
Parinita: In the earlier ones, before Jodie, there was Martha and Bill who travelled to the past but the show doesn’t explore the impact of this. Like –
Parinita: The fact that they would be unsafe in these societies where people who were not white were not considered to be equal.
Parinita: Whereas in the Rosa Parks episode that we also watched for this podcast, Ryan and Yaz go back to Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 and they were targeted for being black and for being brown. Like she’s called Mexican even though she’s desi. But –
Parinita: That explored it a little more. We’ll talk about the episode more in detail later but racism is something that would affect people based on the time period that you’re in. It’s not something that’s just – you can’t be colourblind to it. You can’t just say –
Parinita: Oh everyone lives happily.
Aparna: You can’t have moved past it just for the sake of telling your story that the allegory rings a little hollow.
Parinita: Exactly and like the colourblindness is very much present I think in the Harry Potter series which –
Parinita: I didn’t think about while I was reading it at all. Oh there’s like the brown twins and then there’s Cho Chang –
Parinita: Who may be Chinese, may be Korean, we don’t know. Because remember last time when we got so angry about Panju?
Parinita: The name Panju.
Parinita: The other sort of controversy about the name Cho Chang is that it could be Chinese, it could be Korean, and it doesn’t quite make sense in either country. But we know nothing about Cho Chang except that she’s in Ravenclaw, you know, we know nothing about her ethnic identity. We know nothing about Parvati and … do they celebrate Diwali? Do they not eat beef? We don’t know any of these things about them. So I really liked what Darren calls this. He calls this a “failure of imagination”. Which I think is something that you not only see in this book, you see in a lot of popular media everywhere.
Aparna: Yeah. It’s very surface level – not three-dimensional characters. Just who’ve been named as a certain way just for the sake of diversity to be a part of the cast but it just doesn’t translate. Like you can tell that it’s not a well-written character – that particular one – when obviously J. K. Rowling, for example, has the ability to write fantastic characters. But the fact that these characters are so one-dimensional is a bit uncomfortable the more you think about it.
Sanjana: As a kid when I read the Harry Potter books and for the first time Parvati comes on the scene, I was super excited to read that name because I was like “Hey I know a Parvati!”
[Parinita and Aparna laugh]
Sanjana: Oh my god I was super excited. And just that much mention of them did so much for me as being included in this vast universe. To only imagine that what it does to so many like just this small mention did that much emotion for me. That this pale Indian character in the background who doesn’t have any more character than just her name did so much for me.
Aparna: Yeah. [laughs]
Parinita: So no you know like that’s another thing ‘cause like we do critique now, especially as adults, the lack of fleshing out characters of colour. Like in the other text that we looked at, The Gayly Prophet text “Clearly Hermione Is Black”, they counted seven characters of colour in the whole series.
Parinita And one Jewish character. And I’m in the UK, I know that it’s much more diverse than that. So you know Darren Chetty, he says, why are there not more people of colour in Hogwarts or even among the teaching staff? Like why is it so white? Where are all the teachers of colour?
Parinita: But then as much as we like to critique this, I think Sana like you said, superficial representations sometimes can also have a powerful impact –
Parinita: On people, I think. Because you know how J. K. Rowling sort of takes credit for diversity that wasn’t actually there in the books? Like –
Parinita: For example black Hermione and Dumbledore is gay. And as adults or as people who are a part of these conversations
Sanjana: Please – yeah.
Parinita: It’s easy to say that this doesn’t count whatever. But in a university workshop that I was at, I was talking to this person on my table. And she was saying that her child is non-binary and they – when they discovered that Dumbledore is gay, even though it’s not in the text, like you can read the entire series without knowing Dumbledore is gay. But when they heard about it just through conversations with their parents maybe, they were so excited! They were you know –
Parinita: That coloured their whole reading of the texts. So even though –
Parinita: That came later, even though it was superficial … For us we want more but …
Sanjana: Haan no absolutely. It can be very powerful just to identify with, which is what I’m saying – just small identifications, can you imagine what a well-written character would do for like a kid growing up?
Sanjana: I was just trying to say it could have been done so much better.
Parinita: Of course.
Sanjana: Like she could have owned not putting it in the original but wanting to –
Sanjana: Add this to the story like –
Sanjana: It could have made so much of a difference to the way everybody received it.
Aparna: But Hermione being black, the more I’m reading online or the podcasts that we’re listening to, or the comments on the articles, some people are completely convinced and have been from the beginning that Hermione is black. But for others it’s like obviously not. So I’m not sure what J. K. Rowling had in mind but some people have managed to completely own the character nonetheless.
Sanjana: No but listen, if Rowling thought that she was black from the very beginning, she had a say in the way –
Aparna: No, no, she –
Sanjana: She had been cast.
Parinita: I don’t think that’s true. But I love the idea of a black Hermione because I’ve been reading a lot of articles and fan texts and things about how if she’s black, her activism really makes sense. Like her outrage against –
Aparna: Yeah! Exactly.
Parinita: House elf slavery and you know –
Parinita: Dumbledore’s Army and everything. But then since the last week, I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts and especially on this one podcast called Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, there have been conversations about how Hermione’s handling of S.P.E.W. was actually really problematic and was a bit white feministy or maybe like in an Indian context, savarna feministy, I guess. Because she didn’t talk to the – like she came saying that oh I know better than you and pitying the house elves but not –
Parinita: Having conversations with them.
Aparna: I will fix things for you.
Parinita: Exactly! And she was not a good ally. She was controlling it and she was putting her – what she thought was correct into you know circulation – the ideas into circulation without talking to them and talking to –
Parinita: How they would want to be a part of it. Or do they want to be a part of it?
Parinita: And you also need an education. Like there’s so much internalised prejudice against your own identities just because of the messages you get in society, that sometimes it needs to start from educating, you know, just raising awareness about your oppressed identity. You may not realise you’re oppressed. So it needs to start from there. And so –
Parinita: I thought that was also a really interesting interpretation like it’s a great thing she did but maybe … you know because it was presented quite uncritically. In fact, her whole activism was very much a joke. Like in terms of you know how because we read the whole series from Harry’s perspective, he –
Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah!
Parinita: Didn’t take it seriously so the readers also don’t really take it seriously. But there is so much room there for critique and exploration. But it might reflect her own biases and her own worldview at that time or even now. But like you were saying, Sana, it would be so much more impactful if she acknowledged her blind spots. Because obviously all of us have blind spots.
Parinita: Like we can’t know everything about everything. It’s just questioning your biases and questioning your social conditioning and trying to unlearn that. Like if you don’t acknowledge it –
Sanjana: Talking about social conditioning is what The Gayly Prophet in their episode spoke about was that how when we are reading these texts, even though we uh uh are you know peo – persons of colour, we don’t uh – we
Parinita: [laughs] I like how uncomfortable you were with that term.
Sanjana: Yeah I was –
Aparna: Now you don’t know what to call yourself!
Sanjana: I’m not sure what I am anymore. [laughs] You have shattered – either which way what I was saying was that how we assume that the character we’re reading is white.
Sanjana: How often does that happen to you guys? It happens quite often to me.
Aparna: Yeah totally. It happens very often and constantly. And most of the time, my imagination was right, because we were reading only white people – white men mostly. I just assumed for the longest time until like shamefully recently that all the characters I was reading were white.
Aparna: And all the characters that I identified with also in the books that I was reading and all just happened to be white only because they were the coolest – even if there were non-white characters in the book. Sorry I said non-white.
[Sanjana and Parinita laugh]
Aparna: But in that context it’s true okay because they were only white characters and a few – sprinkling of a non-white character here and there. But even if they were, they were either stereotypes like in Johnny Quest – Haji in Johnny Quest.
Sanjana: Oh my god Haji in Johnny Quest! [laughs]
Aparna: Or they were so surface level that beyond their name or one line here and there, they didn’t really have much of a role to play. So you ended up like identifying with the white characters and then that just became the normal. It took me a long time to say, oh the characters I identify with can actually be similar to me.
Parinita: You know the BuzzFeed article that we read by Alanna Bennett and about – basically about Hermione being black and a racebent Hermione, which again, I’ll link to in the transcript. But she said that she had to train herself out of seeing white as default for fictional characters, but for me it’s something that I really still struggle with. Like I almost –
Parinita: Need the author to explicitly say that this person, their racial markers. And I don’t know why. It’s like it’s a blind spot in my brain. You know like it’s such a colonised brain that I have that it’s still difficult. Because it’s like what nearly thirty years of conditioning because we’ve grown up –
Parinita: With Western media. We still largely read Western media. And now I make it a point to diversify my reading so that I have more black and brown voices in it. But in that it’s so much easier for me to then imagine black and brown bodies. But in just other books, it’s still something that – it’s very difficult for me to unlearn. And it’s still something I actively need to be … so you know these conversations about them being convinced that Hermione was black, I would never have been able to think of that. For me, Hermione was always white because all the characters that I read about were white. So –
Parinita: Even though I identified with her – bookworm, bushy hair, big teeth, big front teeth –
Parinita: I was like yeah that’s as far as the identification goes. Because I’m in Ravenclaw, you’re in Gryffindor, our paths diverge.
Aparna: [laughs] So it’s like you said, you’re trying to read more diverse authors now. And that’s sort of slowly deconditioning you. Which is why I think the Own Voices movement is so important.
Aparna: It’s because to start seeing yourself in books, you have to be correctly represented in books. And to be correctly represented in books, the books have to be written by somebody who’s lived similar experiences as you. Like there has to be space for all voices in the books that we’re reading or the media that we’re consuming. So that everyone can find a way to see themselves. Like this whole conversation should, in an ideal world, not exist because there’ll be so much space for everyone and every voice that every child will be able to identify with every other child or know about various experiences that are not their own through the books that they’re reading. Not just oh this is what British people eat on a picnic. Like everyone should know what everyone eats on a picnic, you know?
Parinita: Yeah and also ever since I came to the UK, I realised that the most popular British food happens to be chicken tikka masala [laughs].
[Aparna and Sanjana laugh]
Parinita: Which you know – that’s not something that you would know of in India. You think oh they eat crumpets and they eat you know baked goods and haggis. And like here everyone loves a good curry, as they call it. Which is something that disrupts our notion of British food.
Aparna: Yeah. So, I’m a picture book editor and I was reading this book about the history of picture books. It’s called Fierce Bad Rabbits. It’s by a lady called Clare Pollard. And she was talking about how there’s a picture book called The Snowy Day by Ezra Keats. And how it was one of the first books that became really popular that featured an African-American character. And it’s just about this little boy who is playing in the snow. And the book was really well-received and people were writing letters to the author saying, “For the first time, my students are picking up the brown crayon to represent themselves.”
Aparna: Because we were all – even when we were young, when we would get a crayon box, we would have this flesh-coloured crayon and it would be this pink-colour crayon.
Parinita: Pink. Yeah in India as well!
Sanjana: The crayon’s name was flesh.
Parinita: Yeah. Or skin.
Sanjana: Yeah something like that.
Aparna: So it became really popular and many people assumed that the author was black. And when they found that he wasn’t, they were very disappointed. And then he received a lot of flak about why did he choose to show an African-American character and then started finding like these are very stereotypical representations etc. And he said no, that all children play in the snow, it’s such a universal experience etc. I think he chose it because it would stand out better against the snow or something like
Aparna: Something illustratory like that. I don’t know. I’m just going to read a bit from the book. “I’m glad if artists don’t always default to white children convinced by Keats when he says of Peter, ‘My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along.’ But it’s worth noting that The Snowy Day raises an ongoing problem in picture books. Representation on the page is seen as enough for the black child or at least to tick the publisher’s diversity box. Yet there is still a staggering absence of Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic [BAME] writers and illustrators. Who gets to tell the stories is important. They get to shape our children’s way of seeing the world.”
Parinita: No, I think it’s a very good point. But it throws me into such a quandary. Because I’d watched this video on The Guardian and it was about inclusive children’s literature, in the British context. And it featured a Guardian journalist, a black Guardian journalist, Grace Shutti. And she read this book called Amazing Grace, which I think was written in the 70s or 80s. I don’t know, it’s a pretty old book. And it stars like a black family and Grace who is this “little black girl and loves stories and wants to do everything”. So she really identified with it. And then for the video itself, she managed to interview the author. And the author happened to be a white woman.
Parinita: And she knew that before she interviewed her.
Aparna: Okay. Haan.
Parinita: And she spoke a little bit about the tensions and things. But for her, it was one rare book in a landscape of white that she was reading.
Parinita: So for her, that book holds a really important place.
Parinita: And that’s what I struggle so much with. Because I completely believe Own Voices is so important and you should have as many diversity of voices and experiences writing about – because there’s no monolithic experience, right? There’s no monolithic Indian experience –
Parinita: Or a monolithic whatever class anything. So you need as many as possible. But then I feel like sometimes that non-own voices can also make a really important contribution. Like unfortunately, systemically in media, children’s publishing, everything, we’re not there yet. We’re working really hard to try and fix the imbalance of dominant voices and marginalised voices. But it’s going so slowly. And the other article that we read, which was “Writing Outside Your Identity” by Laura Simeon on Kirkus Reviews.
Parinita: And she spoke about how non-own voices books and you know how the different kinds of representations within them.
Parinita: And she spoke both about the problematic elements where you just resort to stereotypes and lazy generalisations and not really you know going deep into your research. Oh have you guys come across the recent backlash against this book called American Dirt?
Sanjana and Aparna: No.
Parinita: So it’s this American book I believe because yeah American Dirt. I suppose that makes sense [laughs]. But it was written by I believe a middle-class woman with part Latina heritage. And she’s written about South American immigrants. You know how the whole border situation that’s happening –
Parinita: In the US. And so she wrote about South American immigrants and it created this huge backlash because they believed that she didn’t have the lived experience and she didn’t have the knowledge to be able to tell this story. And that there aren’t enough people who are telling their own stories. So I found that really interesting because in that sense, there’s the power dynamic as well, right?
Parinita: She’s American, like she may have Latina heritage but her Latina experiences in the US are very different from someone who’s fleeing crime or you know whatever from their country.
Sanjana: Yeah. And it can do more harm than it can do good sometimes. Like if you don’t do a well-researched story. What happened to research though? Like it’s not that hard to – at least a little bit.
Parinita: So in that article, she mentioned two YA [Young Adult] books that do a good job. Like non-own voice writers who write about another culture and they do it in a way that a cultural insider would recognise it. Would be able to identify with the characters and stuff.
Parinita: So it is possible. But it’s not easy.
Sanjana: It is possible, yeah, yeah.
Parinita: It’s – you have to do a lot of research. You have to know the current and historical discussions, debates, controversies. You need to have a clear picture. Especially when you’re writing about a culture that’s not your own and where you are not impacted, where you are the dominant person and the other person – you know like there’s so many – you have to be careful about it. You have to be respectful.
Aparna: Exactly. Respectful of all of that. And the most important thing is probably an authentic representation.
Aparna: If you’re writing outside of your identity, you owe it to your readers to authentically represent them. Because the job of creating media is one of privilege. The creative fields are one of privilege.
Aparna: So it’s already somebody who does it will be from a certain privilege and has been for the longest time so to break away from that, like you said, will take – it’s taking time. There the most important thing is to have people who are like the commissioning editors or people who are showrunners to be diverse or to be at least invested in making sure their shows and books are more inclusive. But more than that, it’s just something that is going to take some time to break away from. But meanwhile whatever representations are being included should be done more mindfully.
Parinita: And there shouldn’t be like you’re scared of representing a culture that’s not your own so you’re not going to do it anyway. Like in that Reddit thread, which was –
Parinita: Essentially about people of colour in fandom and in fanfiction, there were some responses like, oh if you have a problem with it, why don’t you write your own? Like it’s always the burden of you know the person.
Parinita: Like it only matters to the person who inhabits a marginalised identity. And it’s not like diversity isn’t important for everybody. Or they would say that, oh they were super sensitive and over-cautious about offending marginalised people through their representations. Which again, it can be solved by research. Social media, the internet, makes it really easy – I mean doesn’t make it really easy, you have to do the work.
Parinita: But you have access to resources and conversations that you –
Parinita: Wouldn’t have had earlier.
Parinita: Or there are these colourblind statements like, oh we’re focusing on the character and we want to entertain. Like another of this Reddit comment was, I want to entertain and not educate, which is why I’m not adding –
Aparna: Yeah! That’s such rubbish!
Parinita: Right?! As if just having diverse people in a book makes it educational. Like last time I said, just the presence of diversity isn’t political. It’s another thing that I find – I think it’s important to have serious issues, you know, issues based on your marginalised identity like stories that delve into that. But that shouldn’t be the only kind of diversity that we see. Like it should be just diversity in terms of just going on adventures or having fun or just you know light-hearted sort of things.
Sanjana: Yeah without –
Aparna: Yeah exactly.
Sanjana: Comment. That diversity without comment on diversity is what is needed.
Aparna: Exactly. Yeah. I actually have a follow-up question. So as more diverse books are being published, there are lists of diverse books, there is a focus on diversity as a topic. But what do you guys think of that? Because I’m always torn between whether that’s a good thing or is it already treating it as separate?
Sanjana: Different, yeah.
Aparna: From the mainstream.
Parinita: Well, I think that we should be moving towards where it’s not separate. Like we should be moving towards a sort of environment where we don’t need to isolate this. But you know I totally understand these lists because school librarians, school teachers, parents may be really well-meaning but they may not have access to the resources or the knowledge or whatever. So you know putting these things together, and to highlight these voices and to highlight these books and to hopefully encourage other people to pick them up and buy them and you know read them.
Parinita: I think that’s an important step that needs to be taken. Because it is something that ideally it should be without comment, but it’s a political thing as well right? Like unfortunately, diversity currently is political. Or fortunately, I don’t know. It’s a good opportunity as well.
Parinita: And just like the woman of colour thing that you know it was formed as a political designation, maybe just diversity now should be used as a political tool to promote inclusivity and empathy and respect for different experiences.
Sanjana: Yeah. Which brings us to …
Sanjana: Our next section!
Sanjana: I’ve been waiting for this section! Our specially curated section on What If?
Sanjana: So anyway what I wanted to ask you guys very importantly because when I was writing stuff down, this just sort of pounced at me like the Houses in Hogwarts and the Sorting. What if it was at a different level? How would the world have been if the segregation started at a school level, like at that moment when you are put into Gryffindor or Hufflepuff or wherever – that defined the rest of your life. Like in a sense, what jobs were okay for you to take, and what jobs were beneath you or –
Parinita: Are you talking about the Hindu caste system?
Parinita: Because that’s what it sounds like [laughs] Like oh I’m a brave Gryffindor, maybe I can go fight battles.
Aparna: Yes! Yes!
Sanjana: Isn’t it? Isn’t it? Thank you. I was just – I was phrasing my sentences so you would get at that.
Parinita: [laughs] But like –
Sanjana: All the Ravenclaws would be the ones writing all the texts that –
Aparna: Oh god!
Parinita: Yeah like they would be the Brahmins.
Aparna: This conversation – this what if is …
Sanjana: Haan? Yeah? Isn’t it?
Parinita: Brahmins. Because they have access to knowledge that they don’t – they refuse to share with other people –
Parinita: And hold onto.
Sanjana: They’ll be the ones writing the history.
Parinita: Oh yeah, yeah.
Sanjana: We didn’t compare the Slytherins and Hufflepuffs. I don’t want to go there also.
Parinita: But Slytherins is – maybe they’re the Brahmins because like the white supremacy house.
Sanjana: I think they’re like the supremacy – yeah exactly.
Aparna: That’s true.
Parinita: Yeah I don’t know. Hufflepuff I feel would be the best house. Because Gryffindor only wants the brave people. Like if you’re chicken, please, get out. Ravenclaw only wants the smart people. Slytherin only wants the pure-blood people. And Hufflepuff just accepts everybody. Like Hufflepuff is great, you don’t – you need to be kind, okay. That’s all – that’s all you need. That’s great. That’s a great House.
Sanjana: Yeah. But what a strange horrible world that would be.
Aparna: [laughs] Yeah.
Sanjana: I have a follow up to the What If.
Sanjana: What if it was all integrated? Like you got Sorted out, but then you didn’t sit on separate tables.
Sanjana: You went on Quidditch matches against other schools, not your own school, like one team. You also had one team.
Sanjana: That would be fun!
Aparna: I suppose, I suppose.
Parinita: So there’s that fan text Tumblr post that I’d sent you guys earlier this week which I’ll link to in the transcript. Which was – it had very tragic beginnings. Because it was –
Parinita: After the war. After the Hogwarts battle where lots of people were dead so there were gaps in the House tables. And soon just as a form of healing and getting over your trauma, the professors encouraged intermingling of the Houses. So there weren’t four separate tables for the four houses. And again like how messed up is that?
Aparna and Sanjana: Yeah!
Parinita: That in the series like they do literally everything only with their Houses.
Aparna and Sanjana: Yeah!
Parinita: Which, again, has so many race, class, caste implications, right? Like imagine if you’re only hanging out with your own caste or your own class or your own race.
Aparna: Like it would be rebellious to befriend people from other Houses at the rate at which we are keeping people away from each other.
Sanjana: Because the Common Room is – the Common Room of like girls and boys. They should be like a larger Common Room for everybody.
Sanjana: Like a common Common Room.
Parinita: And like you can’t make friends with people who aren’t brave? Like that’s such a sort of superficial characteristic. Like brave and loyal. So what Slytherins can’t be brave and loyal?
Aparna: Also it’s not practical. The brave people need – people who are not so brave need brave people to hang around with. [laughs]
Parinita: Absolutely! And brave people, I’m sorry, but are not always the most clear-headed and you know –
Parinita: They’re not always thinking about their actions. So like maybe you need a little bit of Ravenclaw to be like excuse me please, can we – can we analyse little bit and see what is going to happen? Instead of just charging into the situation. So again Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, I keep calling on them even though we’ve not listened to them yet. But they had another interesting thing was so they were thinking of it in terms of American university semesters. And they said that all the students in Hogwarts, because there don’t seem to be that many of them, it’s a very small class size. So every semester, they should all be in a different House. And embody the qualities of that House and learn about the House’s history and their attitudes and talk to each other and you know talk to people whose families have a history of that House and just as a form of cultural intermingling in a very respectful way and in like a very curious way where you’re not judging but you’re just happy to learn and happy to be a part of it. That’s what I would want. That’s what my What If would be.
You’ve been listening to Part One of our two-part episode on race and representation. Tune in again for Part Two where we have a lot more thoughts about whitewashing, racebending, diverse canons, diverse fandoms, Harry Potter, and Doctor Who! As always, thank you so much Sana and Paru for putting in so much work for my weird little PhD project. I can’t imagine doing this with anyone else! And thanks again to my editor, Jack, for taking care of the technical bits.
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