There's a side of my life I'm not overly proud of. A piece of my puzzle with sharp edges that makes it difficult and uncomfortable to work with at times.
I didn't grow up in a very diverse place. Almost everyone looked like me, spoke like me, worshiped at churches like mine, had similar household incomes, shopped at my grocery story, and attended my school. We were white on rice, a scoop of vanilla ice cream in a snowstorm.
Looking back, we were more than homogenized. We were sterilized.
I wasn't oblivious to color or ethnicity. Oklahoma has a rich and celebrated Native American history. My family lines, like so many in Oklahoma, flowed with Native American blood. But we had "Indian" towns that neatly boxed in those who embraced the culture. Venturing into those settlements was like setting foot on another planet to my child's mind.
So I thought that was how the rest of the world was ordered--like hung out with like, same lived with same, and we all got on as best we could that way. If we mingled it was born from necessity or novelty, not a real desire to live alongside one another. And I believed that to be what everyone wanted.
Then, around 6th grade, I read Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird. For maybe the first time I understood that things weren't always so neat and tidy. I learned the melting pot of the United States was more like an ice cube tray, and some folks would fight like hell to keep the contents of one cube from spilling into another.
A little girl named Scout helped me see with more than my eyes and I became aware of the threads that really bind humanity. Compassion. Love. Empathy. Family. Friendship. We were all very much the same. Yet for some reason, not everyone was regarded as such...
Fast forward to college and my New Adult years. I'd learned some lessons. I forged real friendships with people from different cultures and ethnic backgrounds. I started judging people based upon individual relationships, not blanket assessments based on where they were from or how they grew up.
During my counseling studies in graduate school, I grappled with high concepts like the source of racism and prejudice. It was a struggle, because the more I learned, the more flawed my very upbringing seemed.
Sure, I grew up in an environment where treating people the same wasn't only encouraged, but expected. But what was practiced and what was felt, or said in closed company, were often two different things. The more I studied, the more I saw there was a subtlety to the prejudice in my part of the world that seemed more dangerous and egregious than any of the overtly horrible things I'd read about in history books.
Then I stumbled upon the book, Night by Elie Wiesel. It's a book many read in middle or high school, but I'd somehow missed it. Night is the story of a boy (Wiesel) and his father as they are shunted off to a WWII concentration camp. It's full of teenage anger and rebellious thoughts, but more importantly, it expertly illustrates how racism and prejudice eats away the fabric of what makes us human--all from the victim's point of view.
There are two more books in the series. They explore the journey Wiesel made from his own hatred of those who treated he and his family so cruelly, and the disgust he had for his own people for allowing it to happen, to a place of understanding and the blossoming fruits of forgiveness.
Two books, and a lifetime of conditioning had been undone--or at the very least, I'd been given the keys to unlocking the mystery.
Words and stories have a way being absorbed by the soul like ointment, and when the tonic is truth, a profound healing can take place.
Prejudice and racism still haunt the United States. There are people crying out to be heard, to be understood. There are just as many who are unwilling or unable to hear.
There's no better way to reach them than through literature. We, as authors, have a tremendous opportunity to speak the painful truths. We can tackle tough topics. We can create diverse casts of characters that people from all backgrounds can relate to. We can illustrate the types of change, acceptance, and love the world needs to emulate. We can shine hard lights on injustice.
Readers can share in the process by thrusting the books that alter their view of the world into the hands of others. We can fight to keep books like To Kill A Mockingbird and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in schools instead of sweeping the ugly parts of our world under rugs.
We can play a part.
Have you had a book or story change how you perceive or interact with the world? Have you purposefully tried to diversify your fiction habits either in writing or reading? Let us know in the comments!