As an introvert, an ethnic minority, and a second-generation immigrant, invisibility is a reality for me. I grew up in classrooms where my voice was barely heard, I was told that I was unable to take art classes because “people like [me]” are only good at technical fields, and English teachers consistently refused to acknowledge both my presence and the essays I wrote.
This invisibility wasn’t only in the classroom; it appeared in the books I read. When I sought solace in books, I found that most of them were centered around white, heterosexual protagonists--characters who had last names like Phillips and Blake and Thomason, whose biggest worries seemed to be getting the attention of the cute boys in class, who ate macaroni and cheese for lunch and watched football games on weekends.
I was raised thinking that those stories were valid and the “American experience,” when in reality my last name was Wu (as distinctly Chinese as it could ever get), my biggest worries were whether my extracurriculars were good enough to get into Stanford (just down the street), and I ate dumplings in Tupperware containers for lunch and did ACT prep during the weekends.
When I grew older and got into dystopia, the same thing occurred: white people were the saviors, while people of color and those who didn’t fit into the binary were sidelined, left in “oppressive” systems that didn’t care about them just as much as America didn’t.
Asian American characters are frequently categorized as quiet, hard workers, coders behind the operations of saving the world, and those who don’t get much recognition in the wider context of fiction. That isn’t to say these stories aren’t valid. I’ve met Asian Americans that do have stunning work ethics, who prefer to listen than speak, and who code as a way of affirming their interests.
But I’ve also met Asian Americans who are brilliant and talented in fields other than STEM, Asian Americans who save the world by making art, Asian Americans who make the world happier by making people laugh. However, these individuals rarely receive the recognition they deserve in the books they read.
Moreover, we see a tendency to characterize protagonists by the color of their skin, gender identity, or their sexual orientation. That isn’t to say that these aspects aren’t important, because they are. Yet it would be inaccurate to say that these are the defining characteristics as individuals.
Yes, the margins are a setting, and so are the people that live there. But instead of looking at marginalized stories as ones of purely violence and generational trauma, we also need to give names for those stories that are about life and love and visibility as human beings, not just as those perceived “different” from the white, heterosexual protagonists that so often make up both our YA novels and our history textbooks.
The issue isn’t just diversity; we don’t need another “token” Asian or Latinx or black or Native American character perpetuating stereotypes in our stories. We don’t need another LGBTQ character to act as a flamboyant best friend. We need minorities to take center stage in our narratives.
Right now, inclusion is most important--the fair and accurate kind. Until we read about characters that not only look like us, but share our identities and are authentic in every sense of the word, we’ll always remain invisible. And given the current political climate of America, dismantling these power structures are more important than ever.
Movements like #WeNeedDiverseBooks and the Make It Safe Project are so important today because they seek not only fair, but accurate representation in the both the stories we tell others, but also ourselves. By socializing children to believe that being represented isn’t a privilege, but a right, we affirm our voices as not only those on the margins, but also those that deserve recognition just as much as the voices currently on center stage.
When we choose to write about the heritages, communities, and multiple identities that define us, we give ourselves names, rather than depending on others to give them to us. When we give ourselves names, we become our own heroes. We create our own settings. We revolutionize our own conversations. We save the world, one story at a time.