Why reading about people who look different than you matters

So I was listening to a really interesting episode of Annotated, a BookRiot Podcast, about The Baby Sitters Club. They had so many interesting things to say, and I highly recommend it if you’re a 90s kid and a podcast listener. But one of the things that got me really thinking was when they started talking about Claudia and representation.

Pre-BSC (and honestly, post-BSC too) it was unusual for minority readers, especially young minority readers, to see themselves in a book character. This episode of Annotated talked at length about the benefit of that, which I won’t go into much detail about here because so many other bloggers have said it so eloquently before.

But while I was listening, I really got to thinking about my favorite book series from the 90s. I was a BSC fan like anyone else, but my absolute favorite series was Animorphs. I know, you’re not shocked. I’ve only talked about it like, a million times. And if you’re thinking about what the folks on Annotated were talking about with Claudia, it’s really cool that so many young, black girls got to see themselves reflected in the character of Cassie. But here’s the thing.

I absolutely identified with Cassie too.

In Animorphs we were presented with two young women. Rachel was a tall, super-model-esque Blonde with a kick-ass-first-ask-questions-later attitude. Cassie was a small, quiet, black girl who cared deeply for animals and feelings. And when ten-year-old me first encountered this series it was not the girl who looked like me I identified with, but the one who thought like me. Cassie.

How powerful is it that for the three years I read and re-read this series I saw myself most reflected in the minority character?

At the time I didn’t think anything of it. Literally, it didn’t occur to me that Cassie was a minority. In my little white privilege bubble I didn’t have to worry about it. But now, as an adult, I realize that I probably learned more empathy for African American people by reading about and caring for Cassie than any amount of social studies lessons about Dr. King and Rosa Parks. Unlike so many of my peers, I instinctively understood that black people are people because Cassie was just like me.

I think one of the reasons Animorphs was probably such an effective lesson in empathy was because the author, Katherine Applegate, didn’t make a big deal out of it. Once per book when characters were getting described her skin color would come up (at the same time as Rachel’s blonde hair), but it was never made a big deal of. Racism and discrimination weren’t a big theme in the books. Everyone was human, and everyone’s life was at risk by the Yeerks. I think the normalization of the characters of color in that series was partly because of the lack of social justice themes.

Don’t get me wrong, books like The Hate U Give are incredibly important. But I think that sometimes it’s good to have a book where interracial characters are just … there. No fanfare, no big neon sign.

We talk so much about representation in books, and how it benefits those being represented. But we know the research, reading builds empathy. I think it reasons to stand that reading about people who look different than you builds even more empathy. So I believe that as important as representation is for the represented groups, it is equally important for those not represented to be reading. I think (I hope) I am a better person each time I read a book where the main character looks different from me, whether skin color, gender, weight, hair-type, or religion. And I want to thank Katherine Applegate for helping me get there.

28 thoughts on “Why reading about people who look different than you matters

  1. I think you make an excellent point here. It’s a fallacy that readers always and only identify with the character who looks most like them racially. We generally identify with the one(s) the author directs our attention to … usually an underdog of some sort.

    Even on a superficial level, I may be white but I do not and never have looked like a tall, blond, athletic, Barbie-type. If you call that an ideal, it’s just as unattainable for me as it is for any girl of color. And I think most white girls feel the same way.

    But let’s take it one level deeper. When I was a kid, I crushed hard on Indians (or, as we now say, Native Americans or First Nations) and their cultures. I wanted so badly to be that lean, brown, woodcrafty Indian boy. That was my ideal. But, sadly, I fell short. I was too fat, too white, too wimpy. Too ignorant about Indian lifeways.

    Anyway. I read every book I could get my hands on that looked like it might feature Indians. And who do you suppose I identified with? The Indian characters. Of COURSE. If my race showed up in those books, it was either as the villains, or, at best, the ignorant, bumbling outsider who comes along and wrecks things. I did my best not to identify with – or be – these idiots.

    As a white reader, I know my place. It’s Villain. That’s why I haven’t read The Hate U Give. I don’t need to be told that I’m the villain … again. I get it. I get it.

    That, of course, is when race is foregrounded in books. It creates heroes and villains along racial lines. Like you, I prefer books where we can be on the same side and be friends.

    “Unlike so many of my peers, I instinctively understood that black people are people.” Ouch. Are you sure your peers were so inhumane that they couldn’t tell a person when they saw one? I mean, unless you’ve talked to them about this and verified it, it’s possible that, like me, they felt just as you did …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I admit that in terms of assessing my peers, I’m largely going on what they say on social media. But in general, I think, we forget that other people are people. That’s what Paper Towns was all about. And it’s even easier to forget when presented with the us vs. them narrative that is now so pervasive. But in general, yeah, I think a lot of my peers tend to treat POC like stereotypes rather than like people.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, OK. You know them better than I do, obviously, since I don’t even know who you are talking about, so I guess you know whereof you speak.

        I do agree that it’s easy to dehumanize others. I also know how it feels to be on the receiving end. The idea that most whites don’t know or care about any POC is itself a stereotype that I’ve found hurtful because it doesn’t match my experience at all. I wondered if you were writing flippantly about your peers, but I guess you were going from life experience.

        Anyway. Thanks for listening.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I feel that. As a Christian I tend to get thrown in with some of the most hateful people, and I’ve actually lost friendships because people assumed they knew how I felt about something and wouldn’t bother to listen to me. I suppose I could have been more sensitive to my peers. I guess what I really meant (now that I’ve re-read my comment) is that I intuitively built empathy for black people (having never met one at the time) (yes, you read that right) that my classmates had to be taught because they didn’t read. I got a bit of a head start, in that way. But, sadly, around here things are still racially pretty tense, and many of my peers still struggle to treat people who are differently than them with equal value.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. OK, and to be fair, I may have taken your original post a tad too personally. As you can see, I got issues. πŸ™‚

            But your main point is well taken, namely that reading can help us develop empathy in whatsoever direction we may need to … whether across racial lines or other lines.

            Sad to hear about things in your area. I’ve spent the last few years of my life living in a delightfully racially integrated city. It was a good experience. Much as I may feel demonized by what I see in media and yes, literature, all my IRL interactions with POC have generally been positive. This is especially true since I’ve become a parent. Now we have moved to a more rural area, with a very different racial mix but still not lily white.

            Anyway, good talk.

            Liked by 1 person

    2. Jennifer, I would urge you to reconsider and read The Hate U Give. Not only is it a good book, but it very much reflects American society today. It’s too simplistic to cast all white people as “villains.” That’s not the message of the book anyway. In fact, the main character dates a white guy and issues surrounding interracial relationships are explored.

      I appreciate that this blog post is promoting representation of POC and agree that reading is a wonderful way of empathizing with others from different backgrounds. Personally, I like books that change me in some way, books that challenge me to look at my own attitudes and beliefs, even when that’s difficult.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. My daughters love BSC, and I agree that stories that contain diversity without making it a huge plot point can be an important part of developing empathy for people in general rather than just “people like me.”

    Having lived in some very white areas where prejudice against “those [insert color/nationality] people” was prevalent, my wife and I have consciously tried to find various ways to make it clear to our children how unacceptable such prejudice is. We now live in a much more diverse area where my white kiddos are sometimes in the minority, and it’s been encouraging to see that they don’t seem to have absorbed the fearful/condescending nonsense they were sometimes exposed to earlier in life. (also we just discovered that my middle daughter’s favorite hero from history is Rosa Parks, and she was over the moon when we got to see the actual Rosa Parks bus at the Ford Museum a few month ago).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s wonderful! Around here things are still so segregated. Middle-class neighborhoods are mostly white with token families of color here and there, while poorer neighborhoods are also segregated between poor black neighborhoods, poor hispanic neighborhoods, and poor white neighborhoods. It’s made it hard for us to find a place to raise our kids that is both diverse and in a good school district.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Unfortunately, a lot of our neighborhoods around here are still fairly segregated as well (Marysville, MI up the road just made it into the national news for racist comments by a city council candidate), but hopefully we’re making some progress (especially in the local churches).

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I wish we could say the same. There is a whole district of black mega-churches on the south-side of the metroplex and white mega-churches on the north side. My church is a part of a big multi-cultural group that gets together to talk religion once a month, but our actual membership is 99.9% white. It’s not so much that we’re racist, more like we do what’s comfortable.


  3. i looooved this post so much!! as a woman of color, i so rarely (and to this day) see myself represented in books, tv and film. it’s incredibly frustrating and had the effect of feeling like i’m not good enough/attractive enough/etc to be represented. i long for the day where diversity is so normal that we don’t even realize the characters aren’t all white. brooklyn nine nine is a good example of us getting there though.

    i also wrote a review of Crazy Rich Asians and one of the things i loved was that it was a fluffy romantic comedy. not every movie with non-white leads has to be about something deep and depressing — it’s a powerful statement to say that asians can carry something as light as a romcom and that it doesn’t have a to be a big deal.

    keep up the great writing! πŸ™‚

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks! And I strongly agree about both B99 and Crazy Rich Asians. I get kind of fatigued reading so many books where representation comes hand-in-hand with heavy themes, and enjoy reading books where characters are diverse and it doesn’t *have* to be a big deal. But then, I rather like fluffy books, lol.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I 100% agree with you on this. I didn’t read Animorphs, but I did read (BSC and) the Saddle Club, and I identified as much with Carole as I did with Lisa. It’s the books that teach us that everyone is equal, a person first and everything second, third or fourth, that really make the difference in young people’s lives and attitudes.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. The Saddle Club was this amazing story of a group of 3 friends who were obsessed with horses. There was tom-boy and overly mischievous Stevie, quiet, shy and studious Lisa, and completely horse-mad and slightly over the top Carole. They were so cute and just the best BFF role models!!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I haven’t read Animorphs, but respect Applegate a lot for what she said about war re: the ending.

    “So, you don’t like the way our little fictional war came out? You don’t like Rachel dead and Tobias shattered and Jake guilt-ridden? You don’t like that one war simply led to another? Fine. Pretty soon you’ll all be of voting age, and of draft age. So when someone proposes a war, remember that even the most necessary wars, even the rare wars where the lines of good and evil are clear and clean, end with a lot of people dead, a lot of people crippled, and a lot of orphans, widows and grieving parents.”

    Full letter: http://www.hiracdelest.com/database/articles/kaa_response-full.htm

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow. I admit I didn’t love the ending of the series, just because it ended on a cliff hanger and I was 12. But I always felt she did such a great job of seeing the characters through to a realistic place. I have enormous respect for her as an author, even more now that I’m reading some of her more recent stuff, which doesn’t pull punches for kids.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This is a really great post because it really resonates with me. When I read it’s most important to me if I like the character. I don’t care how they look like, most of the time I imagine them completely different from what they are discribed as anyway. (In the Illuminae files Kady was always discribed as pinkhaired and blueeyed. In my head she always was short and Asian.) If I can relate to what they are feeling and how they are acting, that’s enough for me. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Yes! This is so important. So many readers have never been able to read books that have main characters who look like them. That’s why I try to make a point of writing a cast of different characters in my own books. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

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