The Impact of Media Representation in America
Written by Jeffrey Miller, 11/21/21
In 2019, Census data revealed that for the first time in US history, more than 50% of children age 15 and under are non-white (Census, 2019). Census projections depict that this diversification of America’s youth will continue to increase in the coming decade, leading many experts to point out the necessity of addressing the interests and needs of non-white populations in regards to education, housing, healthcare, and family services (Frey, 2019). Children today are growing up in a more diverse America than any previous generation. They will experience this diversity in the classroom, in their local communities, and eventually in the workplace. What remains to be seen, however, is whether or not the children of today will grow up in a more equitable America. Will the diversity that they encounter in their day-to-day lives be reflected in the books they read or the television shows that they watch? If not, which groups are being excluded from these forms of media, and why? Most importantly, what is the impact of mis- and underrepresentation, and who is being impacted by it?
The mainstream media, in particular media intended for children in the form of books, TV shows, and movies, has been slow to shift with America’s diversification. Contemporary children’s media continues to prioritize Eurocentric ideas and identities, to the detriment of children whose racial or social identities do not align with traditional western backgrounds. The lack of representation in children’s media poses a threat not only to the development of our nation’s increasingly diverse youth, but to our cultural ability to empathize with people of different backgrounds (Kwaymullina, 2015), the consequence of which will enable the continuation of systemic racism and prevent us from becoming a truly just society (Thomas-Greenfield, 2021). While the recent increase in and positive reception of diverse books, films, and TV shows indicates to many a narrowing of the racial gap in particular, the data reveals that we have a long way to go in order to be truly representative and inclusive (Elrich, 2014). It is important to note that while diversity in children’s media is an important step in the direction of a more equitable future, it is neither the core of the problem nor the sole solution to the issue of racial inequality in America. Addressing the issue of representation, however, especially as it pertains to children’s media, is nevertheless a necessary contribution to forging a country that protects and provides for all our children.
The issue of representation in children’s media is not new. As Nancy Larrick illustrates in her 1965 article ‘The All-White World of Children’s Books,’ published ten years after the landmark Supreme Court decision to desegregate schools, children’s media had made little observable progress in diversifying either the characters in their intended audiences. Her study examined 5,206 children’s trade books, published between the years of 1962 and 1964, and found that only 6.7% of the books surveyed featured a Black character in the illustrations or texts, while many of those that did appear were portrayed alongside negative stereotypes and offensive imagery. The importance of the issue was clear to Larrick, who wrote that, “Across the country, 6,340,000 non-white children are learning to read and understand the American way of life in books that either omit them entirely or scarcely mention them.” (Larrick, 1965) Larrick’s identification of and publications on this issue have been incredibly valuable to the researchers that followed, one of whom directly relates her own research to Larrick’s.
Almost twenty years later, Rudine Sims Bishop, sometimes referred to as the ‘mother of multicultural children’s literature,’ published an article entitled ‘What Has Happened to the ‘All White’ World of Children’s Books?’ The article refers directly to Larrick’s research, and asserts that despite the passage of time, little had changed to effect the situation. “Children’s fiction remains largely white in terms of the characters the authors, and the audiences for whom the books are written,” she states, concluding on the hopeful note, “But thanks to a small number of Black writers, we are no longer where we once were—though not yet where we ought to be.” (Sims Bishop, 1983)
The lack of representation observed by Larrick and Bishop in the sixties and eighties is still observable today. A 2018 study determined that of the 111 titles released by Harper Collins in 2018, only 20.7% featured diverse characters and plots, and only 12.6% of these were written by authors of color (Snook, 2018). Despite making up 18% of the US population (Census, 2020), data compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center shows that only 6.2% of children’s books were written by Hispanic and Latinx writers (CCBC, 2020). Additionally, a 2019 review of 476 popular children’s television programs in he United States and Canada revealed significant disparities in the treatment of a) female characters, which made up only 38% of protagonists, b) characters with lower economic status, which made up only 2% of protagonists, and c) characters with disabilities or chronic illness, which made up only 1% of protagonists, despite the fact that an estimated 20% of the population of North America live with disabilities of some kind. (Lemish & Johnson, 2019)
While Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) may seem far removed from the present day, this paper will attempt to reveal what progress has actually been made in diversifying children’s media, particularly as it impacts Black and Indigenous populations. It also aims to touch on other historically marginalized communities, including the LGBTQIA+ and disabled communities. The goal of this project is to illuminate the history of the topic, expose the data as it applies specifically to children’s media, and to address the following questions: What is the importance of underrepresentation? What is its impact, and who is being impacted by it? Has the issue of representation been adequately addressed on a national scale? Who are the voices advocating for change? And finally, what should the future of children’s media look like? Because children today are growing up in an increasingly diverse world, an increase in representation in children’s media is both urgent and essential.
As a white writer concerned with the way that marginalized communities are represented in media, the lack of appropriate representation is a matter of pressing concern to me both personally and professionally. There are many different perspectives regarding how white writers should navigate what many view as the ‘treacherous waters’ of race. These perspectives fall mainly into two categories. The first insists that writers write only from their own cultural background in order to avoid both misrepresentation of another culture, which includes the continued use of harmful stereotypes and exploitation of such culture, in which a writer who is not themselves from a particular culture profits from its use. This school of thought is a just and reasonable reaction to many decades of harmful stereotypes, and is reinforced by CCBC data, which continues to show that every year books are being published about a culture which are not written by a member of said culture. 2020 alone, of the 3,299 books that were received by the CCBC database, 400 were about Black/African characters, but only 252 were written by Black/African authors. (CCBC, 2021) With this data in mind, and a long history of abuse and exploitation by white writers, it is easy to see why this perspective has gained traction among many writers of color. Movements such as OWN Voices have arisen as a response to this issue and continue to raise awareness and provide a platform to writers of color who are looking to share their stories.
The second major camp argues that through ongoing education and open-mindedness, white writers can and should produce diverse stories. Many writers of color support this line of thinking, provided that white writers are intentional in their anti-racism practices and employ sensitivity readers to ensure that their stories and characters are true to life, unoffensive, and devoid of any problematic stereotypes. This camp is of course the more challenging of the two, for the white writer, because it requires an ongoing openness to correction, humility, and willingness to learn, listen, and adapt. This is the camp into which I personally fall, and for this reason I am passionate about the research performed in this project and its implications.
Due to this challenging dichotomy, many white writers have preferred to write only their own experiences. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, it is my own opinion that by writing only from white experiences, white writers are continuing to saturate the market with white stories, experiences, and characters, which only increases the representation gap. It is my own opinion, and the opinion of many writers color, that it is important for all writers to cultivate accurate and well-researched diversity in their work. Of course, it is of even greater importance that writers of diverse backgrounds, especially those who have been historically discriminated against, be given the space and recognition in the contemporary industry which continues to be denied them in order to provide the representation needed for the increasingly diverse world of tomorrow.
The lack of representation in children’s media in the United States poses a threat not only to the development of our nation’s increasingly diverse youth (Frey, 2019), but to our cultural ability to empathize with people outside of our own group (Kwaymullina, 2015). Over the last five years, organizations such as the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) and the Young Adult Library Series Association (YASLA) documented a steady increase in the diversity of children’s books. This coincides with the box office success and popularity of Black-led films such as Get Out (2017), Black Panther (2018), and Academy Award Nominee Judas & the Black Messiah (2021), and has led many people across the country to assume that the issue of racial disparity in media is closing, if it has not closed completely.
Fox News Contributors Tucker Carlson and Deroy Murdock, among others, have echoed this sentiment, denying the existence of systemic racism by citing hand-picked examples of diversity to dismiss statements regarding institutional racism as irrelevant. “Democrats are trapped in the 1950’s and early 60’s,” writes Murdock (Murdock, 2021). However, not only does this statement assume that the issue of racial justice is a matter of importance only to the Democratic party, a statement which falls apart quickly when compared with the overwhelming influence of the independent social justice advocates and organizations that have arisen over the years, it also demonstrates a failure to comprehend the data levied even in this research project. The under- and mis-representation that Nancy Larrick witnessed in the 60’s was still alive and well in the 80’s, as Rudine Sims-Bishop shows, and they are still alive today, as research performed by Gay (2012), Snook (2020), and others indicates.
These arguments, which have become increasingly hot-button issues over the last five years, serve mainly to further political agendas, and tend to focus on the demonization of one political party over the other. In so doing, proponents of these arguments ignore the real-world impacts of the issues at hand. The issue of mis- and under-representation is not a political issue, but is rather a matter of social justice and public health on account of its sweeping impact on children of various backgrounds. In particular, children rely on media representations in order to form healthy self-identities (Ellithorpe & Bleakly, 2016) and to maintain healthy levels of self-esteem (Ward, 2004).
“It is important for identity development and self-concept for children and adolescents of color to see positive examples of people who look like them represented in the media and popular culture,” Ellithorpe & Bleakley state in a 2016 study of race and gender gaps in popular adolescent television. This study illuminates the correlation between strong self-identities and representations in mainstream media, particularly as it impacts adolescents of color, and echoes the conclusions made by Ward in 2004. “Research shows that identifying with popular characters with the same identities in mainstream media leads to higher self-esteem on several dimensions,” indicates Ward, in a study that collected data from 156 African American High School students, in order to examine the correlation between multiple levels of racial self-esteem and various forms of media consumption.
Both of these articles are enhanced by the application of Cultivation Theory, which was originally laid out by Gerbner & Gross in 1976. Cultivation Theory states states that exposure to media plays an essential role in shaping the thoughts, perceptions, and behaviors of children, especially as they accept the assumptions and beliefs they are shown as their own (Levinson, 2020). This theory is popular among researchers attempting to identify the short and long-term effects of representation in the media. “Children are particularly vulnerable to media messages and use what they see in media to create their beliefs about themselves and others,” writes Levinson. “Thus, the media industry holds great power over the socialization and self-concept of young people. Media can influence viewers in positive ways, but often becomes problematic when considering the underrepresentation or negative portrayals of certain identities such as gender, race, disability, and socioeconomic status.”
This article by Levinson, which examines the positive and negative impacts of on-screen representation among children, relies heavily upon prior research performed by Lemish & Johnson (2019), and Rideout (2019), both of which illustrate this issue by revealing the representation gap in children’s television and the amount of time children are exposed to media, respectively. Rideout indicates that young people spent an average of two hours a day watching TV in 2019, and even more time watching online videos, the latter of which may be due to the greater accessibility of diverse content on user-generated platforms. When viewed through the lens of Cultivation Theory, this amount of media exposure may dramatically influence the identity and self-esteem of children. Lemish & Johnson’s 2019 survey of 476 popular children’s shows in both the US and Canada revealed alarming disparities in representation. Of the 1,654 main characters included in the study, only 38% were female. While the proportion of white to non-white characters on-screen was ‘somewhat reflective’ of the ethnic makeup of North America, notwithstanding the significant underrepresentation of the Latinx population, female characters were nearly twice as likely to be portrayed as persons of color. “The fact that female characters are more likely to be portrayed as persons of color suggests that some shows might be trying to ‘check two boxes with one casting,” Lemish & Johnson articulate. “This creates a misguided situation where a character is suddenly the primary voice not only for her gender but for her race as well. In turn, without room to explore various facets of both females and people of color, writers are more likely to turn to inaccurate stereotypes.”
While television is one of the primary ways that children consume media, trends in children’s publications are also incredibly telling of the representational gap. As previously mentioned, organizations such as the YASLA and the CCBC have documented a gradual increase in diversity, especially in the last five years, as has independent research conducted by Gay (2012) and Snook (2020). However, this growth is still in many cases marginal, and many experts agree that it is far from adequate. “The numbers are grim,” writes Roxane Gay, whose independent survey of The New York Times revealed that, of the 742 reviewed by the publication in 2011, nearly 90% were written by caucasian writers.
These days it is difficult for any writer to get a book published. We’re all clawing. However, if you are a writer of color, not only do you face a steeper climb to get your book published, you face an even more arduous journey if you want that book to receive critical attention. It shouldn’t be this way. Writers deserve the same fighting chance regardless of who they are but here we are, talking about the same old thing—these institutional biases that even by a count of 2011 data, remain deeply ingrained. (Gay, 2012)
How have things changed in the last 10 years? Snook identifies increased diversity by examining the YA titles released by Harper Collins, one of the largest publishers in the US (Snook, 2020). In 2018, Harper Collins released 111 YA books, only 23 of which featured diverse characters or plots, and only 13 of which were written by authors of color. Of 108 titles published in 2019, 19 were written by authors of color and 38 featured racial and sexual diversity. Of the 112 titles then projected to be released in 2020, 40.2% featured diverse characters, almost twice the amount included in 2018.
This data reflects that collected by Lee in 2018, who examined the Young Adult Library Service Association’s ‘Teens Top Ten’ lists from the years 2007-2017 (Lee, 2018). Over this ten year period, the Teens Top Ten list included 88 books with white protagonists and 20 with non-white. The number of non-white characters increased between 2014-2017, but in the years 2008, 2009, and 2013, no books with non-white protagonists were chosen. Similarly, LGBTQ+ protagonists made up a total of 5 books (4.6%) featured in the same ten year span, as opposed to the 95.4% of straight protagonists. What this information does not immediately indicate, however, is that no books with non-straight protagonists appeared on the YASLA Teens Top Ten list until 2015.
This data aligns closely with that collected by the CCBC, whose database is by far one of the most substantial on this issue. Operated by the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, established in 1963, has collected diversity statistics since 1985, but expanded their data services in 1994 to include books written by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, and again in 2018 to include ‘additional aspects of identity,’ including disability, religion, and gender and sexuality. Currently, the CCBC organizes the data they receive to include stories by and about: Black/African, Indigenous, Asian, Latinx, Pacific Islander, and Arab. The data received by the CCBC shows a gradual increase in the number of non-white authors and characters over the last five years, with 2020 being the most diverse year on record. In 2020, 7.64% of children’s books were written by Black/African authors, a 4.4% increase over 2015. While this increase is objectively good, it is in no way representative of the 46 million Black and African Americans who make up 13.4% of the US population (Census, 2019).
This issue has received increased attention in recent years, largely due to the hard work of BIPOC activists, writers, and scholars. One statistic, cited by Deroy Murdock in an attempt to discredit the concept of Institutional Racism, argued that while only 13.4% of the US population was Black, the Executive Branch of the United States federal government was 18.2% Black in 2017 (Murdock, 2020). While factual, according to the US Office of Personal Management, this statistic fails to consider the impact of underrepresentation on other non-Black minorities, especially Hispanic and Latinx persons, who despite making up 16% of the US population in 2017 occupied only 8.8% of government roles (OPM, 2020). Currently, Hispanic and Latinx people make up 18% of the US population (Census, 2020), yet between the years 2018-2020, only 6.2% of children’s books were written by Latinx authors. Similarly, only 1.14% were written by Indigenous authors, and .54% by Arab and Middle Eastern Authors (CCBC, 2020).
While data compiled by the CCBC and others demonstrates a gradual increase in the amount of diverse stories and authors being published, they also reveal the continued disparity that exists within mainstream media. Having established the necessity of adequate representation on the development and socialization of children, it is subsequently essential to understand the impact of underrepresentation as it applies to society in a broader sense. “At first glance, it seems that the importance of young adult literature about African Americans is singularly of importance for African Americans,” writes Deleon Wilson a 2014 Phenomenological Case Study of African Young Adult Literature. “However, the imparting of knowledge of the African American culture stands equally, if not more important, for those who are not African American.” (Wilson, 2014)
This issue was raised by US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield at a recent speech, delivered at the 30th Annual meeting of the National Action Network. In her address, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield remarks that “Racism is not the problem of the person who experiences it. Those of us who experience racism cannot, and should not, internalize it, despite the impact it can have on our everyday lives. Racism is the problem of the racist. And it is the problem of the society that produces the racist. And in today’s world, that is every society.” (Thomas-Greenfield, 2021)
This sentiment is echoed across many sources. Researchers and writers agree that the issue of underrepresentation, while of critical importance to children of color who are being systematically overlooked, also impacts white children, and society as a whole. Nancy Larrick writes in her 1965 article, ‘The All-White World of Children’s Books,’ that “Although his white skin makes him one of the world’s minorities, the white child learns from his books that he is the kingfish. There seems to be little chance of developing the humility so urgently needed for world cooperation, instead of world conflict, as long as our children are brought up on gentle doses of racism through their books (Larrick, 1965).” Compare this with the following quote from Rudine Sims-Bishop, twenty years later.
…Literature is one of the important vehicles through which we socialize children and transmit our cultural values to them. White children, finding in the pages of books only others like themselves, come to an inherent ‘rightness of whiteness’ that grants to other races no important place or function in society. Exposed only to ludicrous or pathetic images of blacks, white children absorb even more deeply the poison of racism—and grow to perpetuate this evil for yet another generation. (Bishop, 1983)
Not only are the racial identities of Black children being influenced by these portrayals, but so are those of white children, particularly white male children, who have no shortage of representations and role models to choose from in order to establish their own identities. In a 2008 study which analyzed the relationship between television and racial identity development of African American Youth, Martin writes that “far too often,” Black people are portrayed a) stereotypically, as the comedic relief or ‘the help,’ b) negatively, in association with crime or violence, or c) in strictly supporting roles. (Martin, 2008) What message, then, is being disseminated not only to children of color, but to white children, when the media bias that exists not only under-represents them, but misrepresents them in favor of traditional Eurocentric values?
The following quote, by Indigenous author Ambelin Kwaymullina, provide an important perspective on the motivation for social justice that should be at the heart of the desire for diversity in media: “Aboriginal author and lawyer Larissa Behrendt…once wrote that the fairness of our laws should be judged not by their effect on the powerful but by their effect on the poor, the marginalized, and the culturally distinct. It occurs to me that the fairness of our literature might well be judged in the same way, and that fairness, whether in the legal or literary sphere, is a desirable goal.” (Kwaymullina, 2015)
She concludes, “We need diverse books because a lack of diversity is a failure of our humanity. Literature without diversity presents a false image of what it means to be human. It masks—and therefore contributes to—the continuation of existing inequalities, and it widens the gulfs of understanding that are already swallowing our compassion for one another.” (Kwaymullina, 2015) In a country that is becoming increasingly diverse, there has never been a greater need for understanding and compassion. If the proponents of Cultivation Theory are taken at face-value, then there is no better time nor way to instill these values in our children than to disseminate them into our children’s media, replacing the monolith of Eurocentrism with a multi-faceted depiction of what it truly means to be American.
There are multiple ways in which the increase in media representation over the last five years can be interpreted. One tool that offers a possible interpretation is Interest Convergence, a tenet of Critical Race Theory, which argues that “unless the idea or action is for the betterment or benefit of those in power, it is not likely to have success.” (Bell, 1995) This argument has been historically used to explain why publishers continue to release false or stereotypical depictions of race, or why certain authors, works, and subjects have been avoided by the publishing industry. However, it could also provide an explanation for the recent shift in mainstream media, in which media cooperations may be responding not to public outcry, brought on by a resurgence of social justice concern in the US following events of racial violence in 2020, but to the financial incentive to expand into progressive markets. In short, publishers may not be motivated to diversify on moral grounds so much as they are motivated by the opportunity to benefit financially. It is one thing to diversify the shelves in bookstores, and another to instigate lasting change in representation, diversity, and inclusion. By this line of thinking, the rigorous diversity and inclusivity programs initiated by cooperations such as Walt Disney may be an attempt insulate themselves from public scrutiny and thereby prevent future market loss. While this project makes no attempt to discredit the legitimate efforts to combat racism in the workplace, where they are legitimate, it nevertheless perceives Interest Convergence as an important and relevant tool in the discussion and interpretation of these findings.
Another interpretation of the recent increase in diverse children’s media may in fact be that the cultural mindset of the United States has begun to shift toward a more diverse and inclusive future. This change may be due to the increased political tension that accompanies a growing partisan rift. It may also have to do with increased exposure to Black and other non-white groups through user-generated platforms and social media. Finally, it may also be the culmination of years of hard work which Black and BIPOC social justice advocates, writers, and community organizers have dedicated to bringing awareness to the issue of underrepresentation. Black-led Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) have manufactured change across the globe, without the need of political affiliations or partisanship, and the effectiveness of these organizations cannot be overstated or underestimated.
The potential power of the public to respond to instance of social injustice is represented well by the events involving the Golden Globes Award Show earlier this year. Many actors and organizations, including Netflix, Amazon, and NBC, participated in boycotting the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the journalistic committee behind the Golden Globes Award Show in February of 2021, in response to an exposé released by the Los Angeles Times. The exposé revealed that there were no Black journalists among the 87 members of the Hollywood Foreign Press. While the HFPA released a statement promising to ‘take immediate action’ in amending the situation, including hiring an independent expert and expanding their organization to include more Black and other minority journalists, many actors and organizations assert that this promise of change is not enough. This comes after repeated snubs of Black-led films in 2021 and previous years, despite widespread success and critical acclaim.
However, many actors and publications have insisted that the issues with the HFPA are not new, but have been tolerated in previous years because of its high profile and potential impact on career actors. Writes Journalist Kyle Buchanan, “This sort of insensitive behavior has been tolerated by Hollywood for decades because the Golden Globes offer the most high-profile pit stop on the way to the Oscars: if you’re willing to schmooze and take selfies with eccentric voters (as well as turn a blind eye to their more questionable behavior), then the group might bestow you with the momentum you need to make it all the way through awards season.” (Buchanan, 2021) While this may present an accurate depiction of Interest Convergence in action, the murder of George Floyd in 2020 has galvanized social justice topics and forced many prominent organizations and companies to take public stances regarding the issue. (Vera, 2021)
Change is happening in America, as it must, considering the increasing diversity of our country (Census, 2020). However, as the data listed above reveals, many institutions and services, namely the mainstream media, still lag behind that change. While the subject of change is being discussed, it is important to discuss the final goals of change. Should on-screen representation be reflective of the population? On this matter, not all experts agree. However, the general consensus reached by the sources included in this project is that our increase in diversity necessitates an increase in visibility, not only for the sake of the underrepresented (Wilson, 2014) but for the development of society as a whole, which is multi-faceted and made up of many distinct cultural parts. Lemish & Johnson, in their 2019 survey of diversity in children’s television, conclude that “Content creators today should be creating and casting more diverse characters than ever to keep up with the audience of tomorrow, who are growing up in an increasingly diverse world.” (Lemish & Johnson, 2019)
Take, for example, children living with disabilities. Children with disabilities are represented in less than 1% of children’s television programs. This is in no way representative of the 20% of the North American population who live with chronic disease or physical disabilities (Lemish & Johnson, 2019), meaning that 20% of the US population, across racial and generational demographics, go almost entirely unrepresented. It is just as important for a child living with chronic illness or disability to form a healthy self-identity as it is for able-bodied children, who are represented in 99% of children’s media. In this case, requiring mainstream media to be reflective in their representation may be an adequate solution.
However, reflective representation may not be an adequate solution to the underrepresentation that is impacting Indigenous communities in North America. While the Indigenous population in the US hovers around 2% of the total population (IWGIA, 2021), only 1.1% of children’s literature published in 2020 was written by Indigenous authors (CCBC, 2021). Representation that is merely reflective of the current population may not be enough to positively influence healthy development of the individual child or much-needed societal inclusivity. This applies also to the Arab/Middle Eastern population and the Pacific Islander population, who combined contributed less than 1% of the children’s books published in 2020. While the Black and Latinx populations are dramatically impacted by underrepresentation, in part because of the size of their populations (collectively comprising more than 30% of the national population), numerically smaller demographics, such as the Indigenous or Pacific Islander populations, are perhaps at even greater risk of being neglected by the media.
The primary goal of this project has been to address the statement: Because children today are growing up in an increasingly diverse world, an increase in representation in children’s media is both urgent and necessary. While this statement is still undeniably true, it also undersells the impact and importance of this issue, as well as its historical context and social implications. A more accurate version of the original thesis might read: Under- and misrepresentation continue to cause untold harm on the development of children in America and will continue to undermine the values of American society until adequately addressed.
Data continually shows us that there are significant portions of our population going overlooked and unnoticed by the mainstream media, and therefore by America itself. As Cultivation Theory suggests, children at a young age are already reliant on the mainstream media for the development of their own sense of self (Levinson, 2020). These children grow up seeing no version of themselves on television, reading about no characters who look like them in books, experiencing no culture which resembles their own anywhere outside of their home. These children are being excluded from America’s idea of itself, and subsequently they struggle to form their own identities, ideas, and self-worth. Despite growing up in a more diverse America than any that has existed before, children today may face the same isolation and discrimination that non-white children have experienced since Nancy Larrick’s The All-White World of Children’s Books (1965).
There is, of course, much research still needed on this issue, particularly in regards to the effects, both positive and negative, that representation can have on children. While this project has focused on representation in books and television, it has not addressed the infinitely complex impact that social media and exponential internet use are having on the self-esteem and self-identity of children. Finding new ways to quantify the impact of change will enable us to have a clearer view of the correct way forward. Additionally, there have been many ethnic and socioeconomic groups that have been almost entirely overlooked by mainstream media. These include, but certainly aren’t limited to, people living with disabilities, refugees and displaced people, as well as those experiencing homelessness, and childhood hunger and poverty. Representation of these groups is practically nonexistent in mainstream media as a whole.
As researchers continue to observe and document this issue, a sense of humility and objectivity will be necessary both for the extrapolation of data and the defense of its interpretation. As media giants begrudgingly acquiesce to an increasing demand for representation, researchers will need to employ tools such as the Theory of Interest Convergence in order to determine what is progress and what is capitalization. Future research will require a great deal of humility and willingness to uncover unflattering truths, as well as determination and unrelenting perseverance in the name of a better and more equitable future.
Across the political and social sphere, work is being done to address the past and ongoing harms caused by systemic racism. However, this work is being primarily instigated by people of color, who have not ceased to fight for proper representation in the United States since its inception. In order to move into a more equitable future, others will need to rally behind these leaders, lending their platforms, their voices, and their energy. In particular, white writers will need to shoulder this burden, white publishers, agencies, television executives, and content creators, those who have taken up more than their share of the shelves, of the streaming queues, of Saturday morning cartoons. We must be willing to change. The following words from Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, delivered at the 30th Annual meeting of the National Action Network, address what it means to internalize these facts as motivation to improve.
We have to acknowledge that we are an imperfect union—and have been since the beginning, and everyday we strive to make ourselves more perfect and more just. In a diverse country like ours, that means committing to do the work. It means learning and understanding more about each other. It means engaging in trailblazing groups…to teach, to grow, to include, to improve. It means not forgetting our past or ignoring our present, but keeping both firmly in mind as we push for a better future. (Linda Thomas-Greenfield, 2021)
The unfortunate reality is that America is not the same country for all of its residents. It has, since its founding, played favorites. The result has been the death, enslavement, imprisonment, oppression, demonization, antagonization, penalization, and isolation of millions of people from countless cultures. Despite being a ‘proud country of immigrants’, our children’s books and television media depict the reality of how America sees itself.
The responsibility therefore falls on every individual to respond. One reaction to this information may be denial, and subsequently a lifetime of avoidance, which will become punctuated by the insistence that society is already as it should be, that the sins of its past have been addressed. Those who continue to deny these realities may find the efforts of those determined to expose social injustice as threatening, problematic, and unpatriotic.
This information may also instill a sense of urgency and humility that insists that we do our part. Doing our part may be as simple as listening to the voices of writers and educators of color, to social justice advocates and community organizers who have seen firsthand the devastating effects of underrepresentation. It may also require us to engage with our media in a different way, to be more vigilant and consciences of the movies, television shows, and books that we engage with. Does the media we consume as adults reinforce our own ideas and worldview, or do they expose us to new thoughts, ideas, and cultural backgrounds?
It may also mean that we require our media platforms to maintain a higher standard of representation, insisting that equal opportunity be given to writers, creators, stories and characters of various cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as sexual orientations, gender expressions and identities, and degrees of physical ability. Children deserve to see children who look like them on television, to read about characters in books who face challenges like theirs, and to know that people who look like them not only have contributed to our society, but will continue to do so in the future. If a lack in diversity in our books is a failure to our humanity (Kwaymullina, 2015), then celebrating our diversity on every platform, not only in this country, but in the world, is how we honor that humanity, and present the children of tomorrow with a true image of what it means to be human.
Bureau, U. S. C. (2021, October 8). Population estimates show aging across race groups differs. Census.gov. Retrieved November 22, 2021, from https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2019/estimates-characteristics.html.
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