Defining Diversity

ALA Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books, Diversity, General Interest

What do we mean by diversity?

After compiling the list of the 2015 Top Ten Challenged Books, the staff at the Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) noticed that once again, a high percentage of the titles fell into the category of “diverse content.” What do we mean by diversity?

Some definitions

Let’s start with the definition in the American Library Association’s policy manual.

“The American Library Association (ALA) promotes equal access to information for all persons and recognizes the ongoing need to increase awareness of and responsiveness to the diversity of the communities we serve. ALA recognizes the critical need for access to library and information resources, services, and technologies by all people, especially those who may experience language or literacy-related barriers; economic distress; cultural or social isolation; physical or attitudinal barriers; racism; discrimination on the basis of appearance, ethnicity, immigrant status, religious background, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression; or barriers to equal education, employment, and housing.”

OIF has pointed to the work of Malinda Lo, who wrote that diverse content means “books by and about people of color, LGBT people, and/or disabled people.” In our infographic from 2015, we unpacked that to: “non-white main and/or secondary characters; LGBT main and/or secondary characters; disabled main and/or secondary characters; issues about race or racism; LGBT issues; issues about religion, which encompass in this situation the Holocaust and terrorism; issues about disability and/or mental illness; non-Western settings, in which the West is North America and Europe.” This language is long for an infographic and we struggled with the omission of neurodiversity.

Finally, one of our partners in the Banned Books Week coalition is We Need Diverse Books, which offers this definition in their mission statement:

“We recognize all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities*, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.

“*We subscribe to a broad definition of disability, which includes but is not limited to physical, sensory, cognitive, intellectual, or developmental disabilities, chronic conditions, and mental illnesses (this may also include addiction). Furthermore, we subscribe to a social model of disability, which presents disability as created by barriers in the social environment, due to lack of equal access, stereotyping, and other forms of marginalization.”

The overall goal, as Martin Garnar, co-chair of ALA’s Task Force for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, wrote:

“We are striving for social justice for ALL – and with these definitions desire to achieve a larger rather than smaller common and inclusive denominator.”

 Applying the definitions to this year’s challenges

In regards to the mission of our office, diversity is about what is not mainstream in libraries and classrooms. Omitted and suppressed information and stories are often a reflection of the dominant players in today’s publishing and distribution systems. As OIF wrote in a (2014?) document entitled “Black Words Matter:”

“According to the University of Wisconsin’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center, only 3% of the 3,200 books written for children in 2013 were about black people and only 2% were written by African American authors. Publisher Lee & Low, using the CCBC’s statistics from 1994 – 2012, found that while 37% of the U.S. population are people of color, only 10% of the books include multicultural content.”

Beloved by Toni MorrisonWhile “diversity” is seldom given as a reason for a challenge, it may in fact be an underlying and unspoken factor: the work is about people and issues others would prefer not to consider. Often, content addresses concerns of groups who have suffered historic and ongoing discrimination. For instance, a book that often recurs in previous years’ top ten challenges is Toni Morrison’s Beloved. While it has sex in it, and that’s often the complaint, many other books also have sex, and are not challenged. Is the underlying motivation for the challenge racism? Sometimes, it surely is. In other cases, of course, a complaint genuinely may be about precisely what the challenger says it is.

In collaboration with other sponsors of Banned Books Week, we are highlighting the diverse content in the list of 2015 Top Ten Most Challenged Books. Talking about this commonality may offer some insights into the current concerns of those who challenge materials.

For instance, four of this year’s titles clearly fall into the LGBT category: Beyond Magenta, Fun Home, I Am Jazz, and Two Boys Kissing. Three books deal with religion, and challengers’ suspicion of it: Islam in Habibi and Nasreen’s Secret School; and Judeo-Christianity in the Bible. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time centers on the disability of the main character, who is autistic. Call it neuro-atypical: a mode of cognitive processing and emotional responsiveness that falls somewhat outside of the norm. OIF staff agree that all of the above fall well into our common understanding of diversity.

We disagreed about Looking for Alaska. One character suffers from depression to the point of suicide, and mental illness is certainly a disability. Others of us felt that this may be stretching the point; the book is mainly about privileged white people, and the complaints about it don’t really focus on the mental illness. But a secondary character with a disability fits our the definition we used last year. I opted to include it in the name of consistency. I can see how others might disagree.

Similarly, we talked about whether the Bible – certainly not hard to find in our culture – really fits the definition of diversity. But if challenges to materials about Islam qualify as worthy of note; then attacks against another religion should be tracked, too, even if it is better known in our society.

So that leaves us with just one title – Fifty Shades of Grey – that none of us could see as a diverse book under any of our referenced definitions. So here’s the bottom line: even if you dispute the two we argued about ourselves, we’re still looking at a clear majority of titles that deal with diverse people and ideas.

So what?

In years past, the Top Ten Most Challenged Books have generated a lot of discussion. That’s good. As a society, considering an “index of complaints” helps us to understand who we are and where we’re going. Cultures change over time, and the things we fear, or celebrate, change with them.

We should say, too, that this list of challenged titles is not comprehensive. Not every serious attempt to have a book removed from a library makes it to us, nor every challenge to a movie, program, or exhibit. In fact, where challenges are most successful in removing or restricting access to ideas, no one talks about it at all.

Censorship thrives in silence; silence is its aim.

This year’s top ten list is very much the tip of the iceberg, with a lot more going on outside our field of vision. But it could be that the shape and composition of the iceberg can be discerned from what we can see. Your comments are welcome.

Thank you for reviewing, and contributing, to our thinking on this topic.

James LaRue, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom


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