This is somewhat related to my last post. I nearly wrote the following as a comment on FaceBook, but came to my senses in time. I have a long-time online friend, a Black woman and an academic who specifically studies minority representation in YA and kidlit, who is excited about the upcoming black Panther movie. I almost wrote a comment that I think this movie is important to white people too, and instantly I could hear her saying, “Oh my God, we finally have this, are you going to make even this all about you?”

So I backed away from the keyboard and out of her space. I think it’s okay to say this here, though, in my own space and where it’s not derailing any other discussions.

I am taking it as axiomatic that we need more diversity in books, movies and TV, and that a primary reason is that kids need to be able to see some heroes who look liek themselves or someone they could become. Not all their heroes, but some – if a girl sees that it’s always a boy in the spotlight, a Black kid sees that it’s always White people who do the important things, a kid with a disability sees only able-bodied main characters, only cisstraight characters, only physically attractive characters, only, that is, people who are Not Like You, how much does it hammer home the message that you are only good enough to be a supporting character (if that) in your own life?

So yeah, that’s important and I get it. I think it’s a two-sided problem, though.

The other side is the kids who are male, white, straight, able-bodied, well-off or whatever. How much do those kids get the message driven home, not only that they can be heroes, but that their story is at the center and everyone else is there to support them? (Judging from our current politicians, quite a bit!) We’re all born solipsists, but we’re supposed to grow out of it as we grow up – at least to the extent of realizing that sometimes we are there as supporting characters in someone else’s story. What’s a better way of learning empathy and the importance of other people than falling in love with a story and identifying with a character who isn’t like you?

I think that is what Heinlein was trying to do by revealing that Johnny Rico is Filipino in the final sentences of Starship Troopers – the book, not the execrable movie. I don’t think he succeeded, though – because inside his head, Johnny is no different than any of Heinlein’s middle-American teenaged heroes. The differences between the US and the Philippines, the residue of having first learned to think in Tagalog rather than English, haven’t affected him visibly at all – and the first is in first person, so those would be visible. The whole point of learning empathy is not learning to be colorblind – not in this real non-Utopian world – but in understanding how other people’s experiences shape them, and how their differences from yourself are as valuable as the ways in which you’re alike. I mentioned The Kane Chronicles in my last post; I don’t know how Rick Riordan’s legacy will last compared to Heinlein’s (maybe it will, but it’s harder when you come into a crowded field rather than one in its first big lowering) but in the Kane trilogy and his following series, Riordan does a better job on this. Carter and Sadie Kane are siblings, but their different skin colors have shaped their lives in different ways. Similarly in his series after that, characters aren’t just painted different colors; they’ve been sculpted by their experiences in multidimensional ways.