Wednesday 29 October 2014

Diversity in children's books

Shoot me down on this one but here goes: I very much enjoyed the Guardian's page on diversity in children's books. We need as much information circulating about these. I also think there is an urgency about this with a resurgent right focussing as it does on what they call 'immigration' linked to a general xenophobia. So what is 'diversity'? This is where I think there is a serious discussion to be had. Diversity must mean more than 'black' or more than 'black and Asian'. This is to do favours to everyone. Of course 'people of colour' have experienced (and are still experiencing) in the most recent period serious prejudice, discrimination, violence, intentional and institutional racism.

However, 'diversity' as a term should not be a 'cover' or an alternative for dealing with these issues of racism. If we (or anyone else) is going to use the term 'diversity' then that's what it should be: a reflection on how in a given space (let's say 'UK" for the moment) we are diverse. Diversity has to encompass every possible sense of the ways in which we are diverse.

Now to the egocentric part of that. I am what, (I gather from my own children from what they've been told at school), is being termed 'ethnically Jewish or jewish'. I can live with that. So how is that part of diversity being reflected in lists of 'diversity'. I find that inevitably, 'ethnic jewishness' mostly gets to be defined in terms of the Holocaust. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm very much in favour of the Holocaust being treated in children's books. But the Holocaust is ultimately not a 'Jewish question' it's a humanity question. It wasn't actually caused by Jews. Admittedly, it has become a matter of enormous concern to Jews - of course - but apart from experts, it isn't necessarily how we lead our lives. So, yes, a big welcome to books about the Holocaust but in terms of diversity, it's a bit offbeam to say that that is a 'sufficient' description.

So, what in terms of 'diversity' am I talking about? Well, for several centuries Jews have lived in Britain being diverse themselves, arriving from very different parts of the world, speaking different languages, eating different foods etc etc….and in terms of children's daily lives, doing a wide variety of things. I know of one tiny part of that - i.e. a way of going on of highly politicised 'Ostjuden' (Jews from Eastern Europe) who arrived in Britain at the end of the 19th century retaining, as my children tell me, some ethnic markers, whilst participating in many of the institutions of the locality or country - in my case London. Though I'm touched by the Holocaust through my father's side of the family and have indeed written about it a good few times, particularly when thinking about racism, resistance and persecution, this hasn't been the only or the main definer of my life.

So this is a very longwinded way of saying that 'diversity' should reflect ways in which people lead their lives. I didn't mean this to apply just to a reflection on 'ethnic Jews' but to all members of all communities. That's to say, it's the "normality of difference" that needs to be celebrated and not just a people's moments of injustice and persecution, no matter how powerful and necessary these are too.

Again, of course, many people of African origin have said this in relation to the slave trade. I hear, for example, that of course this has to be recorded, documented, marked, but in terms of lives lived now, it's not what is going on. As I say, diversity is a slightly different matter, it is about the 'normality of difference'.

I suspect that in the coming months and years we will have to struggle as much for this 'normality of difference' as we do for the reminders about persecution and injustice. Not 'instead of' or 'more than' or 'less than' - but 'as well as'.