By Serena Ling Minikes
My son and I had just finished the ever-addictive book series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, both of us plowing through the series with the intensity of actually saving the world with Jackson himself. Each time we finish a particularly engaging book, it’s like stepping off a plane after an amazing trip. Journeying through these pages with my eight-year-old, I got the chance to see these characters and worlds through his eyes. What a genius concept these Rick Riordan books are – adapting ancient Greek mythology to today’s modern world, instantly making them more relatable, memorable and less … ancient. These Greek heroes seem as real to the reader as they may have when they were originally penned, long ago. What a powerful way to engage the young imaginative mind while leveraging natural curiosity and emotions to teach a topic that might otherwise be less approachable.
Shortly after, I saw Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings with my children and was struck by how impactful it was for them to see faces that looked like theirs on a big screen. Faces that were featured as main characters, in worlds that felt authentic and rooted in our Chinese heritage. In a movie by a major studio alongside super heroes that all their friends knew and loved. I remembered feeling a similar sense of pride when I watched Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, but this felt like a newer, bigger moment.
Because Shang-Chi told an engaging story steeped in an ancient culture but framed in modern day America. Because it told a story of Americans that aren’t yet mainstream. Because the ancient culture of this story wasn’t a Western civilization, but an Eastern one. These facts felt relevant and different to me, but it was all still swirling in my mind.
Then I watched Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ted Talk about the Danger of a Single Story.
And everything landed.
As a talented writer and storyteller, she lays it out much more eloquently than I do here (so please take the 18 minutes to watch). In a nutshell, Percy Jackson is but one example of Western popular fiction in a gorgeous library deep and wide with multiple floors and sections. And Shang Chi, although striking to experience with my children, is still at risk of ending up the ‘single story’ of Chinese people or even of all Asians for many Americans because of the general lack of diverse representation in school curriculum.
Ok that’s a little bit of a mind bend, especially if you haven’t listened to Ms. Adichie’s Ted Talk, so let’s break it down a little more: Percy Jackson is entertainment fiction based loosely on an educational topic (Greek mythology) and is a wonderful gateway for children (and adults) to access the fundamental works that have most influenced the arts, literature, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy and medicine of Western civilization. And since most of the American curriculum (as a Western nation) is rooted in Western civilization, there is no shortage of exposure and access to stories, points of views, first person historical accounts, etc. that reflect these views. So no one account, story or piece of entertainment will define the whole of Western civilization. But in a world where there isn’t as much mainstream education and exposure to the diverse ethnicities that make up America, a single story can run the risk of becoming the stereotype that flattens a whole ethnicity into a singular experience. (Seriously, watch the Ted Talk to experience Ms. Adichie’s master use of American Psycho in analogy to make this point, just perfect).
So, representation matters not just for the underrepresented but for the majority.
Representation matters in curriculum because it isn’t just for the minority child to see themselves but for all American children to understand the multitude of stories this country holds. It increases dignity, it builds a sense of belonging for all children. When no one is made to feel ‘othered’, is when each child can truly feel like they belong. When someone shares a secret not meant to be shared, you wonder if you can then trust them with your secrets. This is the same sense of mistrust a child might have towards belonging if they believe to belong means to fit in and be like everyone else.
If we seek to build a future generation of empathetic thinkers, doers, creators, leaders, innovators who will not only fix the problems of today but dream up the solutions for a future we want to build, we need to ensure they are equipped with understanding beyond just single flattened stories. Quality representation properly gives dimension to ethnicities and this proper framing will help avoid reliance on stereotypes.
And, representation matters because it is a critical step towards equity.
Proper representation takes the onus off of the underrepresented to explain why they are also American. That instead, future generations of Americans would have the proper framing in their mind of the true diversity of people, stories and contributions that have gone into building our great nation, past, present and future.
It’s with this understanding and approach that we at TeachAAPI have committed to increasing representation by echoing, spotlighting, magnifying, sharing, telling, yelling the stories, experiences, works of art, music, science, technology, of all the diverse cultures that identify as Asian American and Pacific Islander and support all allies in their efforts to do the same.