Multicultural authors Jennifer Cervantes, Christina Diaz Gonzalez, and Guadalupe Garcia McCall presented the breakout session Stories that Cross Borders and Boundaries at the 2010 SCBWI LA Conference. The following is a handout they provided from their session on how to avoid stereotypes and negative images of cultural groups.
Developing and Applying Evaluative Measures
The following is criteria that is important when writing multicultural literature and will help you avoid stereotypes and negative images of cultural groups. When considering writing multicultural literature, it is important to first consider your purpose.
Purpose: Although good literature contains universal themes, there should be a purpose for using a particular setting or for representing characters of a particular cultural background. To asses purpose consider questions such as:
- Does the cultural setting add to the work, or does it seem superfluous?
- Could the work succeed equally well if it used a different cultural setting or characters from a different culture?
Once you have determined that your story requires a specific cultural setting, consider the following:
1. No distortions or omissions of history: Look for various perspectives to be represented.
2. Stereotyping: Make sure there are no negative or inaccurate stereotypes of the ethnic group being portrayed.
3. Loaded Words: Make sure there are no derogatory overtones to the words used to describe the characters and culture, such as “savage,” “primitive,” “lazy,” and “backward.”
4. Lifestyles: Make sure the lifestyles of the characters are genuine and complex, not oversimplified or generalized.
5. Dialog: Be sure the characters use speech that accurately represents their oral tradition.
6. Standards of Success: The characters should be strong and independent, not helpless or in need of the assistance of a white authority figure. Characters do not have to exhibit extraordinary qualities, or do more than a white character to gain acceptance and approval.
7. The Roles of Females, Elders, and Family: Women and the elderly should be portrayed accurately within their culture. The significance of family should also be portrayed accurately.
8. Possible Effects on Child Self-Image: Make sure there is nothing in the story that would embarrass or offend a child whose culture is being portrayed. A good rule of thumb: you would be willing to share this book with a mixed-race group of children.
9. Relationships between Characters from Different Cultures: Minority characters are leaders within their community and solve their own problems. Whites do not possess a power while cultural minorities pay a supporting or subservient role.
10. Heroines and Heroes: Heroines and heroes are accurately defined according to the concepts and struggles for justice appropriate to their cultural group. They are not those who avoid conflict with and thus benefit the white majority.
11. Author’s and/or Illustrators Background: Creators of multicultural literature must have sufficient background knowledge to create accurate portrayals of a cultural group. Have the author or illustrator conducted related research? If not, have they lived among (either as a member of or as a visitor of) the groups of people represented in the work?
The above handout was adapted from:
Jennifer Cervantes grew up believing in the magic of story and often asked “what if…” She is the author of Tortilla Sun and is a faculty member at New Mexico State University where she teaches writing, and young adult literature. You can learn more about her at www.jennifercervantes.com.
Christina Diaz Gonzalez is the author of The Red Umbrella a compelling novel about a 14-year-old girls journey from Cuba to the USA as part of Operation Pedro Pan. Christina is an SCBWI success story as she met both her agent and editor at SCBWI Conferences. You can find out more about her at www.christinagonzalez.com.
Guadalupe Garcia McCall is the author of Under the Mesquite a novel-in-verse. Guadalupe was born in Piedras Negras, Cohuila. Her family immigrated to the US when she was six, so she could attend school. She is an English/Language Arts teacher in San Antonio, Texas.