Own Voices

  • @smceccarelli yup. I read about this as well. Citing cultural appropreation as to why it is deemed as inapropriate. I find it very strange to say the least. All avenues of life have changed under such philosophies. I just find it very strange that for me as an illustrator, that I will only be illustrating white people, and white history. I also think that it could really hamper the growth of children's literature within minority communities, if minorities do not get much more involved in this field. Just my opinion.

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    @Eric-Castleman That is what I thought too...whether there are enough First People authors and illustrators for example (the discussion originated because of an Eskimo character I drew..). And the second thought I had is, how can you isolate cultures this way? What about mixed families, and groups of children with different ethnicities? Isn't it highly artificial to differentiate?
    I am sure this is a phase that will pass - as I am sure my agent is just trying to help navigate a difficult time...

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    @smceccarelli I recently had a similar conversation with my agent as well, I also talked to an African American author about the same issue. It came up because my agent put out a call for "diverse" books and what she mostly got was Caucasian authors writing characters from a different ethnic voice. While this isn't a bad thing, I think it can lead to books written with an inauthentic voice/world view. A white man in the suburbs really can't know what it's like to live as a black teen, and while the best authors write from voices that differ from their own, I think it leaves a lot of room for a lot of misrepresentation, especially when minorities are already underrepresented in popular literature. Basically it can leave people saying "if you want a book from a black perspective, publish a black author. Does that make sense? Personally I am bi-racial so I get to choose I guess! 🙂

    On the flip side of this, I spoke with an author who describes herself as a person of color, and she said in regards to more diverse characters in kidlit, "I don't get it, we would have more diversity in picture books if people would just make the kids skin brown!"

    I also have a friend (a white male) who has a book out by Knopf featuring a dark skinned little girl as a the protagonist. When his editor was asked about this in a Q&A session she basically said that when the race of the main character does not affect the story, so it's a visual rather than cultural voice decision, she doesn't see a problem with making the character whatever race you want.

    Love hearing everyone's thoughts on this!

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    @natiwata That seems to make a lot of sense. So as long as you steer away from trying to represent a culture that is not your own (either visually or in stories), there is nothing to be said against having any ethnicity in illustrations. The discussion with my agent also makes sense in that context, because the illustration we were talking about was an Eskimo kid in traditional Eskimo costume - which may have not been completely accurate, and that becomes a potential mis-representation issue. Thanks for shedding more light - it will certainly be interesting conversations next week!

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    Mmm this is an interesting (and heavy!) topic to get started on. Again like most people here, my instinct would be to include a diversity of people in my portfolio to show the full range of the society that we live in. I remember one of Will Terry's videos recommending to draw a diversity of ethnicities... But then you don't want to ignore what may be the latest thinking about cultural appropriation....I remember reading the discussion about Moana and whether that was appropriate...To me it would be a shame if the best artistic studios in the world felt constricted from making the most exciting films, because the people making it didn't grow up in/experience that original culture, and/or the company financing it isn't from that culture/ethnicity/country. I think people can be very good at empathising/imagining without actually experiencing, that's what storytelling is fundamentally about. BUT there again on the other side of the argument, it is true that your best stories are usually going to draw from what you know best, and your original voice that is just yours - and that is going to be rooted in wherever/however you grew up.

    So to translate all that into portfolio advice, if it were me trying to take your agent's advice, I'd probably keep a diversity of people in group scenes - eg a classroom or street - because that's accurate and inclusive. If I were writing a dummy book featuring people, it would probably have British undertones (even if only subtle ones) because that's where I'm from, and it would probably show through somehow. I don't know whether it would matter what ethnicity the characters would be though. I don't think I'd pitch something about an African village or Tokyo city or Native Americans etc, because my experiences aren't enough to make that feel authentic without a ton of research (and even then it might not feel right)...I mean if you're an animation studio with years to spend, it's a collective effort and there are lots of people providing good advice, it can be different. As an illustrator needing to turn things around more quickly, the research time will need to be shorter. So illustrating what/where you know best is going to be easier/safer. I wouldn't want people to be put off doing new and interesting projects if they have a good vision for it though.

    Very interesting topic though...great to hear all responses and like others, I'll think more about it.

  • SVS OG

    I think there is a difference between ethnicity and culture, though they are related and often people equate the two.

    For example, I have a piece in my portfolio of an Asian little girl, but she is wearing a t-shirt and using common American crafting materials. She might look different from me, but I'm not drawing something from a culture I haven't experienced. The example of the Eskimo in tranditional Eskimo clothing I could see being a tough subject, because its outside of your experience.

    But really, I see it as a "Damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation (if you'll excuse the expression ;-). If you choose to only include characters of your own ethnicity and background in your portfolio, you can be accused of being exclusive, racist, and not showing the world as it really is. If you choose to show people of diverse ethnicity and culture, you can be accused of cultural appropriation and drawing something you don't really know about. So basically, you don't get to be "politically correct" no matter what you do.

    I'm sorry, that came out rather blunt and bleak, but that really is the way I see it. All we can do is the best we can, and people are going to think what they want to think.

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    @smceccarelli Such a tough subject - i do not mean to be cheeky but i wonder if this same thinking by extension would prohibit me from drawing female characters.....if the intent is to not further victimize through our unconscious or conscious use of racist or sexist tropes. I think if we approach each character we draw (even or especially our villains) with compassion and sympathy ....and try to do no further harm historically speaking (which may require much research depending on how far from our own experience something is) that we will be okay... especially in our personal work - but if someone is paying us to draw and they only want white people in our portfolios if we are white... or black if we are black...that just makes my head spin and makes me feel a bit sad that we somehow cannot be trusted

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    At the end, I think the point has to be taken without the extremes. As @Sarah-LuAnn and @natiwata mentioned, to bear testimony to the diversity of our worlds is not the same as cultural appropriation. So I do continue to believe it is fully normal to continue to include different characters (and yes also different genders ;-)) in illustrations and portfolio, while one must be aware that there are cultural groups that are defensive of their identity (for very good reasons) and where the mis-use of cliches is a real risk and can be perceived as offensive...

    Though, I have to say, that I will continue to feel no remourse in stereotyping the French, Italians, Swiss, etc... , as illustrators and cartoonists have done for generations with great enjoyment ;-))

  • Wow, that is totally crazy. This political correctness has gotten way out of hand, it's not healthy for art.

  • As a French person, I feel exactly the same confusion as you do @smceccarelli
    I just don't get that political correctness, that, to me, will just lead to more racial issues because it doesn't bring anyone together, it just pulls them further and further apart. This is so against my own values and feelings and culture, I can't get my head around it

  • I totally agree with all of you when you say that illustration-art should be a representative of society. I cannot understand anyone mentioning something like keeping out groups of people or cultures, and honestly I think Its wrong. When a person says these things Its only an opinion, (as mine is) so please follow your heart.

  • I am an artist living with a physical disability from birth. At the same time, I am a white male. As a disabled person, I am comfortable with a fully physically abled person in writing about a character with a disability. Though I want the writer/illustrator to do some research about people living with disabilities or at least interact with a person (the more people with different types of disabilities the better) on a regular basis. This is just good writing/illustration practice.
    Yes, I want people of other races than my own to have a say and create stories featuring their own lives, people, and personal opinions. I want them to make transformative work that shows the rest of the world new and inventive ways in story-telling.

  • It's because we (I am speaking about Americans--I'm not familiar with the social milieu of other nations) are being pushed toward tribal identity politics, intersectionality and grievance groups.

    Everything has to be devolved around tribes. It's: The Black vote, the Hispanic vote, the White vote, etc. Apparently we are not humans, we are races.

    It is now not considered racist to say something like: because of your race you can't do X (where X currently most often refers to a White cis-gendered male doing something like: drawing a brown skin character and/or telling his/her story).

    Meanwhile, we are looking for the Holy Grail of intersectionality. Women are more oppressed than men so they are higher on the hierarchy but of course a Black woman would be higher than a White woman, while a lesbian Black woman would be higher still. Eventually the unicorn of intersectionality will descend from on high and the transgendered, Native American, pansexual, disabled female will have all power conferred to them and will then be able to tell us what to do.

    As we wait for that, people of all races, religions, genders, and ideologies, will continued to be told: if you are not part of X niche identity you are not allowed to presume that you might have a sense of how a member of that identity might think or feel in any given situation.

    Which is, literally, not how being human works.

    A gay, Asian, Muslim man (an identity group to which I do not belong) knows exactly (or near enough so as not to make a difference) what I am feeling when he sees me get slapped in the face, or drop my newly purchased ice cream cone, or try not to weep at the sappy Hallmark ad, or hold my child, or catch myself from almost slipping on the ice, or slamming my hand on the steering wheel in frustration, or laughing with an old friend at a cafe until tears run down my face, or experience the thousands of other little things that human beings have been experiencing for thousands of years.

    The White, Southern, Confederate flag waving, woman can as well.

    As can the afore mentioned unicorn of intersectionality.

  • This is such a great topic @smceccarelli, thanks for starting it!

    It's one, like others here already have mentioned before me, that gets me fired up too. I agree with what everyone is saying about how we most definitely should be showing a diverse range of ethnicities in our art. I most definitely understand the need for #ownvoices and fully support that. But reality is, the majority of books still being published today are those of Caucasian decent, or those who wouldn't identify with a non-white label (or marginalized group, whatever that may be). If those white writers and illustrators then are limited to depicting ONLY other white people, our problem continues with not representing enough of a diverse range in our works.

    I don't think I've noticed anyone else mention this, but a popular recommendation I've heard given to writers lately is that it's totally fine to write outside of your identity, but on top of doing thorough research, you should get (and potentially pay for) a "sensitivity reader" who is part of marginalized group you've written about. They then give you feedback on whether you've properly portrayed that culture or group in your work. I wonder if, as illustrators, we could do something similar. Reach out to someone we're trying to depict in our work and ask for feedback.
    The thing is though too, is that there's so many identities and different experiences within a single cultural group that even if someone were to be an #ownvoices author or illustrator, they still can't completely represent their entire race through their work. Just as I, as a white Canadian, would research the hell out of depicting a white person from France for example before writing or illustrating about them, it's no different than if I chose to have my MC be a gay biracial male for example. The whole point of fiction too is that we're writing and illustrating characters that are different than ourselves, that have their own voice outside our own. If we take care to be culturally sensitive and make sure we're representing a group to the best of our ability, there should be no harm in that.

    I do think though that you shouldn't pigeon hole a diverse cast of characters if it's not right for the story. And take a look at shows. For example: RIVERDALE (guilty pleasure! I devoured Archie comics as a kid. Shot here in Vancouver BC too!) - where they randomly changed the original cast just to be diverse. Suddenly, Mr. Weatherbee is black and Reggie is Asian. I do find it a bit weird (having grown up with very different characters in the comics) but I'm okay with that as long as the overarching original 'world' they live in isn't affected by the change.

    Also, I feel sometimes that white folk get a bit of reverse racism thrown at them. If someone comes along who's #ownvoices, would they get the same feedback that their secondary characters shouldn't be white?!

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    So much food for thought in your great comments @mattramsey and @DanetteDraws! I am reminded of an old international study about cultural differences that found out that differences and similarities run with professions and social class, not with ethnicity or nationality. That is, a mother in Nairobi thinks very similarly to a mother in New York and a doctor in Calcutta has a similar view of the world as a doctor in Paris, but a lawyer in Kenya has a completely different culture than a farmer in Kenya, even though they have the same nationality and the same ethnicity.
    I know what it means to force diversity beyond any reasonable representation of reality - I have worked in corporate marketing for a multinational company, where having a balanced representation of race in all communications is a mandate (does not matter if we have to look hard to find the Asian woman manager to put in the Annual report, while there would be ample choice of male Caucasian managers to choose from...). But at the same time, I have cringed at a brochure about pre-natal diagnostic which was drafted by young single, childless women who have not the slightest idea about the frame of mind of a mother-to-be going through pre-natal diagnostic (tip: pictures of happy pink babies and smiling pregnant models in the 9th month are not a good idea...).
    So what is the right thing to do? For the illustrator (and author) seems to be at the end similar to the question of finding your style....YOUR voice is after all a combination of your experience, your sensibility, your tastes and preferences - we could take it as a call to authenticity....

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  • One more thing... If writers and illustrators could only ever depict characters of their own identity, we'd never have a diverse cast of characters in any given story. It would be a sad, sad day if we, instead of seeing multicultural books, began to see "white books", "gay books", "Asian books", etc. This is not representative of life nor is it a message I think we'd want in our world.

  • I think this was a great subject to bring up. Its been bothering me too, and I have been trying to stay out of it. I was asked by an african american woman author to draw some illustrations for her (self published) book, of an african american boy. it has to do with him and a cat, so hopefully I don't have to run into any of these issues.

  • Ok, so for context this is coming from someone who has studied race and gender and I teach ethnic and gender studies in my college courses, so buckle in...

    I totally get where you guys are coming from, but I think you may be missing a key component to what this movement MIGHT be trying to accomplish: representation.

    I don't believe the "Own Voices" movement is about preventing stories of diversity, but rather, it is serving as an opportunity to give under represented groups a chance to tell their stories from their perspective. This movement is happening because for sooooooo long, the conversation in the arts has been absolutely dominated by white, heteronormative, straight, men. That is the prevailing voice, and when THAT voice tells the story of someone of color, someone who is oppressed or marginalized, it is a form of cultural/soci-economic/gender/etc. appropriation. It is a form of intellectual tourism. If the conversation as been only focused on one group for so long, I think publishers are now trying to create more opportunities for other points of view, or frames of reference. I personally believe that the industry is looking to find new and upcoming artists and authors of diverse backgrounds to tell diverse stories. This helps them avoid looking as if they are simply placating or pandering to a more diverse population by presenting stories of diversity from authors and illustrators who are not, in fact, "other".

    I don't think it means you cannot include a diverse cast of characters. I dont think it means as a white illustrator I cannot draw black people. What it DOES mean, is that I should exercise caution before telling the story of a child of color growing up in abject poverty because that is a life experience I cannot adeptly speak to with authenticity.

    A couple of things here: Please be careful of falling into the 'we are all humans' or 'I don't see color' trap. I know when people say that, they mean well, but what that does is erase the diversity of many marginalized groups who have been made to feel sub-human for centuries. What many oppressed groups want instead is for you to see and recognize, and RESPECT their differences, not erase them when they make you uncomfortable.

    Another comment that I think needs to be addressed is @mattramsey's comment about the intersectional unicorn. I get where you are coming from. Psychologically, there are things that ALL humans feel. Getting punched hurts. Having your heart broken sucks. Making a new friends is awesome. But THOSE is not the type of stories I believe the "Own Voices" movement is trying to tell. Of course anyone creative can imagine what it may have felt like to be picked on for being gay, or fat, or black, or disabled. But if you are none of those things, you don't have an honest place from which to tell that story. You may accidentally get some of it right, but wouldn't an authentic voice from someone who has not had the same opportunities to share that story be more powerful? Wouldn't that be an opportunity to learn and grow? And perhaps more importantly for the AUDIENCE (who has been alarmingly missing from this discourse) wouldn't be awesome to see yourself represented by someone who is like you? THAT is what this idea is really supposed to be about. Representation

    Also, I hope before you spout off about "gay, asian muslim men" or "transgender lesbian black disabled women" as some sort of "holy grail" of diversity you stop to remember that those labels ARE attributed to and DO affect REAL people. Some people don't have the privilege to only wear those labels to write or illustrate a story. Some people have to live it every second of every day...and every action they preform or interaction they have is colored by those labels. Understanding privilege is a great way to help see the other side of the story. I can PROMISE you without a doubt that anyone identifying as any combination of those labels you tossed so carelessly have been hurt by, or discriminated against in ways you take for granted every day. The transgender lesbian disabled black women has to worry about that building having wheelchair access. She has to worry about getting jumped for using the "wrong" bathroom and she has to hope the store manager doesn't follow her around because she looks like she might steal something. She has to worry about getting mugged because of who she loves. Because of who she IS. That is her life. I can assure you she doesn't see herself as some coveted intersectional Holy Grail.

    What the "Own Voices" movement realizes, that many people here seem to be missing is that you simply CAN'T know all the myriad and nuanced ways the daily life of those different than you are impacted by being different. You can try to, or pretend to, but that is just it. It's not real or authentic. Maybe this topic is not as relevant in children's media but it certainly is a big issue in almost all other forms of creative expression.

    One final thought on why diversity in children's media is so important, and why having authentic voices share those stories is so valuable: Steven Universe. This show is an excellent example of diverse characters who are not telling stories ABOUT diversity. They are written honestly and authentically without losing the target audience. And the creator speaks very eloquently about the importance of LGBTQ representation for young children. Hope this helped provide some context.

  • Years ago when I was creating a lot of work for a publishing company it was specified that I had to include x number whites, x number black, x number asian, etc. It was so ridiculous that they even specified hair and eye color for the various characters. My belief then (and now) if that is what the client wants it is my job to deliver it and deliver it to the best of my abilities since that is what I was hired for.

    That's a different perspective from the "Own Voices" idea. Own Voices is simply a form of racism and bigotry as it segregates, separates and compartmentalize people (the artists) by race. While popular with "educators" it is wrong for the real world.

    If a person is a good artist (written or drawn) their audience will recognize a white person. They will recognize a black person and they will recognize an asian, a hispanic, etc, etc, etc.

    The same goes for authors. Guess what, Rowlings was never a 10 year old boy wizard yet she wrote Harry Potter. Twain was not a black slave yet "Jim" from Huck Finn is a well rounded and believable character that is from the best piece of American fiction that was ever written

    What I tell my kids when they are confronted with this in school is to substitute "white or caucasian" with whatever other race you are being told and if the person telling you would have a problem with the statement using white, it is racist.

    You can agree or disagree and I am fine with that.

    Quality art (written or drawn) is simply quality art. It does not matter what color the person who created it is and for that to matter and make a difference is bigoted.

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