Saira Khan has shared the heartbreaking moment that her daughter told her she could “never be Cinderella, because Cinderella is white”.
A report released today (July 17) found that only 1% of the 9,115 children’s books published last year had a main character from an ethnic minority, and only 4% featured any characters from a minority background.
“I had a situation where my daughter, who’s four years old of Pakistani origin - I adopted her, she’s British now, but she’s got brown skin - she was watching Cinderella with her dad, and at the end, she burst out crying,” said Khan on the Drivetime show.
“I was looking at her thinking, ‘this has had a happy ending, why is she crying?’
“And she just turned round to me and Steve and said, ‘Mummy, I’m never going to be Cinderella, because I’ve go brown skin, and Cinderella is white’.
“And in that moment then I thought, oh my goodness. If I look at the world that I’ve seen through my eyes, everything is white, Disney princesses, 90% of them are white, the fairy books she reads, everything in her world is white. There’s very little colour in her everyday life.”
'All the fairytales have white characters'
Khan also told co-host Eamonn Holmes that she’d been “brainwashed” into thinking being white was the default.
“Being of Asian origin and Muslim religion, the way that I’ve been brainwashed to look at the world is this: white is good, black is bad,” she said.
“God is white, and all fairytales that I’ve ever read have all had white characters. I’ve been brainwashed into that, and it’s just part of life and I’ve never really questioned it.”
Dr Brett Jocelyn Epstein, a senior lecturer at the University of East Anglia’s School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing, said the lack of diversity among fictional characters was “really unfair”.
“I agree with Saira. A lot of research shows, for instance, that if you give children a choice between a white doll and a black doll they’ll go for the white doll no matter their own ethnic origin. It’s because we have trained them through the medium of society that white is better, white is dominant. That’s a really sad fact,” she said.
Eamonn Holmes asked why authors aren’t writing about different ethnicities, and Dr Epstein suggested a “ fear in the publishing industry… that a white reader won’t be able to relate to those things.”
'Why can't we be depicted as ordinary people?'
Khan added that when minority ethnicity characters do feature, they shouldn’t always have to face adversity.
“If you’re writing about any kind of minority group, why is there always a struggle associated with it?” she asked.
“Why is the Muslim girl fleeing an arranged marriage? Why does the disabled character have to have gone through loads of struggle?
“Why can’t we just be depicted as ordinary people, having an adventure like the Famous Five?”
“Exactly, that is one of the biggest issues with books about so-called minorities, they’re almost always social justice situations,” Dr Epstein agreed.
“It’s the same thing with books about LGBTQ characters, they’re always struggling to come out and being bullied, and for most people that’s not the reality of their lives.”