Superpowers & Stories

Sometimes my husband and I have conversations about big issues and ideas. (Sometimes he just listens to me rant.) One such conversation occurred a few months ago as we were heading home from seeing Captain America: Civil War. It went a little something like this:

Me: You know, I’m loving the increasing diversity in superhero movies. In that movie, there were several women, several black men.

Him: Yeah, it’ll be really cool to see Black Panther’s story.

Me: Yes! I’m glad he’ll get his own movie. He seems like an intriguing character. But I have to wonder . . . where are the women of color? The black woman superhero, the Latina? I mean, I’m not well-versed in the full range of the superhero world, just the mainstream movies part of it. But the only woman of color superhero I can think of right now is Storm (from X-Men) and she was part of the ensemble, not the main focus of an entire movie.

Him: That’s true, there definitely aren’t many. Although I feel like most superheroes are relatable to everyone.

Me: Sure, in some ways. But think about it–when you were growing up, almost everywhere you looked, you could find a superhero who looked like you. Okay, maybe not a redhead specifically, but a white male. In comic books, in cartoons. You got to see people who looked like you doing awesome, heroic things. And it made you think hey, I can do awesome things too, right?

Him: Yeah. Within reason.

Me: There were fewer options for me, I was more likely to look like the person in need of saving, but there were still a decent number of white woman superheroes. Even fewer for black boys, I’m betting. Maybe a few, although not very mainstream. But for black girls? Latinas? It has to have a psychological impact on a kid when they don’t see someone who looks like them doing incredible, heroic things. What message does that send?

Him: That’s a great point. I never thought about it like that.

That, humans, is why diversity in books and shows/movies is important. Because every kid should see a superhero who looks like them. And every kid should see a superhero who doesn’t look like them. And adults benefit from seeing that diversity, too.

I was fortunate to grow up in a diverse area, to attend a school where my friends were Asian-American, African-American, Caucasian, and Native American. One of my good friends when I was little was hearing impaired, and because of her I became more aware of people whose abilities are different from the majority of the population. An awareness that grew when I earned my undergrad degree in speech-language pathology.

But what about kids who grow up in areas where the people around them look the same as them? How do they learn about other people?

Ideally, through books. As a storyteller, I believe wholeheartedly in the power of story. Stories are how we learn, how we experience the world. Stories show us who we are and who we can be. Diversity in books is growing, but slowly and more in some genres than others.

I dream of a day when we can find, in the pages of books all around us, characters as vividly diverse as the world we live in. It’s a challenge I often issue to those around me and to myself–to shift beyond our own experiences, to learn and grow, and then create within our books a world as vibrant as the one we inhabit, supporting other storytellers who do the same.

Learn. Grow. Create. Through those steps, an artist may find the power to influence the world. May we always use our own superpowers wisely.

She’s more

If you saw this woman at the Olympic games, what would you think?

Anna Sofia BothaAns Botha (Lloyd Burnard)

You’d probably think she was someone’s grandmother, right? And you wouldn’t be wrong. This 74-year-old woman is, in fact, a grandmother. Even a great-grandmother.

And that’s what officials saw as they turned her away from restricted areas, likely assuming she was confused, an elderly lady misdirected on the way to her seat.

Yes, she’s a great-grandmother. But that’s not all she is.

Anna Sofia Botha (also known as Tannie Ans Botha) was in the stands last Sunday, watching South African runner Wayde van Niekerk win a gold medal and smash a world record no one had been able to touch for 17 years. She was beaming with pride.

Because she’s his coach.

A Namibian who started coaching in 1968, Botha is described by her athletes as an “amazing woman,” a woman who sees her athletes as her children, looking after them like family. (You can read more about her here and here.)

So much of an athlete’s ability can be attributed to the combination of intense hard work and genetics, but undoubtedly a portion of their success is due to the work of their coach, the person who recognized their potential and encourages their abilities, enabling an athlete to make the journey from good to great.

But until van Niekerk’s incredible finish and subsequent publicity, when people looked at Anna Sofia Botha, they saw a great-grandmother, an older lady at the Olympics as a spectator, instead of the coach of a future gold medalist.

Just like when a commentator looked at a female gymnast and saw a girl writing in her diary instead of a world class athlete making notes on her performance.

Or when another commentator looked at a successful swimmer and saw someone who should’ve made a different choice about her career instead of an intelligent woman choosing the future she wanted.

But we’re humans—we make assumptions about a person the moment we meet them. Our subconscious biases kick in and we reach conclusions, sometimes before the other person has even said a word. It saves us time; it keeps us from having to invest mental energy in a stranger.

But sometimes those psychological shortcuts lead us to underestimate talented human beings, revealing unfair judgements we refuse to release, even when we encounter opposing evidence (like Botha’s official credentials that should’ve allowed her access to restricted areas).

No matter how we try to reduce them to a simple identity, people are more—more than what we see, more than our biased assumptions. And until we acknowledge that reality and are willing to question our assumptions, coaches of Olympic champions will keep being turned away at the door.