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An Interview with Kishonna L. Gray

We need diverse books…and diverse games and diverse media. Game studies and comparative media studies expert Dr. Kishonna L. Gray, assistant professor in the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Arizona State University, spoke with Horn Book executive editor Elissa Gershowitz and elementary school librarian Liz Phipps Soeiro about representation and diversity in electronic gaming and print and digital media.

Game studies and comparative media studies expert Kishonna L. Gray. Photo: Elissa Gershowitz.

Elissa Gershowitz: How did you get started in comparative media studies and game studies?

Kishonna L. Gray: It’s been a journey. I grew up in rural Kentucky, in a black town, in the 1980s and 1990s. We didn’t learn about black history in school — especially not after the state started busing us into Klan country. I knew I was interested in black history, but I didn’t really have the language to discuss it. Then my auntie gave me a set of books — Ebony magazine did this beautiful compilation in the 1970s of black histories and biographies, Ebony Pictorial History of Black America. So now I had these pictures in my head of all these amazing figures from history.

At Eastern Kentucky University I majored in criminal justice. There was a chart in Criminal Justice 101 that showed a disproportionate number of black people in prisons. I asked the professor about it, and he talked about how there were some neighborhoods and some populations that were more prone to criminality. That answer didn’t sit right with me, but I didn’t have it yet; I didn’t have the context. I hadn’t been introduced to black feminists like bell hooks or Patricia Hill Collins.

Hurricane Katrina happened my first semester at grad school, and I was spending all my time looking at media representation of the black and white victims. The black people were all portrayed as looters while the white folks were just “seeking supplies.” That became my master’s project — an analysis of the ways black people were being represented in the media. That project got me into the PhD program at Arizona State in justice studies. But by then Katrina wasn’t in the news anymore. No one in academia cared. Someone had once told me, “If you want to be successful, do something that white people love, especially that white men love.” I was taking a class with Professor Daniel Bernardi, author of the book Star Trek and History: Race-ing Toward a White Future, and he wanted us to explore ethnography using the everyday spaces we inhabit. So I chose gaming. And when I looked through the literature to find out what I, as a black woman, go through in that space, I couldn’t find anything. Professor Bernardi told me, “If there’s no literature, then you create it.”

EG: What is it like to be a black woman gamer?

KLG: Women and other people who have been left out are getting more into gaming and becoming more visible, while the other people (generally affluent white men) are saying, “We’ve been here all along. What are you women doing here? What are you ‘colored’ folks doing here? This is our space! It’s always been our space. Get out!” Think about Gamergate. But this is the first step right here, the cultural revolution, the conflict. There’s a movement — I Need Diverse Games, which was founded by Tanya DePass [see below].

EG: Children’s publishing has a similar initiative with We Need Diverse Books. It has been a conversation in children’s books for decades.

KLG: How’s that working? Are people responding?

Liz Phipps Soeiro: People in publishing do say, “Yes, we need to be more inclusive. We need diverse books.” But there still seems to be that fear of making the dominant culture uncomfortable.

KLG: I’m thinking of this myth of scarcity, among groups being oppressed by the dominant culture, and that’s where a lot of the infighting comes in. Whenever I’m talking about black issues in gaming, I’m often asked to speak about other non-dominant experiences: brown issues, gay issues, disabled issues. And I can understand that — I want to be inclusive of those voices, because they may not be there at all. But these same sorts of questions are not being asked of people speaking for the dominant culture. We’re not putting the burden on the people at the top to say there is space, there is room, there is a market.

EG: And if not, make the space. Find the market.

KLG: We’ll get there. You can see it happening with #OscarsSoWhite (Fences, Moonlight, Hidden Figures) and on network TV (Scandal, Fresh Off the Boat, Black-ish, and more). Their successes are making people in power see, “Oh, yeah, these ‘colored’ stories are selling.”

EG: Do you think that’s a sign of the future? Or an immediate, temporary reaction to people’s demand for it?

KLG: Listen, there’s nothing new about black bodies being used as a form of entertainment for white audiences. You can go back to the plantation. Today, people love seeing Olivia Pope having sex with a white man. I’m like, “That ain’t nothing new!” You have to look at the bigger picture, of what type of narrative people are consuming.

EG: Right, you’re “allowed” to have these archetypal stories…

KLG: …the immigrant story, the help story. There’s a template of acceptability. Take Moonlight. I loved Moonlight. But in this movie about a gay black boy (and then man), there was hardly any sex. They pushed the boundaries, but then gave viewers what they thought they could handle. We’ve had that since the Hays Code, in the 1930s. What Hollywood could and couldn’t show. Some of it we’ve moved past, but a lot of it is unofficially still here. I loved Hidden Figures for what it said about black women, but it was flawed. The white man becomes a central figure in a movie about three black women mathematicians so that white dudes can relate to the story. At the end of the day, it’s about who has access to those people making the decisions. Who’s at the table? Whose voices are they listening to?

EG: And how do they portray the people who aren’t at the table? So, it comes back to the demographics and the money. Rather than actively trying to open up the demographic, the people in charge say, “We don’t think we can sell that, based on what we think we know about the people who are interested.”

KLG: Right. We’re sitting here in Liz’s library, and I see lots of books about Martin Luther King Jr.

LPS: There are so many books about Martin Luther King Jr. But his story becomes so simplified for what people think the audience can handle.

KLG: And then in people’s minds the civil rights movement gets lumped into one thing. Everyone wanted the same thing: equal rights. But within the movement, how they wanted to accomplish that becomes, in the media, just one thing instead of many. The civil rights movement became about the voices of the black men. The black women had to step aside because the white men in charge could only hear the voices of men. That was the way to get their attention and change their minds.

EG: Lately we’ve seen some great picture-book biographies that have pushed back against that idea somewhat. I’m thinking particularly of Carole Boston Weatherford and Ekua Holmes’s Voice of Freedom, about Fannie Lou Hamer. But those cases are still the exception. Do you see things differently in your work now that you’re a parent? For example, do your kids play video games? Do you call their attention to the problems of gender, race, representation?

“My kids [pictured with a friend] play video games….That’s how they learned left and right.” Photo: Alice Daer.

KLG: My kids [ages six and four] play video games. They see it all. Because I don’t know where and when in their real lives they’re going to experience racism, discrimination, violence, so they have to be prepared for it. Take Grand Theft Auto. That’s how they learned left and right — turn left, turn right. But with my older son, I was able to explain heightened awareness with the police and black bodies. I hate to have to do that, but I have to do that. I used to do police diversity training. The officers would say they hate that parents instill in their children these negative images about police officers. I’m like, actually, Bugs Bunny did. Cartoons do. Media sets up this negative framing of police as inept. That narrative didn’t start with us. Go to Hollywood.

EG: It seems like for you, it’s not all or nothing in every case. What’s most important is looking with a critical eye.

KLG: Yes. When you see these things in the media, point them out, talk about them. You can condemn something that doesn’t get things totally right, but you don’t have to. Disney movies: so problematic. I watch them, I want my kids to watch them. It’s not about censorship, it’s just being able to identify the problems in what you’re seeing.

EG: Why should you have to stop doing what you enjoy just because the people in charge are jerks?

KLG: If that was my standard, if I filtered my world through problematic things, I wouldn’t be doing anything. I wouldn’t go to any store, I wouldn’t eat anything. Just be aware, be mindful.

EG: Do you have a personal opinion about using food to describe children of color in picture books?

LPS: I don’t like that.

KLG: Let me start by saying: I like it. Here, let me show you this book that I use with my kids, Shades of Black: A Celebration of Our Children by Sandra L. Pinkney, photos by Myles C. Pinkney. I like this book in particular because it shows real pictures of kids. I get tired of this cartoony animated thing. I need my kids to see themselves. I also like that it gives good descriptive language so it helps with the creative writing process: “I am the velvety orange in a peach…the golden brown in sugar.” Also, it’s a real thing in the black community to describe your tone of brown based on food. That’s a practice we already have within the culture. It shows the diverseness. And, you know, my son went to his pre-K class saying, “I am black. I am unique. I come from ancient kings and queens.”

LPS: So me and my white gaze can shove it?

KLG: But I will tell you the problem that I have with food comparisons — the objectifying. And the dumbing down. Give children the background of melanin. Tell them the science behind it. I don’t have a problem with food metaphors or even with stereotypical characters as long as that’s not the only thing you see. Give us more than just one thing so we can consume that mess but also something else.

EG: So that each becomes one, singular portrayal, not “The People.”

KLG: Right. Who cares about fictional characters when you can’t fix the culture? We can diversify all day, but who’s telling the story? Who’s getting access? Who’s still up there at the top? Who’s at the table? But if the culture’s not fixed, if the gatekeepers aren’t aware and mindful of their practices…

EG: And if all they care about is the bottom line…

LPS: It’s all part of the capitalistic culture. I’m thinking of hip hop, which is this broad, diverse art form, and what’s being pushed is all the stuff about fuck the police, and that’s what’s being embraced by the suburban white kids, which just perpetuates those stereotypes. That’s not by accident. It’s all connected.

EG: Kishonna, I’ve heard you have some strong feelings about Sesame Street.

KLG: Oh, Sesame Street. I always get into trouble for this. People love Sesame Street. I’m not down with Sesame Street, at least not the way it was when I was a kid. Whenever I think about something you consume in the media, I always think, “What’s the objective of this? What’s the goal?” Sesame Street took place on this block, on the stoop. You didn’t go farther than the bodega, and it taught us to dream big only in our imaginations. So, who are you selling this to? You’re selling this diversity to kids who already have “diverse” lives. This narrative of diversity is for people and places who have already embraced that.

LPS: To push back a little bit, in my own experience, I grew up in a place that was somewhat diverse in a way but also fairly homogeneous. Puerto Ricans, Portuguese, French Canadians — all working-class Catholic people in varying shades of white and brown. Seeing an actual diverse city positively portrayed on TV had a really profound impact on me. I’m also thinking of Julia, the new Sesame Street Muppet who has autism. If a kid is, or is going to a school with, a child who’s on the autism spectrum, maybe we can use that to make connections.

KLG: But does that happen? Or do we set the kids up in front of Sesame Street and there’s no meaningful follow-up discussion? Maybe my problem is more about people’s over-reliance on it without bringing it back to the real world. Okay, so for a lot of folks, all they had was Sesame Street, but it didn’t go far enough for me. And part of my resistance, too, was I never saw rural stories. They all lived in the city.

LPS: In most of the books I read as a kid, I painted this picture in my head of a very suburban place with a sidewalk, grass, and trees.

EG: And no racism.

KLG: Well, and no black people. Where are the black rural narratives?

EG: There are some…but you should write yours!

 

I Need Diverse Games

I Need Diverse Games is a nonprofit organization founded by Tanya DePass in 2016. It began as a 2014 Twitter hashtag stemming from DePass’s frustration about the white, straight, misogynistic, ableist bent of the electronic gaming world.

I Need Diverse Games’s mission is “to bring projects, works and research by marginalized folks to light. We also seek to discuss, analyze and critique identity and culture in video games through a multi-faceted lens rooted in intersectionality.” The group supports its mission through articles, blog posts, and other social media; speaking engagements; a jobs board; and scholarship opportunities to attend conferences and other events, including the Game Developers Conference.

I Need Diverse Games: “Because there’s room for everyone at the table.” Visit ineeddiversegames.org.

 

From the November/December 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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Elissa Gershowitz About Elissa Gershowitz

Elissa Gershowitz is executive editor of The Horn Book, Inc. She is a current member of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee.

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