Kenan Metzger and Wendy Kelleher’s “The Dearth of Native Voices in Young Adult Literature” provides a key example of the cultural consequences of literary censorship, which can otherwise appear amorphous and innocuous when viewed in relation to socially privileged youth; where most cases of literary censorship concern the acceptability of certain ideas, cases of literary censorship involving marginalized voices concern the acceptability of whole identities, not merely the right to think in a certain way, but to exist in a certain way. In a cultural environment where eurocentric standards of merit frequently determine one’s access to the means of publication, invariably, white male voices have emerged as the American cultural default, limiting opportunities for adequate representation, and encouraging appropriation, essentialization, and vilification in the form of stereotyping. As Metzger and Kelleher’s article suggests, demonization and overt racial antagonism are rarely threats posed by stereotyped images, in fact, stereotypes are often depicted in widely-appreciated cultural staples like Disney’s Pocahontas, or Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves. Rather, stereotyping denies the affected culture any semblance of nuance, reducing complex cultural experiences to recognizable symbols and simplified caricatures, which are then open to commoditization, and which tend to reinforce preconceptions held by the empowered, patriarchal class.
Considering the nature of appropriation and its relation to power in America, it is useful to view the censorship of literature produced by marginalized groups outside of a model of explicit challenges to texts, instead incorporating added dimensions of quantity, availability, and diversity of published materials. After all, Metzger and Kelleher’s titular “dearth” constitutes a less visible, but equally consequential, form of censorship, which effectively silences marginalized creators by permitting expression only when it is conducive to the status quo, or by removing them from the process of expression entirely. By contributing to an expectation of diversity in literature, and by insisting that marginalized groups maintain a high degree of ownership over their own stories, audiences and activists counter trends enabling censorship in the form of omission.
Importantly, as Metzger and Kelleher indicate, cultural progress does not exist in a vacuum; representation is necessary in part because it engenders material progress. Concepts related to positive representation in media, like a firm understanding of one’s place in society, a sense of belonging, and impressions of solidarity, can help to guide marginalized young people through an adverse social environment, allowing them to achieve greater success over time. Moveover, as Jane Hafen suggests, positive representation often promotes strong communal bonds, allowing for enduring racial solidarity where stereotypical depictions only serve to isolate and encourage othering. Metzger and Kelleher’s focus on young adult literature is apt in this sense, considering that secondary education greatly informs an individual’s later prospects. Young adult literature is particularly crucial for one’s development, and as Joseph Bruchac indicates, the incorporation of a narrative may enable a student to understand aspects of their own history more effectively than a set of facts detached from personal context. By encouraging success in school and beyond, positive representation provides the groundwork for effective resistance to the existing American power structure.