How Should We Handle Racially ‘Diverse’ Characters in YA?

24 Oct

There’s a question mark in the title of this blog post, because I’m actually not 100% sure where I stand on this issue. Hopefully I’ll have worked it out by the time I’ve finished writing this post. Hopefully.

So, diverse characters. There’s a definite push for more diverse characters in YA, lately, but given the controversies like the whitewashing of the covers of Justine Larbalestier’s Liar and Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix, it’s obvious that we’ve still got a long way to go. Of course, the need for diversity isn’t limited to race – we still need greater representation of the LGBT community in YA, for instance, and maybe even of boys – but for the purposes of this post, this is the area of diversity I’m discussing.

Lately, I think the issue with diversity hasn’t so much been the presence of it – Ari over at Reading in Color has so many fantastic recommendations – but the visibility of it and, more interestingly to me (since I’m clueless about how marketing works) the type of stories we need to tell featuring racially diverse characters. I feel as if there’s a bit of a schism in the YA community, especially amongst authors, over this. There are people who think that we need to tell stories the actively deal with issues of race, because they are still present and pressing in the lives of many teens today. And there are others who think that we need to have non-white characters whose racial background is simply another character trait.

I fall more into the latter camp than the former, but I don’t find either of these positions particularly satisfying. There’s a grain of truth in the first – yes, many teens today still face identity issues, or racial discrimination – but I find it an oddly reductive position to take. Can we truly, in good conscience, continually write characters whose every conflict, whose entire lives it often seems, are defined solely by racial politics? Surely not – for most of us (or for me anyway, I shouldn’t presume for others) – our social worlds are diverse and multicultural. Race is a thing – sometimes a big thing – that exists, yes, but it isn’t something that defines most individuals’ universes.

Still, I hesitate to embrace the second position, either. It frequently stems from, I think, from some misguided notion that, “My friend is Latina/Chinese/Indian/whatever and no one in my social circle cares! No one around me/where I live is at all racist, so race shouldn’t be a factor at all in my character’s life. It’s as irrelevant as the colour of his/her hair!” or sometimes, even more compellingly, “But I’m Latina/Chinese/Indian/whatever and no one in my social circle cares! My race hasn’t played a big role in my life at all!”. Ultimately, I don’t find these claims very convincing, because issues of race manifest themselves in several spheres of our lives so insidiously and often without our knowledge or permission.

Whether it is known to them or not – and it’s perfectly possible that it’s not known to them – most people have probably been affected by their racial background. If you want specific instances of these insidious manifestations of racial privilege and power, there was this really cool woman, Peggy MacIntosh, who drew up a list of privileges that she, as a white woman, possessed:

“I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.
I can swear, or dress in second-hand clothes, or not answer letters without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or illiteracy of my race.
I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.”

I speak here as a writer, and as a reader, when I say that representations of racially diverse characters that do not include race as a facet (a facet, that is all, not a totality) of a character’s life and not simply a physical trait, will seem to carry a ring of untruth about them (unless they’re set in fantasy worlds, where race is irrelevant, or in future utopias/dystopias/whatever). And I think it’s really exciting that books that promise to do this are starting to emerge – for instance Sarwat Chadda’s Ash Mistry Chronicles – to let non-white people star in Harry Potter-style stories, rather than just narratives dealing with racial issues.

Oddly enough, and this is something that is never really mentioned in posts about race, I would also really like to see characters of white backgrounds also have race included as a facet, an important facet, of who they are. Whiteness is so often and harmfully rendered invisible, creating an impression that it is normative, the standard. White people are people. Other people are their racial group label.

This centrality of whiteness, or the privileges that come with it, are never examined in fiction –an author with some sleight of hand could demonstrate awareness of the issues even if their characters remained ignorant of them (and there is no real reason why all characters must remain ignorant of them). I think that as long as we champion the ‘differences’ of other races, while seeing whiteness as invisible (and therefore normative), we’re going to continue entrenching the ‘otherness’ of non-white people. It’s this mentality that has probably led to several readers automatically visualizing characters as white, or to the rampant exoticism in ‘multicultural fiction’ – I, for one, do not enjoy reading pages upon pages of description of the awesome spices used to flavor the awesome foods.

Ultimately, what I’m tentatively suggesting is that the way we should handle racially ‘diverse’ characters (and I’m including whiteness as a part of that diversity), is by incorporating race as a facet of their lives, but not the totality.
But guys, to be honest, my opinions on this still aren’t concrete. I’m open – and really interested! – in hearing other people’s thoughts, and continuing to inform my own. So how should we handle racially ‘diverse’ characters in YA?

~~~

Vahini Naidoo is  a YA author and University student from Sydney, Australia. Her debut novel FALL TO PIECES, en edgy psychological thriller, will be released by Marshall Cavendish in Fall, 2012. She’s represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. You can read more about Vahini on her blog.

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29 Responses to “How Should We Handle Racially ‘Diverse’ Characters in YA?”

  1. Asia Morela October 24, 2011 at 11:25 AM #

    That is an fascinating issue, and I must agree with you about trying to find a middle ground between making the book about a racial issue, and pretend race doesn’t matter at all. I think a first step is to recognize that there is an incredible variety of experiences and identities within non-white people. It’s amazing how little you can actually guess about their life and history by limiting yourself to their skin colour…

    To most people I look very Asian, but I am in fact French and Canadian, and have lived all my life in “the West”. My boyfriend looks Indian, but he has in fact grown up in Africa and his first language is English. Because he’s dark, he’s the most likely to be picked on in a few specific contexts, but then he also comes from a privileged background… Not everybody who immigrates does it for financial reasons.

    He does jiu jitsu, and for some reason his team is full of Asian guys. This white Quebecker said the first time he came, somebody commented on that he was “the only white”, and at first he thought they meant his skin (because all the others *were* Asians), but they actually meant his belt… 😛 Whenever we hang out with them, there’s always a lot of conversation and jokes revolving about this non-white aspect of our lives. Every Vietnamese person I know has an “uncle no. 8” somewhere, for instance… That’s something we have that makes us different from white, Canadian-born and -bred people, but that’s not a “racial issue” in our lives to speak of.

    We were at the restaurant last night with one guy in their team who’s white, a local, and a policeman. We started talking about how annoying it is to cross the Canada-US border and sharing all our fun stories related to it. So this guy mentions the times he would talk back to some of the agents. My friends were like, “Oooh, you’re really taking useless risks, you must not do that!” And he replied, “Nah, I’m white, I’m in the police… it was just too tempting to take advantage of that to stand up to them a little.” It’s interesting that he *knew* he was pushing it, but he also knew he *could* because of his privilege.

  2. Vee October 24, 2011 at 9:07 PM #

    That’s funny about your boyfriend — that’s pretty much my own background! I have Indian heritage, but was raised in South Africa (although I moved to Australia when I was very young and I identify as Australian for the most part). There’s definitely an incredible diversity of individual experiences amongst non-white people (and white people!), I agree, and looking at a person’s skin colour often doesn’t tell you much about them at all.

    I really like that you mentioned cultural differences — like the Vietnamese uncle thing etc — that exist, but aren’t issues. They’re differences, without being conflicts. I think too often that element of handling racially diverse characters is entirely lost, or is played up to the point where it becomes exoticised. It’s another case of needing that middle ground, maybe.

    Thanks for thoughts! 🙂

  3. Leonicka (@leonicka) October 24, 2011 at 11:08 PM #

    This is a fantastic discussion and I may come back to formulate a more coherent comment but for now I’ll say this: diverse characters (whether it be along the lines of race, sexual orientation or what have you) are written by diverse authors and published by diverse presses. So long as the industry is predominantly white, there will always be a question mark at the end of the sentence. People of different backgrounds need to be encourage to tell their stories. A character of color doesn’t have to be fighting injustice on every page; s/he just has to be real. The success of the webseries “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl” is a testament to this. People are hungry to see authentic images of themselves replace the crude tokens that currently pass as “diverse” characters in media.

    • Vee October 25, 2011 at 8:38 AM #

      I’m not sure I agree that only authors of colour can write about characters of colour. After all, I have (I believe) successfully written about white characters in the past. Of course, it’s going to involve thinking themselves out of their privileges etc and some careful consideration, but I think it can be done. Although I do think you’ve raised an interesting point, and that it’s really important to get more non-white authors involved in writing for children, and writing in general, in order to get some really authentic voices out there.

      And I don’t know, I don’t think it’s concretely the case that books featuring diverse characters are limited to diverse presses — Sarwat Chadda’s The Ash Mistry Chronicles, for instance, is being released by HarperCollins — or that they should be targeted towards or consumed by only diverse audiences. Surely everyone can appreciate a riveting story, no matter the skin colour of the hero or heroine? (I know that this is probably rather idealistic of me, but hopefully we can work towards making it an actuality!).

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and I think you’re ultimately right — people are looking for authentic images of themselves, and characters that they can relate to 🙂

  4. Najela October 25, 2011 at 11:32 AM #

    I think there’s enough spaces (albeit still limited) for stories on both sides of the argument. I think people shouldn’t be afraid of writing a character of different ethncities, but I get the impression that it’s more easier for a white writer to write about white characters because of privileges allowed to them that can allow them to be in situations where they rarely encounter people of color. It’s must easier to write about characters you have experience with because to write about a POC character requires research and if your main goal is just write a good story then you can definitely continue to do that.

    And it’s infinitely easier to write a white character as a person of color than it is to write your own. And I only say that it’s easier because in the end it’s more publishable than something with a character of color. There is still the notion that books with MC’s of color won’t sell. There are stories still being published with ethnic characters but in comparison to white books, the ratio between them is still small.

    I think the way ethnic characters can work their way into the mainstream is to cast them in books that are a bit on top of the trends. I’m personally getting burnt out on paranormal romances and dystopian (which is sad, I really love dystopian, but the market is saturated at this point). But there needs to be a runaway hit like Twilight or Harry Potter or Hunger Games (i.e. there most likely needs to be a movie made about the book) that resonates with the target audience. And yes, while I think that book bloggers and people who love to read crave diversity in characters, I’m still unsure of just who the publishing world caters to.

    Sometimes they have books that everyone enjoys, but in recent years, it’s just been a bunch of bandwagon jumping. The strange thing is that when a character of a non-white race becomes a bandwagon jumping venture, it will take many openminded agents and editors to make sure that culture and other things aren’t just stereotyped. They need a story that can be made into a movie and get the people who are nonreaders interested in these books. I think these runaway hits rely on having their stories told in different mediums (book to movie mainly)(I say this because for the past 2 years I’ve been trying to convince my friend to read the Hunger Games but now she’s only reading it because there’s a movie coming out and not because I’ve been telling her too) and being true to life without focusing on that aspect of the story. It needs to be a book that the mainstream publishing audience (which I’m assuming to be white) can read without feeling like an outsider while people of color can also find it true to life.

    Sorry this hasn’t really a been a coherent thought. I’m excited to go to the Diversity in YA tour and I hope some people can come up with some good solutions to getting people interested in this stuff.

    • Vee October 27, 2011 at 6:52 AM #

      I guess for some people (in remote areas of Australia, certain parts of the US and UK etc) that is the case, but I doubt it’s true for the percentage of YA authors without non-white characters in their books, if that makes sense.

      I don’t think writing white characters is very much, actually, to do with the society you interact with (although that can have an effect if it’s not multicultural, of course). I think it’s got *everything* to do with the fact that people who love words are schooled, from a very young age, in the Western literary canon. Which is predominantly white, understandably. So we come out, sort of hardwired to not write about non-white characters, if that makes sense. A solution will come in future generations, imo, when literature regarding non-white people becomes canonised and becomes a part of the education system. And when kidlit changes to reflect the diversity of society (which is happening right now, yay!).

      I think the canon thing, and the books we’re brought up reading, is also why a lot of non-white authors feel more comfortable, or more able, to write white characters. I know that this is certainly (oddly) the case for me. When I was younger, I would have felt fraudulent writing about South African people, or Indian people, or whatever — because I thought I’d be trying to write a totality, trying to nail down that experience. And what did I know about that? Not much, to be honest. I’ve since realised that there is no totality to be contained, that you can never write ‘the X race experience’, because there is obviously no such thing.

      Also, I’m not sure that fiction featuring non-white people has to necessarily be conscious of a white audience. I think that leads to all sorts of problems (hello, exoticism! It’s too easy to turn this kind of thing into a oh-let’s-observe-how-weird-and-different-and-cool-this-culture-is sort of thing, which has a vibe of…cultural voyeurism perhaps, to me?). And the success of adult authors, and titles, who *don’t* really do this and have achieved success is an indicator that maybe this doesn’t have to be the case in kidlit, either — Toni Morrison, for one.

      I definitely agree with you that there’s room for books on both sides of the coin, though, for sure!

  5. Lene October 25, 2011 at 6:13 PM #

    I didn’t really noticed until you pointed it out that most of YA main charcters are white/caucasian. My guess is that it’s common belief that they are easier to relate to in an higher scale. But I am speaking merily thinking about commercial strategies. It’s like japanese manga or anime in which the characters look everything but japanse with big eyes and voluptuos bodies. Frankly one of my favourite manga author Misturu Adachi is one of the few who draw japanese like japanese and he could have made his charcters blue haired and yellow eyed and it would have been fine with me cause the stories are so good.
    Also I am italian and we don’t really have very defined racial.. Oh crap, I don’t know how to say it without sounding rude. I try anyway damn language barriers! Thing is i my country we don’t have anykind of separation, we don’t define people as black or latinos or asian.They are who they are, surely with their heritage and stuff but I’ll never heard anyone say ” Oh this Tina my nigerian friend her race doesn’t really matter to me” it’s more like this “Tina full stop” and whatever needs to be shared it’s shared between people(I am not certainly saying that I live in neverland racist idiots who think themselves above anyone doesn’t exist). Sorry for the lenght and the bad english hope my point is understandable.
    Lene

    • Vee October 27, 2011 at 6:55 AM #

      I find it interesting that most white people I’ve discussed this with say that they never noticed, at least when they were younger (although a lot of them became aware as they grow older), that most children’s books featured white children, but most non-white people have been very aware of this. I think it’s another manifestation of privilege — if you *are* well represented in the fictive world, you don’t really have to think about it, but if you’re not, it’s something you’re acutely aware of.

      That’s interesting that you think things are somewhat different in Italy, though, and thank you for stopping by and commenting. No problem about the English, I can guarantee you my Italian is atrocious in comparison 🙂

  6. K, the Popinjay. October 25, 2011 at 9:35 PM #

    Now, I don’t have a lot to say other than I loved this article. I think I fall into the second camp more because I don’t think race should define every single experience in a character’s life but I understand what you mean when you say it has some impact. I followed the links you provided and read the accompanying posts and honestly the stories break my heart. Whitewashing the covers in order to get the book to sell just says something and it’s something sad.Hopefully something happens to change all this, sometime soon.

    • Vee October 27, 2011 at 6:58 AM #

      Thank you! And yeah, whitewashing is definitely heartbreaking to read about for me, too. I’m not sure whether booksellers and publishers just aren’t trusting consumers enough, or whether their judgement of how things stand is correct — and that’s sort of saddening.

  7. Claire Dawn October 26, 2011 at 12:36 AM #

    I just presented on Multiculturalism in YA, and Asia Morela mentioned this post to me.

    I’d like to add one more caveat. Race also doesn’t matter in extreme mono-racial society unless you’re in the sever minority. I grew up in Barbados, a Caribbean island with a 96% Black population. So I never faced any racial issues growing up. But there may have been prejudices in skin tone, which I suppose might be the equivalent of an all-white society with hair colour prejudices.

    Also, I live in Japan now. 99% of the people are Asian. You are never discriminated against for being Asian. You may be discrimnated against for being Chinese or Korean, or for your family’s status. On the other hand, I’m a severe minority out here. And while, I don’t necessarily suffer for it, many people I meet have never met a black female. So I am the standard. Lots of people probably think all black ppl have the same proportions as me, the same type of hair, are the same height, like the same foods, etc.

    But I agree with your general premise that in a mixed society, race is never something that just is. And it usually not the root of all evil.

    http://aclairedawn.blogspot.com/2011/04/writing-other.html

    Here’s the post I wrote. It’s not just about race, but gives consideration for writing any character that’s not mainstream.

    • Vee October 27, 2011 at 7:00 AM #

      That’s definitely true about monocultural societies! Good point. I sort of wrote this with the assumption that we were talking about multicultural ones (showing my own biases there).

      I’m just about to check out your post! Thanks for the link and your thoughts 🙂

  8. Nicole October 26, 2011 at 4:18 AM #

    Its interesting that I come across this post today. Race and racial issues have been on my mind lately, (probably because of the news show 20/20 doing an episode highlighting a American Native Lakota reservation a couple of weeks ago).

    In my reading, it’s an all or nothing thing. Race is either at the forefront of the novel (such as a plot/subplot about a racial issue) or maybe mentioned in passing (to give the character in question more depth and description). 98% of the time essentially it comes down to looks. Race is mentioned to give the reader a guide line on how to in vision a character. There are a lot of cons to this because in reality, most places are really melting pots. I say American or Canadian, you think white because thats the majority of people. Yet I could be referring to any of a large array of backgrounds. Which is why I dont think theyre very good at giving descriptions.

    I remember reading a book a while back about a Muslim Australian teen struggling with issues and backlash with wearing a head covering. I thought it was a very good story because while race was at the forefront of the novel, it also was a YA story full of high school and boy dramas. It was a good balance, race was a driving force in the novel, but that was only part of the book there was still more to the character besides being a race.

    You mentioned in your post that you would like to see whiteness as a facet. I totally agree that it rendered standard and invisible. For me personally, I think of all characters a white males and females if given no description of them, because I am white and thats what I know. I assume everyone thinks that character look like them, it like the default description. I think that being white also gives to the label of being a racist until proving otherwise. White people really tip toe around race. Like in the book The Help, in the authors note the author said she was afraid/ hesitant of writing in the voice of a black maid. I thought that was interesting, why? Did she think she wouldnt be able to give is justice or that it would be regarded as not genuine since she had never been in their shoes. The Help is a brilliantly written book! (read it! Dont watch the movie!) White people have really been indoctrinated not to be proud of being white, that makes you a neo-nazi. So youre not going to see books about dealing with exploring their white identities.

    I honestly dont know how to handle it. It has to be a balance, I honestly the Patil twins from Harry Potter as Indian-British. So I think it all fall on to the reader to decide to decipher cultural clues left by the author (with the word clue I am referring to subtle things like food, religions, clothing, and other practices). Cultural clues would give the reader more to draw on than a stereotype is race is apart of the plot.

    • Vee October 27, 2011 at 7:25 AM #

      That’s Does My Head Look Big in This by Randa Abdel-Fattah, who is one of the best authors of ‘diverse’ YA fiction. I love her stuff to bits — not just because of the cultural aspects, she does just write fantastic stories. And as a girl from a very, very different background who never really faced the same conflicts as her protag, I was able to relate to the MC in Does My Head Look Big in This quite well.

      Hmm, I wasn’t planning on seeing the movie for The Help — I’ve heard that it basically just reduces racism down to a question of whether or not you’re a nice person, which I find pretty irritating, but perhaps I’ll check out the book. The thing is, I’ve heard a lot of stuff about that particular author sort of appropriating the experiences of her OWN maid — and stealing someone else’s experiences directly is something most authors are queasy about (http://abcnews.go.com/Health/lawsuit-black-maid-ablene-cooper-sues-author-kathryn/story?id=12968562). Could that be part of it? I’m not exactly very well informed on this, so I’m not sure.

      I think the rest of the nervousness could be explained by a question of ability. Do I have the ability to effectively imagine myself out of my racial (and socioeconomic in this case) privileges in order to effectively and authentically tell this story? I’ve thought similar things, myself, when writing characters of poorer backgrounds, to be honest.

      I found what you said about not being able to express pride in whiteness quite interesting (I mostly meant that it’s been harmful for people of colour to have whiteness rendered invisible, because it makes white people the standard of ‘human’, and everyone else slightly less than that, but there are definitely huge disadvantages to white people that come with this, too). Anyway, I sort of agree and disagree.

      In a way, I think that of any racial group, white people are most able to — and do — talk about race. It’s actually one of the items Peggy MacIntosh listed as part of her privileges, I just didn’t get that far down the list. People of colour, are, essentially, silenced when it comes to speaking about racial discrimination (particularly if it’s against them) because it makes you seem as if you’re whinging about something. In the same way that women who speak out about gender discrimination are often seen as irritating feminists.

      I also think that people of colour aren’t really permitted to celebrate their cultures, either (although some do as a way of forming a group/self to identify with). For instance, although I’ve never owned a sari etc in my life, I’m of Indian heritage and in Year 11, a girl in my year was planning to wear a sari to our formal (equivalent of prom). She was white, and everyone thought this was really cool, but some people mentioned that it wouldn’t be cool if “you had done it” to me.

      In a way, I think that happens on a society-wide level, where white people are allowed to celebrate other people’s cultures (although perhaps not their own, and that’s sad), but for those same people it’s not considered as cool (or even if you look like those people). I think the reason why white people aren’t ‘allowed’ to celebrate their own culture, is often because they feel guilty — about the privileges that they hold, or about some events that have occurred in the past — and this makes them loath to mention race, or acknowledge that it exists at all, hoping that a ‘color blind’ world will ensue. This is sort of, sadly, counterproductive to what these people actually want, b/c of course it just entrenches the norm.

      The other comment to make here is that it’s obviously difficult for white people to celebrate whiteness, since it’s a far from homogenous social group. I’ve seen friends celebrate their Irishness, or their Englishness, or their Russianness (even if they’re 5th gen migrants or whatever), and that does sort of seem more logical than a celebration of skin colour.

      Also, re the Patil twins — I think J.K did try to drop cultural clues. Patil’s a fairly common Indian name and I think (not 100% sure about this) that Parvati and Padma are the names of Hindu goddesses.

      Anyway, thanks for the really thought-provoking comment! Lots of things to think about here 🙂

  9. Nicole October 26, 2011 at 4:20 AM #

    * I honestly did not imagine the Patil twins from Harry Potter as Indian-British.

  10. Megan October 26, 2011 at 1:13 PM #

    I tend to lean more towards the latter position as well. If I use myself as an example, I’m a white American female–but what does that actually tell you about me? That’s three labels with very large margins. But the first image that likely comes to mind when you think “white American female” is not who I am. I am not blond, for one. I do not have a tan. My teeth aren’t perfect. My breasts are small. I could go on and on. The point is that I think race has to be another one of these details–no doubt it’s an important one, one that has a significant impact on how you identify yourself and relate to others–but it’s not the only defining characteristic you have going on.

    I think you have to approach your characters the same way–especially if you’re writing from a specific character’s perspective. They aren’t black or white, Asian or Indian or American. You begin with who they are, not what they are. You begin with a problem or a choice or a journey (physical or spiritual) the character will have to tackle immediately or eventually, and then you build the character and the story around that. Perhaps you choose a specific race or culture to exacerbate the circumstances or explain a certain culturally-oriented perspective or highlight inequality/injustice in the world, but the point is that you start with the character first–who is made up of hopes and fears and cannot be packaged into a neat little box–and then you go from there.

    Something to think about: Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors, and I find it interesting that he almost never assigns any kind of easily recognizable racial trait to his characters. They are dark skinned or light skinned or in between; they have dark hair, they have white-blond hair, they have no hair at all. Half the time they aren’t even human. I love that about his writing–these characters could be anyone, and anyone can relate to them, and that’s the point, isn’t it?

    • Vee October 27, 2011 at 7:30 AM #

      I actually imagine sort of pale brunettes, with green or blue eyes, who are really slim when I think of white American female. But I think I’ve been watching too much Downton Abbey, lol.

      Character definitely comes first, and race is another characteristic. It’s obviously far, far more significant than other physical characteristics like hair colour, face shape etc because unfortunately, we don’t yet live in a world where skin colour is apolitical.

      And I do really like Gaiman’s approach (it’s also one that I’ve taken myself in the past), and Gaiman in general, but I think the problem with that approach is that the vast majority of readers will default white on them, even if they are described as ‘dark-skinned’ or whatever.

  11. aniq October 26, 2011 at 1:13 PM #

    no, white characters are not inherently easier to relate to… it wasn’t easy for me growing up seeing almost NO books about people like myself. so strong was my need to read about people like me that characters described as having black hair automatically became my favorites [like cimorene]. not everyone grew up with the privilege of not noticing that some groups are underrepresented. i HAD to relate to white YA characters, because often that was my only option, but i could theoretically just as easily relate to black YA characters or brown YA characters. after all, how do people relate to katara from avatar? it’s a wrong assumption that continues to let us think of white characters as the default, and it’s part of the reason stories about people of color are often white washed before turned into films [the last airbender, 21, etc].

    some books that handle diverse characters well: anything by melina marchetta. she handles immigrant backgrounds while still telling absolutely relate-able stories about love and life. the attolia series is another good one. it’s set in a fictional historical setting, and it handles race and ethnicity issues by making them an inherent part of the characters but just making it one part of the political intrigue. these stories in particular were a life saver for me as a kid, because i finally got to read about brown people with curly hair and features like mine who were kings and queens and thieves.

    • Vee October 27, 2011 at 7:39 AM #

      I think you may have misread me? Unless you’re possibly replying to someone upthread? I definitely don’t think white characters are inherently easier to relate to (especially for non-white people, and for the record if it isn’t clear from my picture, I didn’t grow up with the privilege of not noticing that certain groups are underrepresented). In fact, this is an idea that I abhor. I think it ignores our shared fundamental humanness (and I think it actually stems from the construction of whiteness as the norm/centre).

      But I think whiteness has been socially constructed as the normative in our society. When we talk about “race” it always seems to refer to people of color (who are basically defined as being “not white”). When we hear news casts, describing someone that police are searching for, if a white man or woman has gone missing, then the reporter will say, “Police are searching for a man in his thirties” if it’s any other racial group, it’ll be “Police are searching for a man of Arabic/Chinese/Indian appearance in his thirties.”

      By not including white as an ethnicity, we sort of imply that white people are *just people* and other people are less people, and more their racial group. It’s harmful, this process, because it gives whiteness an invisible sort of power. And you can’t very well deconstruct and take apart something that you can’t see, or put your finger on. Just imo. And that’s what I was talking about in the post.

      • aniq October 29, 2011 at 3:33 PM #

        hey sorry! i didn’t mean to imply that’s what you thought. i was in the middle of midterms staying up all night and i read one of the comments suggesting that people of color may seem less marketable, so i wanted to respond to that idea… it wasnt until later that i realized i sounded super offended… sorry! your post was so thoughtful, and i definitely agree with you about whiteness becoming normative. apologies ❤

      • aniq October 29, 2011 at 3:36 PM #

        (so yes, to be clear i was sort of replying to one of the ideas brought up in the comments).

  12. aniq October 26, 2011 at 1:14 PM #

    i should also mention that i really enjoyed reading this post! thanks, it’ll leave me thinking for a while 🙂

    • Vee October 27, 2011 at 7:40 AM #

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post! 🙂

  13. harmamae October 26, 2011 at 11:11 PM #

    My thought would be that the world needs different authors doing both sides… stories actively dealing with issues of race (because they certainly still exist), and stories where race is simply a character trait. After all, people in real life are affected by race in different ways. We can approach writing about this is different ways.

    • Vee October 27, 2011 at 7:47 AM #

      Hmm, I definitely think we still need more of the middle ground approach. It just strikes me as incredibly reductive of the life of a person, to have racial identity be the only thing that defines them, and leads to the conflicts in their lives. It’d be like writing a book about a girl that is solely about her being a girl. Which I would find weird (although others may disagree). I think you can deal with issues of race, while still telling a story that reaches beyond that, and address that need.

      And I don’t think, in our current society, that race is apolitical (or gender). Although, I do know some people who think that writing books where it’s simply a trait will lead people to envision this possibility, and make it happen, and I think that’s a really worthwhile thing to do/think about.

      Of course we can approach writing about this in different ways, though. I’d just prefer more books that aren’t so either or/black and white on the issue, because it’s my opinion that they’d be more authentic.

      Thanks for commenting 🙂

  14. Rowenna October 27, 2011 at 10:42 AM #

    Awesome article–sorry I’m late to the game. This entire issue is wrapped up with a lot of emotion for many people, and I think that makes it difficult to discuss openly sometimes. Lots of history, lots of defensiveness and automatic responses. That said–great job highlighting the challenges and potential payoffs of addressing race in YA! One thing that, as a white person, I have felt challenged by is resistance to white authors writing people of color. I can completely understand the viewpoint–I’ve seen disasterous results, for instance, when men write women from a position they don’t recognize as bigotted. So I can see the concern of white authors not wanting to go there and people of color bristling at the thought of a white person trying–and possibly failing–to capture their experience. But this, in my mind, speaks to a larger problem–that we have, in some senses, “silo-ed” books written by people or color, that have people of color as protagonists, or deal with race into a subgenre of “books for people of color.” I’d love to see more fluidity–yes, this book was written by an Asian-American author–that doesn’t make it solely an “Asian-American book.” This book features an African-American protagonist–it doesn’t make it a book to be read by minorities only. More branching out could address a lot of the issues I see in diversity in YA.

  15. Sophelia October 28, 2011 at 12:46 AM #

    I actually think about this issue quite a bit, considering that ethnically, I am considered a minority in my country. I really think the attitude towards dealing with a character’s race should depend on what the author’s purpose in writing the book is. Personally, I’m interested in political/social activism regarding cultural awareness, so as a writer I would probably lean towards the former camp mentioned in the post. I think the problem is that our general mindset towards this is a too “either/or.” Like, it either has to be all about race, or it should not be a factor at all.

    Maybe my experience is different from others — but even though I am not conscious of my status as a racial minority every single minute of my life, it still affects my everyday interactions whether I notice it or not. I run into strangers every day, and I can guarantee that judgments are made about me simply because of my race, and the interactions we have are reactions to whatever judgments they may make about me.

    Personally, I don’t quite buy the “race is just a character trait” stance, because I think that’s the wrong way to approach the right goal. If you really get down to the heart of it, why are we so concerned with including diversity in YA? It’s because they’re underrepresented — not just in literature, but in film and television, and many other areas of our society as well. You might pat yourself on the back for writing a “diverse” character, but if she’s written in a way that doesn’t give any insight on how her cultural heritage influences her personal values, her interactions with family, or anything that makes her unique, then she may as well have been the “default” white protagonist. (Which brings me back to your point about white protagonists — I would actually love to read a book about race with a white protagonist!)

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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