Tag Archives: race

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.