As a form of art, literature is an area in which race is strongly debated, and, as a YA writer and reader, I run across a lot in terms of race in YA lit. Recently, the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks has been trending on Twitter, running for almost a week, showing exactly how much people believe that literature in general, especially YA and children's lit, needs more variety. YA lit especially is very transformative, after all, at an important time in readers' lives, and it often even transcends the boundaries of age. Thus, how we are portraying race in YA lit is a topic of much concern.
I don't have all that much new to say on the topic, naturally, as it has been worked over so many times by so many others much more qualified than I. But I thought, since it is an important issue, I would just summarize some of the issues I see when it comes to race in YA literature. I can say that I have learned/realized much about it recently. Two of my roommates this past semester at BYU-Idaho were black, and through my time with them, I became so much more aware of how marginalized they are by modern fiction. It limits them so much, I realized, in terms of enjoyment of entertainment. It was really quite saddening (and eye-opening.)
- Obviously, the primary issue with race in YA lit is the low percentage of representation. At this point in time, the US is composed of more minorities than whites, but whites still predominantly feature in YA lit. Like, a lot.
- The good news here is that it is no longer, in any way, acceptable to have a cast of characters with no diversity. This phenomenon in literature is known as "white suburbia", and it's no longer accepted by the industry. This is something I ran into when I began writing, because my hometown is largely white (a lot of Latino, but that's still white), but also with a disproportionate amount of Asians. I rarely encountered anyone of African American or similar racial background, and when I was young, it was automatic for me to have everything be "white-washed." In middle school, though, as I learned more about the industry, I taught myself to move away from this and include more diversity in my novels. This trend creates much more diverse character casts.
- The bad news is that this still hasn't brought about much of an increase in non-white main characters. Even though the side characters are more ethnically diverse, main characters tend to be white. All the time. I can understand to a point where this comes from, as a white author. Sometimes we fear getting things "wrong" culturally when having an ethnic main character (that's my big fear!). However, I'm making an effort to break though that, as one of my writing challenges. The next novel I plan to write will have an African-American main character.
- Another topic I imagine is addressed, although less than these others, is the lower percentage of successful non-white authors. As far as I can tell, that's quickly becoming a lot less of an issue, which is fantastic!
- Even when there is a non-white main character, however, you're likely to run into trouble. White-washed book covers occur all too often, with the tendency to either turn a character white on the cover, otherwise minimize their racial appearance on the cover, or avoid showing them at all. This is an issue I briefly talked about in my book cover post of way yonder back.
- This same thing occurs in movie adaptations, with the white-washing. For example, Katniss Everdeen, in The Hunger Games? She's one of those treasured non-white main characters (the most valid theory I've come across for her actual race claims that she's Melungeon, which is a triracial group in the Appallacian region). But she's played by a blond haired, blue eyed, white actress. (Absolutely nothing against Jennifer Lawrence of course. I, like most people, adore her. But it is an example of this trend.) This happens a lot.
- Finally, I'd like to point out a lesser problem in this arena that I think especially white authors run into. How do you address race without people calling you racist? It's hard to describe non-white characters in your book, because if you call them African-American, Asian, black, something of the like, immediately people are going to say you're being racist by boiling their existence down to their race. But then, diversity is important and needs to be included in these books. What's more, sometimes, if you use the words "black" and "white" in non-racial spheres, you get called out for the potential association. So far, the best way I can find to show that a character is of a different race is by describing the color of the skin. And this is hardly the best solution. A good further post on this by author Shannon Hale can be found here.
Thanks for reading! I'll see you next time for an updated bookshelf tour!
Image via shelterhomecc.org.