It’s the Pattern that’s the Problem

A few years ago a friend and fellow amateur writer asked me whether or not her main character being white was a problem. We had been discussing diversity in media, and I was caught by surprise by the frankness of the question. I managed to babble something that was semi-coherent, assuring her that nothing was wrong with the character, and the topic drifted from there.

I’ve thought about that conversation a lot since then, and I think I’m ready to give a more thorough answer. With a few exceptions (like the Mighty Whitey trope or deliberate erasure/whitewashing), there’s nothing inherently wrong with a main character being white. I have no quarrel with Harry Potter for being both white and The Boy Who Lived. Alanna of Trebond is still the best knight in all of Tortall no matter how fair her skin is. John Cleaver is equally terrifying and delightful as he hunts down supernatural killers.

Then there’s Tris, Peter, Bella, Rory, Hazel, Ender, Janie, Cas, Letty, Gemma, Miles, Jonas, Anne, Lyra, Charlie, Clary, Clay, Melinda, Tally, Alice, Sophie, Will, Eragon, Mia, Lena, Anna, Nora, Ginny, Jerry, Meg, Nathaniel, Samantha, Thomas, Cammie, Todd, Grace, Aerin, Lia, and hundreds of other white protagonists in young adult books whose stories dominate the bestseller lists.

The problem isn’t that these characters are white—the problem is that they all are. Last year, NPR posted a list of the 100 best ever teen novels (as voted by NPR’s 87% white audience), and only two of those books featured protagonists who were people of color. (A third book split the POV between three white girls and one Latina.) Readers submitted over 1,200 titles, which were narrowed down by a panel of experts to just 235 books. But even with an extra 135 books thrown in, an NPR assistant only found four additional titles starring people of color.

The problem is that when I look for people who look like me in the media I consume, I am thrilled when they actually exist, let alone have some plot-significant dialogue or get a POV. The problem is that this horde of books starring white characters is teaching me that the people who look like me aren’t smart enough to lead a team of heroes, aren’t powerful enough to be agents of their own fate, aren’t skillful enough to be looked up to, aren’t sexy enough for makeouts, aren’t loyal enough to be true companions, aren’t interesting enough to have their stories told.

White boy finds out he’s the chosen one, white girl overthrows corrupt society, white boy finds a doomed love, white girl goes on epic road trip to discover herself, white boy becomes a man, white girl becomes a woman, everyone else plays either a supporting role or functions as sentient scenery—that pattern is the problem.

Is any specific author obligated to write a book from the point of view of a person of color? Absolutely not. But who gets to star in the stories we love matters just as much as what happens in those stories.

It’s going to take a lot of people—writers, agents, editors, publishers, readers, bloggers, booksellers, etc.—to replace the current pattern with something more inclusive. So buy books that star people of color, interview authors/agents/editors about why they chose to write/acquire diverse stories and voices, recommend those stories to friends, create fanart or fanfic or fancasts, and reblog and retweet and comment and like and share whenever you can.

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4 Comments on “It’s the Pattern that’s the Problem
  1. And for the love of God, I NEED to see books with PoC that don’t center around gang violence, teenage pregnancy, and things of that sort. I also feel like a lot of books that have PoC main characters are dumbed down and written in a very basic way. That frustrates me as well.

    I loved MY OWN WORST FRENEMY because it features a black girl as the lead who is smart, funny, and awesome. We need more books like that.

    • I agree! There are plenty of PoC who aren’t dealing with those stereotypes. We have other stories that can be told!

      I haven’t read MY OWN WORST FRENEMY yet, but it sounds like a fun series. I’ll have to see if my library has it.

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