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.

Share

More Diversity in Fairytales, please

Last week, Shana Mlawski, wrote about populating fantasy with diversity and not just sticking to Medieval England as a reference and I completely agree with her. In fact, I’m add to her argument by saying we can take diversity a step further, especially as to the current trend of taking well known folklore/fairy tales and putting a modern spin on them.

When I was a little girl, I loved the Disney princesses and fairytales in general, so when I learned about Beastly, by Alex Flinn, I was excited. And then more and more books were published that were based off of Western fairy tales. I read them, liking the modern touch, but one aspect of all of these novels rubbed me the wrong way. These stories were set in our modern times, in our modern cities, with our very techno-savvy modern lifestyles, but there wasn’t a single instance of diversity. None.

How was that possible? In my daily life I’m interacting with all sorts of people – different races, ages, sizes – my world is incredibly diverse. How come I’m not seeing this same world I live in reflected in my reading? I could have gotten angry; I could have raged at the world, but instead, I wrote. I wrote my own story, with the diversity I saw reflected in my world. I also searched. Searched for authors who chose to step out from their comfort zones and write different characters; create diverse worlds.

Shannon Hale’s Book of a Thousand Days is a re-telling of a tale by the Brother’s Grimm, but is set in central Asia. Malinda Lo’s Ash, takes Cinderella’s tale and turns it on its head. Marissa Meyer’s Cinder is set in a future China and the prince is Asian. These are wonderful additions to YA literature for their diversity and their unique take on the old tales they are based on.

However, as readers we have to demand more, and as writers we have to create more. Writers need to be more open to writing characters that are different from them. Research other fairytales and folklore that exist in other countries, or even in one’s own culture. Folklore was created as a way of sharing history, teaching morality and exists in every culture on Earth. These stories have not stood the test of time because they are good, but because they are captivating stories. We can restructure these stories and place them in a modern context for the next generation, but we must be sure that our modern stories also reflect our modern lives.

Share