Friday, June 26, 2009

Discussion: Race & Ethnicity in YA

A couple weeks ago, susan pointed me to an interesting blog post by author Mitali Perkins (Secret Keeper) on race, caste, and class in The Hunger Games. And in light of Asian and Pacific Islander Awareness Month last month, author Jon Yang and I have also been exchanging emails about race and ethnicity in YA lit in general. I think it's an interesting topic to discuss because we are right now on the, shall I say, brink of revolution: YA lit is exploding, and books featuring GLBTQ main characters are becoming more and more prominent at the same time that the gay marriage issue is being fought about in politics.

At the same time, I think there's one group of characters that has not yet been adequately introduced in YA lit: that is, minority main characters whose race or ethnicity is a PART of their identity, but does not direct the whole course of the novel. We've come a long way since a hundred or even thirty years ago, but I think there's still a huge preference for white main characters and not enough minority main characters in YA lit.

As an Asian American, I'm almost ashamed to say that whenever I read a book, 99% of the time I picture the character as being white. Even characters who are introduced as being of a different race, I perceive in my head as white. Simon in Kelley Armstrong's Darkest Powers series is half-Asian, but I didn't fully realize that until the second book, and even so I still have trouble picturing him as half-Asian. According to Mitali's blog-reader survey, characters in The Hunger Games are described with varying shades of skin, hair, and eye color, and yet I perceived them all to be of pretty much the same type anyway.

I wonder whether or not this is a problem, and when in the course of my life I got "programmed" to assume that all characters are white unless otherwise directly stated for us--and even if their physical attributes are described to make them clearly another race, why I still can't picture them unless their story specifically deals with their struggle to overcome the stereotypes associated with their race. Jon Yang and I both want to see more YA books in the future that feature minority characters whose race or ethnicity does not drive the conflict in the story, and yet is present enough to make us aware of the fact that characters should not automatically be presumed to be white. Characters like me.

I don't like the term "color-blind" because a person's race and all of the physical differences that add up to it ARE an undeniable part of a person's being. I have no problem describing myself as an Asian American of Taiwanese descent; I am proud of my race, and even when someone makes an intentional or unintentional comment about my race, I'm hurt, but I still stay true to myself. Being of a different race or ethnicity (or any other characteristic) than others is bound to bring differences: there are certain stereotypes associated with my race whose veracity I will not deny. (Yes, most Asians feel that education is very important. Yes, many of us believe strongly in filial piety.) But I'd like to see more minority characters tackling challenges in fiction that have usually been assumed to be "linked" to white characters. That is, how many fantasy/adventure/quest novels have minority main characters? How many minority main characters can deal with high school drama and not come home to focus on perpetually disappointed parents who drag them off to Chinese church groups where they contemplate how their race or ethnicity fits into their lives?

In other words: can we picture minority characters in bestselling YA fiction? Can Katsa in Graceling be Asian? Can Jessica Darling in Megan McCafferty's books be Latino? Can Janie from Wake and Fade be black?

Will that work? Or will there be something missing, something incomplete about these characters' stories if we do not also talk about how they perceive and are perceived by society?

I'm not sure if I covered everything I wanted to say, or if I even said what I've said here well, but now I'm turning it over to you. My friends, what are your thoughts about the presence of race and ethnicity in YA lit? How do you think its current state is, and how do you think it will change in the future? When you read books, how do you perceive the characters? Are you aware of characters' race while reading? If you write, how do you consider diversity when creating your characters? Is lack of diversity still an issue in YA?


  1. The last time I really thought about race while I was reading was George Pelacanos THE NIGHT GARDENER. I thought the main character was black because his wife was black. Yeah, terrible, I know. Turns out he was italian. I remember there being speculation before LOST's 2nd season that Rose's husband had to the be the black guy, and then it surprised everyone that Bernard was white.

    Incidentally, Daniel orginally conceived 2 of the 6 main children in his upcoming children's book as non-white. The publisher asked him to make his illustrations even more diverse. So now there is are 2 latina children, an asian child and a black child. I know picture books are a whole other story, but I just thought I'd share.

  2. Good thoughts. Definitely my default when reading is to imagine white characters unless told differently or I have a clue from the cover of the book or the author photo (because I assume that the author wrote about someone the same race as them... not always the case!) or sometimes the name of the character because that can also be a clue. I definitely think YA books are taking a step in the right direction, featuring more ethnicities and races. Hopefully that will continue!

  3. Great post, Steph. I applaud you for addressing the issue of race and ethnicity.

    I read a lot of YA with poc characters and I can tell you it's not always about race. That's one of the misconceptions we need to dismantle among white readers. Just because the character is non-white doesn't mean the story is about race. Sure, race may inform the character's experiences and outlooks but we fall in love, lose a parent, feel like outcast among our peers and come to terms with our sexuality like all other teens. And even if race is an issue why should that stop a reader from identifying with universal themes within that work?

    Today, I'm on a mission to introduce the majority audience to books that they might not read. And by the absence of color on the majoriyt of teen blogs I read, I'd say there is room to broaden reading habits. You can't make someone broaden their reading habits but maybe you can make suggestions.

    Readers and publishers assume that a person of color would relate to a white character. Why isn't the opposite assumed? This isn't an issue of racism which anytime you talk about race, many whites become defensive, fearing they are going to be accused. There isn't reason or gain to be made by making accusations.

    The most common response is, "I don't know any books about or by blacks." I keep using black because there is a greater incident of books by Asians and Latino books on white teens' blogs. My response is why not look? I am very aware of what the majority is reading and I'm not white; that doesn't mean I don't read or am not interested in books with white lead characters.

    Sorry to be long-winded. This week at Color Online for CORA Diversity Roll Call, we're spotlighting LBGTQ writers and works. I chose Jacqueline Woodson. She is a writer who is queer, African American and a parent. Check it out. I list several of her books. She's written 22.

    Again, thanks for a great post.

  4. I'm with you on so many levels. I'm also Asian American with a Fuzhounese background so I don't speak a lick of Mandarin (only if I "apply" myself in school). I always picture characters from novels as white. It's actually just awkward for me to read books about other ethnicity. My friend and I went to a bookstore and she even told me that she'll never a certain book because it stars black characters!

    Over the course of time I noticed more authors incorporating different races, subtle changes, like half this and half that as you said. Everything comes in due process.

    I've come to accept that it might always be awkward because of what the media has shown me. That Caucasians are the glams, the rock-stars, the superheroes. I mean when has there been any Asians or Hispanics or African Americans been in the spotlight? Recently sure, but in a ratio we're still so behind. There are also some many stereotypes that the media likes to poke at which creates this tension that we have to follow it.

    I'm hoping that it chips away because there are some great YA books that showcase different ethnicity. There are interracial marriages now, peace treaties over the oceans, so why can't we bridge the gap between different parts of the world in writing?

    I think I just babbled on about nothing.

  5. "Will that work? Or will there be something missing, something incomplete about these characters' stories if we do not also talk about how they perceive and are perceived by society?"

    Love for someone to answer this.

    I do not default to white. I look for cultural, social or racial markers unless it is clear by the cover or author.

    I dislike colorblind. Like Steph said, everything we are impacts who we are. I do not think I would be exactly the same if I were male for example. Regardless of the degree, race and ethnicity does impact who we are. It just might not be the focus of the story. And that's fine by me.

  6. The problem isn't simply the lack of books available it is the resistence of teens to seek the books out.

    Ms. Woodson has been writing for more than a decade. She's written 22 books. How many does she have to write before you all find her? And why wait for white writers to include poc characters? Why can't poc characters be the leads. Sharon Draper has been writing for decades. Dana Davidson has written 3 novels. An Na, Angela Johnson, Veronica Chambers, Judith Ortiz, Rita Williams-Garcia.

    This is incredibly frustrating to me. It's as if we are invisible even to a generation that says it is interested in diversity. We are here. Do I have to jump and up down, waving my arms? Color Online and Black-Eyed Susan are only two places but I'm about as subtle as a bull in a china store. I promote good YA with positive female leads of color. I've been to your blogs. Commented to you. I post to the memes, always spotlighting YA with poc leads. What will it take to get your attention?

  7. Great post Steph - I think everyone should read/think about this so I posted it here.

    I think that a major contributor to this problem is the lack of presence and publicity of authors of color.

    Sure, there are plenty of authors out there of different ethnicities. Sure, there are plenty of lead characters that are not white. Sure, teens - and readers in general - have a responsibility to seek out such novels instead of disregarding the issue. However, a lot of the blame falls upon the shoulders of publishing houses and media as well.

    The reality is, when it comes to books with lead characters of other races, you do have to LOOK for them. More often than not, they do not receive the wealth of publicity that authors of the majority get.

    Often, the publicity they do get firmly labels them as "African American", "Latino" or "Asian" books. Not simply, YA fiction like similar stories.

    As a woman of color, I'm also used to reading about white characters. This is a result of several things:

    A) The deficit of exposure for authors who put out books with lead characters of other races.

    B) The quality and content of the books that do have characters of minority races
    -Too often, the subject matter of books with black and latino characters is, in my opinion, stereotypical. Set in ghettos, featuring gangs, containing stereoptypical language, etc. All-in-all portraying a lifestyle that most people of color don't lead as the norm.

    C) The lack minority authors on the rosters of publishers

    D) The habit of white authors placing minorities as background or sidekick characters.

  8. I don't think this is strictly a YA issue. If you read adult romance novels, the main characters are predominately white, unless you're reading about, like, Texas in 1850, when you get a lot of half Native American guys. In books set in the present day, you get a few Native American characters, too, usually half, though, same with Latino, and very rarely black. I've encounted exactly two books with black characters (bear in mind that these are the tacky romances I steal from my mother, not anything thought-provoking or anything). One of the books was really good, and the other I couldn't even get into because it was SO stereotypical that I found it insulting.

    So, long rambling aside, it's not just YA, and the YA front is probably more ahead of other genres, sad as that is.

  9. I almost always think that the characters look like me. I don't really think about black/white/brown/etc or any thing like that, I just subconsciously thing that if it's a girl, she'll look exactly like me. I usually have to think about what the author wrote as a character description but tend to go back to me even after I acknowledge the differences. And I am blonde, green eyed, and 'white'. But I am also Hispanic-- My mother is Mexican and Puerto Rican/Italian. So even though I *look* very white, I don't classify myself as white-- I think of myself as bi-racial. I grew up speaking mainly Spanish until I was about 5 or 6 six and many of our family traditions stem from one of the two Hispanic cultures my mother is from. SO, I tend to always think of the character being just like me that they may look white but that doesn't mean they really are just that, they may be like me. Unless the author makes a huge deal of what the character's race or looks are, I'll just default to what I look like and what I am.

  10. Insightful post. I too would imagine main characters to be caucasian sometimes, but it doesn't stop there. Unless I'm being reminded, I would imagine hearing their dialogue to be a certain way too instead of being accented if that should be the case.

    It truly is a dilemma. Thank you for writing this post. It's an eye-opener.

  11. Laina,

    I didn't read Steph or anyone else saying the issue exists in YA only. Her post asks readers to think about and discuss the issue of race in YA.

    Jacqueline I hear you, but I'm not letting readers off that easy. Publishers produce and promote what sells. If readers demand greater diversity, you bet your buck we'll get more.

    What I don't want is more minority characters playing the sidekick or existing in a work so the book is presented as pc and inclusive. If the black kid doesn't have a real voice in the novel, don't insult me by throwing him in for good measure.

    If you're genuienly interested in reading more books with poc characters as leads check The HappyNappy Bookseller, wrung sponge, Crazy Quilts, The Brown Bookshelf,
    , Color Online and
    Black-Eyed Susan's

    I could name more but we can find what we want.

  12. I didn't say anyone did. I was just pointing something out. Please don't put words in my mouth.

  13. I'm not a Caucasian so almost all the books I read show a different race. I admit, I like reading about the American culture but sometimes, I feel that it'd be better if there was other cultures too. I get so excited when a main characther is the same race as me. xD Not kidding. Because I want to see how my race is being portrayed in those books.

    I suggest we have a month where we aim to read at least 5 YA books in which the main character has a different race from the reader. This can be a challenge or something. I want to do this challenge badly! If no body does a challenge like this, I'll do one soon.

  14. Lenore: picture books are a whole other story, but I'm glad you shared. Since picture books are so much more visual, it would make sense that publishers would want there to be more diversity in the characters. However, it's strange that that hasn't translated over to other forms of media, such as the silver screen or even novels. I don't know of many movies that have minority star actors or actresses, just like I don't know of many YA novels that do.

    Summer: I think things are stepping out in the right direction, too! The 2008 presidential election made it clear that the next generation--the YA generation--is going to be a strong force in the upcoming years. I'm thinking that this will hopefully translate into more "alternative" protagonists in literature.

    Color Online/Susan: Definitely agree with you there! That's one of the many reasons I love authors such as Jacqueline Woodson and Dana Davidson. They put poc characters into situations that everyone should be able to. However, it's a little disappointing that the world seems to still be waiting for the "breakout" minority author. We shall see about that.

    Yan: You didn't babble at all. I understand the whole "why can't race just be a part of my identity?" thing you're talking about. Just because the MC is, say, Asian, doesn't mean he/she absolutely needs to have strict parents, smarts, etc. And yes, media has definitely shaped our perceptions of the "roles" that different races should play in the public eye. There have yet to be many Asian role models in the Hollywood industry, for example. I'm still waiting for that to change too.

    Laina: I definitely agree with you about YA actually leading the charge for change! Which is probably why it is all the sadder that there is still a long way to go. Sigh.

  15. Linda Ellen: You're welcome! :) I admit I don't have quite the same reaction in my head to their dialogue--when the words are on the page a certain amount of dialectical differences disappears, at least for me--but I can see why you would react that way to different characters' dialogue.

    Color Online/Jacqueline C: You both bring up a great point about there possibly being a resistance to seeking out authors who write about characters of color. All too often there is the placement of these authors' works into a separate category on their own. I have to say, though, that I believe there are other reasons those authors aren't as well known. I've read both Jacqueline Woodson and Dana Davidson's books before, and while I love that they contain love stories that everyone can relate to, there is still something... "soft," in the manner of their writing. I'm not saying that it is a race thing at all, I'm just saying that this "mutedness" of emotions that I feel when reading their books might cause others to turn away from reading them. I loved Jason & Kyra and Played, but I also had problems with the sometimes fake-sounding dialogue and the melodramatic situations. So, this is not a problem of race, but rather some observations on the quality of writing of these two authors that might make them not as appealing to the YA audience.

    Kate: I want to see how my race is portrayed as well! And you should totally set up that challenge. Although I think the challenge might be finding enough books for the challenge... T_T

  16. Steph, this was a very interesting blog post! I think that things are improving, for sure, but part of the problem of being a minority is that, well, you're in the minority. I don't know that books will ever include as many people of color as I, for one, might wish -- for that reason alone. As our society becomes increasingly multiracial, I hope that will change.

    I do think that many people read assuming that the characters are white unless clearly identified as not white. I realized this when my publisher was designing the cover of my book and they were going to put a girl on it. There is nothing in ASH to indicate that the main character is biracial -- race is not a part of the story at all, although class and sexuality are. However, I had always pictured Ash in my head as hapa. Additionally, one of the other main characters I definitely envisioned as Asian, but she has green eyes. I think this is going to throw people off entirely.

    And yet, it's a fantasy novel. I struggle with how much I can or should bring in our contemporary North American ideas about race into a fantasy world that is totally not contemporary North America. I haven't figured that part out yet. :)

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