White on Rice: Race in Literature

I recently read a blog post by a fellow avid reader who complained that the young adult genre is overwhelmed by white female heterosexual heroes, to the exclusion of all other races, genders and sexual orientations. The post was well written and thoughtful, and it inspired me to discuss some of my own thoughts on the question of race in the young adult genre as well as race in literature as a whole.

Katniss, Hunger Games competitor and white girl.
Katniss, Hunger Games competitor
and white girl.

When you look at the big name young adult bestsellers in the past ten years, it is almost shocking to see how many of the heroines physically resemble each other. Bella Swan, Katniss Everdeen, Lena Duchannes–all pretty, caucasian brunettes. Even heroines like Clary Fray and Tris Prior differ only in hair color or eye color. While these teenaged heroines may have friends–and in rare cases love interests– who inhabit a different racial profile, the diversity is entirely limited to characters other than the protagonist. You hear a lot of talk about diversity in the young adult publishing industry, yet in most of the high profile bestsellers, there is exactly zero racial variation. Why is this happening?

I would wager a guess that it’s happening because most of the authors in the young adult genre are themselves caucasian. Writing about a character who comes from a different background is challenging, and when you add in a race component, things quickly go from challenging to terrifying. Even after exhaustive research into the cultural, linguistic, and historical environment of a character’s ethnic background, I would be terrified to mess something up and unintentionally offend the very ethnic group I was trying to pay homage to. To put it bluntly, writing about someone who shares your cultural and racial background is just plain easier.

Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon

But there is also external criticism for the brave authors who do try to write about characters of different races. Even highly respected authors face this problem in their writing. Last year, Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon published his new novel Telegraph Avenue, which undertakes to inhabit and give life to numerous characters whose skin color differs from the author’s own. Critics of various ethnic backgrounds criticized Chabon for simplifying race, saying that as a white male author a novel set against a background of race was extremely “risky.”

So why is it such a big deal for authors to write about characters from different racial backgrounds? William Faulkner, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harper Lee, Mark Twain–all were white authors who inhabited characters of different races just as they did their white characters. Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison were just as comfortable writing about white characters as they were black characters. Together these authors tackled issues of racism head on, leading to a rich legacy of racial context in American literature. So why is it different today?

Zora Neale Hurston, author of Their Eyes Were Watching God
Zora Neale Hurston, author of
Their Eyes Were Watching God

Personally, I would love to see more diverse characters across the board, but especially in young adult literature. I think if a character is well-rounded, deeply researched, and emotionally relatable,  the race of the author would matter zilch to me. And maybe if readers were more accustomed to reading about characters from diverse backgrounds, there would be less surprise and criticism when an author does decide to write a protagonist with different color skin or a different cultural background.

Does the lack of racial diversity in young adult literature bother you? Or do you think authors should rightly be criticized for insufficiently inhabiting characters of a different ethnic background? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

 

2 Comments

  1. Anne
    Reply

    First, great post. I think you’re completely write when saying authors have trouble describing the world with eyes completely unknown to themselves. I would even go as far as saying they are SCARED to do so. And unfortunately, that’s still quite understandable in the world we’re living in today. You would think after all history has told us humanity knows better than to still have racial prejudices. But as modern and open-minded as we claim to be, to be honest we’re still stuck in old patterns. Like you said, the danger of offending somebody by one tiny mistake is far too prominent. I do understand that authors might not be willing to risk the career and reputation. So, they stick to what they know best. It’s a pity! And I completely agree with you that especially YA as such diverse genre should also present us with diversity regarding its protagonists. I know that publishers often use the excuse of sales figures to justify their mainstream characters. But as long as the story is well written and developed I do not care about skin colour, race and ethnicity of its protagonists. Actually, nobody should!

    • Lyra Selene
      Reply

      Yes, I agree that with many authors it verges on fear of misrepresenting a character of a minority race or doing something to offend someone. I also think that the publishing industry uses sales figures to justify decisions about whether to publish books with minority characters as well. Hopefully if enough writers move out of their comfort zone and start writing complex and developed minority characters publishing will have to follow suit!

      Thanks so much for stopping by and leaving such a thoughtful comment!

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