Race and Responsibility in YA

Sarah Ockler has an excellent post up about the issue of race in YA. Like most other genres, the characters are predominantly white, and so are the authors. Sarah looks at the problems associated with this and what YA authors themselves can do to fix these problems. One part I especially liked:

Actively diversifying our fiction does not mean any of the following:

  • Giving a character almond-shaped eyes or coffee-mocha-latte-chocolate-hazelnut-caramel-cappuccino-colored skin. In fact, as a general rule, writers seeking inspiration solely from Starbucks menus probably need to dial down the caffeine.
  • Including a non-white character whose only real difference from the white characters is the color of his skin and/or his snappy catch phrases. Word!
  • Putting a sushi or taco bar in the school cafeteria. Which is one of those things that sounds like a good idea at the time, but usually isn’t.

Oh my lord, I remember so many almond-shaped eyes and caramel-colored skin from books I read as a preteen/teen, it was ridiculous. Obviously Sarah adds a good dose of humor here, but her points are still valid. You can’t just throw in stereotypical details and assume your non-white character is covered. Or include a non-white character just to fill in your racial gap. It reminds me of how sitcoms about white families always feature a kid with a non-white best friend, whose job it is to show up and be sassy/awkward/etc.

It's a small world, after all.

Sarah also takes on the excuse of “I’m not black/Asian/Mexican-American so I can’t write about those people.” She says:

“I don’t buy it. We’re writers. Storytellers. Weavers of tales great and small. It’s our job to make things up, to imagine, to explore different perspectives through the eyes of our characters. This isn’t to say we can plug-n-play a few multicultural characters into our work or rely on stereotypes or assumptions for crafting our fictional friends (see aforementioned anti-starbucks advice), but that’s writer 101 stuff. Cardboard, one-dimensional people have no place in a story, whether they’re white, black, brown, purple, or invisible. Authenticity is important, but thanks to the library, the internet, and, you know, other human beings, it’s possible to learn about something we’ve never personally experienced. Sometimes all it takes is a simple question: Hey, people who’ve been there, what’s your take on this? People want their voices heard. They want to share. They want to help.”

This is something we don’t see very often. It can feel like you’re overstepping boundaries to write about, say, a Muslim girl living in Chicago if you don’t have that background. There’s pressure to capture her cultural and religious background accurately, and it can be overwhelming for someone who hasn’t experienced that. But, as Sarah says, how is that different from creating any other character? If you’re only writing about characters who have had your exact experiences, you’re going to run out of stories pretty quickly.

At NESCBWI, I took a creating magical worlds workshop with Cinda Williams Chima. One thing she mentioned was that, in creating your magical world, think about what different races/religions/backgrounds might be represented. She encouraged us to look for opportunities to make our worlds diverse. Fantasy novels don’t get off easy, either!

There’s a lot more in Sarah’s post, so make sure to check it out. As she mentions, we’re the ones who can bring so many other voices to YA.

(image: NASA)(H/T bookshelves of doom)

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