Characters Who Don’t Look Like Me

In case you missed it, NPR recently conducted a reader survey about the best young adult novels of all time. After the votes were tabulated, they published a list of the top 100. Now, they’re discussing why they ended up with what may also be the “whitest ever” list of teen books. I hate to admit, this never occurred to me as I voted nor as I eagerly scanned the final list.

I will mention, in the second article they miss two main characters who are not white in the books. Katniss Everdeen of “Hunger Games” is described as having olive skin and black hair. And Ged (aka Sparrowhawk) of the “Earthsea” trilogy, also has dark skin and hair.

Still, the representation is pretty slim. And this set me to thinking about my own writing. I’m white and I tend to write main characters who look like me. I can think of only one exception. Of course, I haven’t written prolific amounts of fiction (yet.) Part of this is that I’m not sure I would be able accurately to “get” the experiences of people who haven’t lived as a white person in the U.S. I do have some characters who are other races, however. So is this diversity on my part, or tokenism? And how can I tell the difference? I struggle with this question. The few stories I have written take place in my country and I want the population to look realistic, including the variety of people you’d meet.

Ursula K.  Le Guin, I’ve noticed, is a white author who often has characters with darker skin (I’ve already mentioned Ged.) And she manages to pull it off. But then again, she’s writing science fiction, so her characters’ cultures are of her own invention. For the most part, I think it’s important to make a place for a diversity of authors if we want a diversity of characters.

I work in a public library, and I try to be aware of the entire population we serve – baby to elderly, different cultures, different genders, different sexual orientations, different abilities. One small example is the New Biography section. In our “New Books” area, we try to put as many books as possible face out, so patrons can see the cover. We have hangers for a few face-out books on each end of the shelving unit, and sometimes we can fit a few face out on the shelves, as well. I can’t help noticing that most biographies – still, here in the 21st century – are about white men. Really, a large, large percentage of the new biographies we have. I don’t want to short-change anyone, including white men, but I think having a variety of faces show up on our shelves is one small way to make sure different groups of people feel comfortable and welcome using the library. We’re always pushed for time and it’s easy, hurriedly grabbing a handful of new biographies for display, to end up with a wall of white and male. When I see this happen, I try to take a minute to find at least a couple that are female and have other skin tones. I know many of my co-workers do, too.

Now, I’m going to feel compelled to go back through my own book lists I’ve published here and see if I’ve been as inclusive as I could be.

 

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