Writing Race in YA
Hello, y'all! My name is Nicola K. Richardson and I am an aspiring writer. I'm also African-American and would like to talk about the dreaded topic of race in YA fiction. Be warned. I am very blunt. But being super sensitive and afraid to speak gets us nowhere. A frank and respectful discussion will help everyone.
1) The "Not Quite Black" Trope.
This happens quite a lot in movies and television. A Biracial character will be used as a stand-in for a Black character. This is done because some assume that white readers will be more comfortable with a character who shares half their racial identity and therefore is less Black.
Now I want to stress that there is absolutely nothing wrong with Biracial characters or people. But this tactic doesn't work with readers of color at all. It also happens to other minorities, too. A perfect example is Taylor Lautner. He is NOT Native American, but because he had some in his ancestry, he was cast in Twilight. What exactly was wrong with giving a Native American actor a chance since Jacob is Native American in the books? The trope is what's wrong. Readers of color want to see characters that look like them in books. It also does a disservice to White readers. I am quite sure that many of them won't run shrieking in horror because they see a character of color.
2) White Writers, People Will Go IN on You.
White writers who write characters of color will NEVER satisfy everybody. It is impossible. So don't even worry about that. But if you choose to write characters of color, you MUST do the research.
Black people are as varied as anybody else. There is no excuse these days to write any type of stereotypical mess. NONE. Disney put in work to get it right with The Princess and the Frog and, personally, I believe they did a damned good job. Because of the effort and respect shown, Black parents flooded Disney with money for anything related to the movie. I damned sure spent an enormous amount of money for my daughter. I will NEVER forget the happiness and pride on the little girls' faces at the movie theater. As consumers, African Americans have MUCH grip to spend. Why IGNORE us and other groups when it comes to books? A writer willing to write positively and respectfully will gain a whole new fan base. I most definitely admire a writer who takes the time to do that.
But: when you want to write a character of color, know that you will catch hell. Yes, you will be accused of cultural appropriation. Yes, you will be told that you can't tell our respective histories and cultures. You will be told that it is far easier for you to write characters of color than a writer of color. You can't please everyone. That is impossible and you shouldn't try. But if a character comes to you as Black or any other minority, then write them
But I must stress the two R's: Research and Respect. There is no excuse for a black character speaking slang. There is no excuse for an Asian character who is a lonely geek and no girl will give the time of day to him. There is no excuse for a poor Native American on the reservation or any other racial stereotype. Take the time to speak to people from the cultures you want your character to have. I've said it many times on Absolute Write that I don't mind answering questions. Respect the culture and people that you want to write about. Believe me, the effort will be obvious and appreciated.
3) Kids Of Color Don't Read.
The reason why there aren't that many YA books by writers of color is because of a persistent and utterly false belief that kids of color don't read. They most certainly do and -- to be quite blunt -- the publishing industry is ignoring a market with a HUGE income, one that sets trends. From the Aeropostale they wear (this may be out of date now. My fashion-plate son suggested this brand) to Wiz Khalifa they listen to, Black kids make moves in fashion and music.
Yes, publishing gives a voice to writers and allows the public to hear them. But let's be 100 here. They are about making money. A business that is about getting grip is making a foolish mistake by not catering to an audience BEGGING for representation. An audience that just loves to spend Mommy and Daddy's money. (I can attest to this because my son has his hand out quite frequently!)
My cousins and their friends know zilch about Twilight. They could care less about the books or movies. The issue is positive representation and seeing an image of themselves. That's what they look for and if they don't see it, they don't buy. Black kids are tired of being written as living in the hood. It might be presumptuous of me to speak about other groups. But I believe that Hispanic kids are tired of being portrayed as illegal immigrants or gang bangers. Asian kids don't want to see another Asian guy as a lonely super geek or a girl whose the smart best friend and nothing else. Native American kids don't want to see their culture used while they are completely absent from the story or written stereotypically. They want to see characters like them in paranormal romance. They want to see themselves in Contemporary YA and fantasy. Most of all, they want respect.
Kids of color do read. They LOVE to read. But talking with my cousins and their friends, they tell me that they are sick and tired of books that present a world where they are non-existent. Or presented as a stereotype or trope. It may surprise you, but MANY people continue to believe this harmful and racist idea [that kids of color don't read].I have seen it posted on many forums and it is utterly wrong.
4) White Readers Are Scared Of Colored Folk.
Untrue. Not all white readers are racists who won't touch a book with a black cover or by a black author. Especially with YA! This generation is WAAAAY more integrated than Gen X ever was. My son's friends look like a Benetton ad. Do they think Lil Wayne went platinum in one week because of black buyers alone? Or that Beyonce is the HUGE success that she is because of black fans alone? That Will Smith can do HUGE openings because of Black fans alone?
But that gets into the issue that African-Americans can sing and dance but when it comes to literature aka "smart" stuff,we are made of fail. Apparently, the Harlem Renaissance, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and too many others to list here means nothing. I would have thought that the runaway success of Terri McMillan and E. Lynn Harris proved this tired myth wrong. But that is adult fiction and young kids of color reading YA is a different story.
Kids of color give white writers a chance all the time. But white kids won't do the same for a writer of color? The same kids that buy a CD cover with a black artist with no problems would hesitate over a book cover? The same kids that go to school with and have friends of all races would refuse to be diverse when it comes to reading? I firmly believe that this is just as wrong as the assumption that blacks only read urban fiction. Again, MANY believe this and it shows in the heinous whitewashing of book covers. It shows when bookstores won't carry books with characters of color on the cover. It shows when salespeople swear they can't sell these books. The problem with this is that it assumes an entire group will respond the way that a few do.
Yes, there are racists in the world. But there are just as many who won't care about a character or author's color. But if a book isn't given a chance to reach them,how can anyone know this? The music industry is doing quite fine with their CD's that have Black faces on them. Publishing has a lot of catching up to do.
5) I Don't See Color At All!
Yes, you do. There is no such thing as color blind. If you see me, of course you notice that I am a marvelous shade of caramel! I see you and think she is a lovely porcelain! That is completely normal and in no way makes you a racist. It's what you do and think about the difference in skin color that tells the tale.
6) Writers Of Color, I See What You Did There! (White Writers, Don't Be Scared!)
For writers of color, writing whites as EVIL must end. This is equally harmful and wrong. Yes, white characters can be bad. But not every last one you write! Not every white character has to be a racist devil from hell. This is especially true for writing Southern whites. I am a native Southerner and went to school with quite a few. We had a good old time together! I could have done without the country music but they accepted my rap, so rock on, Garth Brooks! No, you cannot write about other minorities in a foolish and disrespectful manner, either. Asians are not a monolithic culture and Latinos are not all from Mexico. Not all Blacks can dance and like rap. We are just as guilty of racial tropes and stereotyping. It is equally wrong for us to do this. We can't be down on white writers for doing it and not look to our own house.
White writers, there is such a thing as being too PC. You try to be diverse and are so scared of offending someone that you wind up writing a character who puts me to sleep. You can write a black character as EVIL! You can make the black girl bitchy if you like. We won't lynch you, okay? Not everyone who is black is hair trigger sensitive, you know.
7) YA Is Diverse! Nicki, You Are Overreacting.
Show me YA books in the paranormal genre that have a character of color as the MC. Show me YA books that have black vampires, Latino werewolves, Asian witches, and South Asian angels. As the MC, not a sidekick or Magical Negro, Stoic Indian, Smart Asian, etc. Go ahead, I'll wait.
There aren't many, are there? That's the problem. Demand is exceeding supply. There are so many kids of color dying to see a sweeping love story with MCs like them or on a magical adventure to save the world. They want to be a part of the literary world so badly. It is up to us as writers to give them that opportunity. It is up to the publishing industry to do the same. I don't sing "Hakuna Matata" when it comes to this issue. It is a very real problem and it cannot be avoided. Nor do I understand those who refuse to admit that there is a problem. If all I've said is unconvincing,then I don't know what else to say.
YA fiction has made so many strides in the past years. It is literally booming with books by many talented authors. But it remains a very white world. With so many readers out there who aren't white and want to see themselves represented, it is time for a change. It is time that writers and the industry take a long and hard look at the situation.
Tropes, myths and racism aside, what can be done to make things happen?
1. Editors have to stand their ground for these books. I would bet money that #3 and #4 above are major hurdles to overcome.
2. Agents have to want to represent and actively seek them. I am beyond pleased to see so many agents seeking multicultural fiction. If they are willing to represent these books, that tells me that they will also fight for them.
3. Once acquired, marketing has to come correct. No more whitewashing or assuming that white readers won't give the book a chance. Go balls out and give the book proper marketing. African American writers, we have to come out of the AA section. Yes, it serves a purpose and I have friends who won't even shop in any other section of the store. The problem is that the audience you are trying to reach sometimes gets a very distinctive "Keep Out" vibe from this area. But a book has to reach a broader section to entertain and reach others. Bookstores have to be willing to put a YA paranormal by a Black writer in the AA as well as YA sections so those folks that would give it a chance can see it.
4. Support books by writers of color. Buy them. Tell your friends. Review them on your blogs. Many are already doing this and it is beyond good to see it happening. I cannot thank the people who raised hell about the covers issue enough. They showed that change can be made and racism won't be tolerated. Bravo to them!
5. It is a hard fact that writers of color have to go hard for their books. For me, this means having a marketing plan and showing that the audience for my books exists. All writers have to work hard for their books. But with these prevalent myths that just won't die away concerning my community and their reading habits, I am going to have to come to the table prepared. It is not enough to have an agent willing to represent the book or have a tough editor who wants the book. We have to do all we can to give our books a chance to succeed and not just think the work is over because we are being published.
I would LOVE to see more paranormal romance with multicultural characters. I want to see one reach Twilight and Harry Potter levels of success and disprove these godawful myths. I can guarantee that the success of such a book, providing that it is marketed and supported correctly, will shock many.
As one last piece of advice for writers, remember this:
When writing characters of a different race than your own, readers can tell the real from the racist, okay? We know. Some may say that you cannot feel racism. When you've spent a lifetime dealing with it, you can most certainly detect it. Your personal beliefs and thoughts almost always bleed into your writing and if you have any misconceptions or stereotypes about any race, don't write about them, because it will seen. Instead,t hink about why you feel or think that way. Work through it. Take a hard look at yourself and ask some very tough questions. If you can't do this, leave diversity alone.
For me, writing about other races and culture is always about the two R's: Respect and Research. That applies for me as a black woman writing about a Russian character just as much as it does for a white person writing about an Asian character. No, you can't just assemble a character of color and toss them in a book. They aren't white and their cultural experiences are vastly different.
That's where my favorite word, research, becomes so important. You can realize that skin color is just a physical difference and that despite cultural differences, we all have the same disappointments and joys in life. I am quite sure that a mother reading this can identify with my struggle with potty training my youngest son and how a two-year-old can reduce you to tears! Once you apply that outlook to your writing, it isn't such a daunting task to be diverse.
Talking on AW about race in fiction has been both revealing and interesting. There are so many wonderful folk who want to make change and they have restored my faith. I hope my words penetrate and hopefully open minds.
Nicola K. Richardson