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Writing Race in YA: Guest Post by Nicola K. Richardson

A couple months ago, there was a thread on Race in YA on the Absolute Write message boards that ended up quite heated, with a whole lot of misconceptions from a whole lot of writers. As I read it with interest, I was particularly impressed by the contributions of aspiring YA writer Nicola K. Richardson, so I asked her to guest post for YA Highway. The result is this: an awesome, honest post that should make everyone think. As usual, though, be respectful in the comments, because we have absolutely no problem deleting offensive remarks.

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
Kirsten Hubbard

Kirsten is the author of Like Mandarin, Wanderlove, and the middle grade novel Watch the Sky.

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  1. This is such a useful post. #5 in particular really resonated with me. Thanks for sharing.

  2. WOW do I love this post! So dang honest and true. AND somehow you guys were on the same page as me today b/c I did a post on diversity too. But, um, I'm pretty sure yours just blew mine out of the water! AWESOME!

  3. Holy crap. This is so timely. Yesterday, I went on a book-buying spree, and I was desperately seeking some YA novels with people of color in them. EVERY CONTEMPORARY BOOK I CAME ACROSS WITH A BLACK MAIN CHARACTER had issues with drugs, teenage pregnancy, or something about gangs. I was so pissed off. That is NOT the complete black experience, and it annoys me that bookstores and libraries seem interested in only stocking those types of books for black teens (and that's IF the bookstores stock any at all!). (I did end up buying SELLOUT the other day--eagerly awaiting to read that one because it seems to break that mold.)

    I'm an aspiring YA author (who happens to be black), and I'm starting to feel out where my niche needs to be.

    Thank you for this. I'm bookmarking it, saving it, savoring it.

    Also, this blog freaking rocks.

  4. THANK YOU for this post. Though diversity in YA (and fiction in general) is being talked about more and more these days, this is the most extensive, and blunt!, post I've seen on it yet. I really enjoyed reading it.

    I'm currently working on a 4-book YA series (the first will release in 2012), that takes place in the future over three different continents (Asia, Europe, and Africa), and has a relatively large cast of characters. It seemed important from the start to make the diversity of characters as realistic as possible, not only because of the different cultures represented, but also because in a futuristic setting, those cultures will be more mixed and shuffled together than they are today.

    But as a white writer, I find that I'm constantly questioning things that wouldn't even cross my mind writing about white characters. Am I making this black character TOO evil? (I have one black villain.) Am I making this black character too GOOD? (I also have one black heroine.) Will my bi-racial couples seem as organic and romantic as they should, or will readers think I'm "trying too hard"?

    When I start to go into diversity-panic mode, I find it best to ignore for a little while what their skin color is and remind myself who they are as a person. Each character has their own history, strengths, weaknesses, motivations, hopes, etc. I think this gets back to what you were saying about avoiding stereotypes - the most important thing is to make sure all of our characters, white, black, Asian, whatever, are all believable, three-dimensional human beings.

    Thanks again for this great post! I'm off to tweet the heck out of it now.

  5. I love every bit of this. Thank you so much for being blunt and sharing!

    This must be a popular topic today.

  6. *clap, clap, clap, clap, clap*

    Wonderful post! I'm sorry I missed the discussion on AW, but thank you so much for this. It's a shame we have to keep saying it, but I think things are starting to change, in large part due to talking about the way things are/should be.

  7. I am completely on board with the majority of this post, but I would like to take issue with one thing:

    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.

    As a biracial person, what exactly would you call me, if not a "reader of color"? I understand what you're saying and why you take issue with the "biracial person is easier to write/relate to!" stance, but I'd like to see myself represented in fiction too, and represented WELL.

    If we don't count in the diversity factor, then where do we fit in?

  8. This post is brilliant. Thank you for your honesty - it's far more useful than trying to tiptoe around the issue.

  9. This is a great post, and it's given me a lot to think about as I'm making revisions to one novel and writing another. I appreciate your honesty, Nicola!

  10. This is an amazing post. Thank you so much for saying all of this. As an Asian American, a lot of this strikes home. Thank you!

  11. This is really in-depth--thanks, Nicola, for putting the time and thought into this post.

    My historical/paranormal has a person of color for the love interest (he's from Antigua; would have been called "colored" in that place/time). I did a lot of research in primary sources, but I wish I could afford to go to Antigua and do some research in person!

    One interesting thing that cropped up during the crit process was that one crit partner really wanted me to nail down Duncan's skin color. Duncan is mixed race, and this other writer basically wanted to know, "How dark or how light?"

    I tried to answer the question at first, just from the POV of whether I had gotten his character across as a writer, but I reached a point where I had to say, "Why does it matter to know the exact Pantone shade?" Aren't people going to picture their own version of the character anyway?

  12. Oh my goodness, I LOVED this post! I'm also a black YA writer, and I try to write about all races. One thing I have done a few times is to make a character biracial so that they can be more "relatable." I'm thinking this is a habit I want to break now. Thank you so much for this.

  13. Seconding JJ - While I agree with most of your points, you should really look into discussions of "blood quantum" in the Native community. I totally get what you're trying to say in point #1, but you've inadvertently hit upon another contentious subject by using Taylor Lautner as your example. There's a great article about it here.

    Thanks for the guest post!

  14. Enjoyed this post. I do have trouble writing character who are not white because the town where I live is 99% white. The only different races when I went to school were a few Indian doctors kids and some adopted Asian kids.

    I think for a lot of people it comes back to this "Write what you know" mantra and I know nothing about being a teen of color (all my main characters are also short and skinny too--not because they're me but from talking with overweight co-workers I've learned how much that changes how you view certain words and phrases).

    You know what I would like to see. A story that is set in Appalachia that isn't just about being poor, downtrodden and abused by men, etc. I'm from Eastern KY (hence the lack of ethnic diversity).

    And I read diverse fiction. I took a "Multi-ethnic American Literature" class during college that I LOVED. Lesson Before Dying, House on Mango Street, I know why the caged bird sing, etc. The race of the MC has never even crossed my mind when I pick a YA book. I read the synopsis and if the story sounds good I read the book. (Liar is an example, but I knew about the cover-drama before I picked it up)

  15. I'd like to add on to JJ's comment also. Although I call myself black, I can (and I do) also identify with the biracial community (as you can see by my profile pic), plus I have a biracial son. I feel they DO need to be represented people of color. Not done as a cop-out, but as legitimate characters with legit issues/concerns. :)

  16. Rounds and rounds of applause for this one.I am definitely looking forward to more diversity in the lit world and the banishment of stereotypes. I hope to find myself in a book some day. Amazing, insightful post.

  17. Standing O! Wonderful, incisive post. I'm always desperately trying to find myself (i.e. Latina) anywhere in books that reflect the diversity of Latino culture, especially native-born Latinos like myself. The publishing industry needs to address the fact that with Asians and Latinos, there is a huge native born, English-dominant population that is hungry for stories about our experience.

    Brilliant post, thank you so much for it!

  18. This is a wonderful post but shouldnt African American writers who keep putting out crappy books with stereotypical black writers take the blame also?
    I walked into the AA section of Barnes and Nobles and I am sorry to say this I was sorry for the black side of me. All the same gang, ghetto hood, teenage pregnancy mess. If black writers keep putting this stuff out and white writers are the only one writing decent black characters than I dont have a problem with them selling.

  19. This is a really gorgeous and thought-provoking post. Thanks so much for guest blogging with us!!

  20. I love and agree with 90% of what's written here! However, as someone who previously tried to get an agent with a paranormal romance novel with a biracial protag, I just wanted to take issue with this: "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."

    While I guess I can see how unconscious racism could be attributed to writers who write biracial characters, in this case I wrote my character's race that way because her parents were based on a real couple I once met (a white folk singer guy and a black artist). And it was significant thematically, as the love interest was half-mermaid, half human, and the book was all about creating identity when you come from two worlds. Both parts of the MC's identity were really important to her, and I stressed in the book that she's not white, nor did she consider herself white. Nothing about her racial identity was done with the idea of placating a white audience.

    This comes across as defensive. I guess it is, a bit. I also struggle with seeing how Taylor Lautner is relevant; that seems like a straightforward case of white washing to me.

  21. Excellent, excellent post! I will bookmark this one and point it out to others!

  22. this is a really interesting post. I have definitely noticed this when reading YA, recently I read Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves, and even though I'm white it was nice to read a YA where the characters were black but it was irrelevant to their plot/storyline. the book was just good old fashioned horror, which happened to have black main characters. I think this is a huge problem with LBGQT books too, most of the time they are "issue" books that make sexuality the most important thing.

  23. As a Chinese teen reading + writing, I have to say that I identify more with white characters - JUST BECAUSE THEY SOUND MORE LIKE ME than the Chinese characters do! Like a ton of people have said, colour characters always have some kind of problem, issue or quirk that identifies them as a character of colour.
    What I say is: hear hear, all of you! Colour characters are normal just like you and me. WRITE them normal!

  24. Brave and unwavering post Nicola. As writers, we're damned if we do and damned if we don't so you're right - you can't please everyone.

    As a white writer married to a black man with kids of varying hues, I always have a biracial love interest in my books. In my new paranormal, he is one of the main characters along with his African American mother. That was a personal choice based on my own family and so far, nobody has said anything about it. And no, skin color is never compared to food or Starbucks beverages.

  25. @Phoebe: Because the idea of "Indian enough" is one that many Native communities see as a white concept forced onto them. I'm sure many Native people object to his casting, but others would argue it doesn't matter how much Indian blood he has- that blood is a false measure of one's "Indianness." Kind of a reversal of the intent of tribal rolls.

  26. Kate--just belated read your link, and it's really thought-provoking. I'd previous read some (very) loud objections to his 'discovery' of his Native American roots after the casting (wish I could find the links now), and so that's what I had immediately in mind when I read this--that Lautner is perceived as being a white actor, rather than one of mixed ancestry.

  27. Kate, Phoebe - The issue of blood quantum is really interesting and something I'd never thought of before. My understanding of racial identity is that you are what you identify with (which could be multiple races) rather than what you look like - i.e., just because Taylor Lautner "looks" Native American doesn't necessarily mean he identifies with that aspect of his heritage, and just because he is more white (or whatever he happens to be), doesn't mean he can't represent his Native heritage, however small a percentage actually running through his blood. (And please, anyone - please feel free correct me if I'm understanding this wrong, because I know my perspective is not necessarily that of everyone else's.)

  28. LOVED this post. As a Black (which means mixed race) writer, there is one problem that perhaps isn't relevant until the "After" of this article: having your characters identified correctly. We all know that the default in American literature is a white POV. Without all the hemming and hawing and dropping clues, will the reader allow - say - my Chinese love interest to be Chinese, despite the lack if identifying stereotypes? We have to admit that we have ingested the process by which we identify characters. For example, I've been having a discussion with someone who disagrees with what I thought was an obvious conclusion of Rue (The Hunger Games) being a little Black girl. Her reason? All it says is she has dark skin - and that could mean anything. Yes, this is rather rhetorical and exasperated but: what do we have to do?!

  29. LOVED this post. As a Black (which means mixed race) writer, there is one problem that perhaps isn't relevant until the "After" of this article: having your characters identified correctly. We all know that the default in American literature is a white POV. Without all the hemming and hawing and dropping clues, will the reader allow - say - my Chinese love interest to be Chinese, despite the lack if identifying stereotypes? We have to admit that we have ingested the process by which we identify characters. For example, I've been having a discussion with someone who disagrees with what I thought was an obvious conclusion of Rue (The Hunger Games) being a little Black girl. Her reason? All it says is she has dark skin - and that could mean anything. Yes, this is rather rhetorical and exasperated but: what do we have to do?!

  30. (Sorry, I posted with my husband's account on accident! I'm Bethany. Not Joshua. :D)

  31. Everyone writing YA needs to read this post!

    I agree that it's time for the whole "black kids don't buy books/white people don't buy books with black people on them" madness to end. It's an excuse, and an outdated one at that.

    Thanks for this, Nicki!

  32. Nicola, thanks a million for writing this post. It gave me a lot to think about, and you made me want to cheer several times. :)

  33. What a brilliant, unflinching post. Racial and sexual diversity is something I've been sweating like crazy over lately in writing. As one of the early commenters said, I think a lot (white) writers fall back on "write what you know", and hence every character I think up is white and hetero. Sometimes I think, "Well, poof, make one of them non-white/non-hetero," but I know how wrong that is. It's just a case of me having to learn the best way to research and create an authentic non-white or LGBTQ character.

  34. Coming from someone of the YA generation, yes, we don't think twice about race in terms of books. Our English class read Imani All Mine by Connie Rose Porter and loved it. Kids, both black and white alike, cried at the ending regardless of being able to relate or not.

  35. Great post, Nicola! I was there for that AW debacle and it was really interesting. What's your AW username?

  36. Ouch, thirding JJ. That biracial comment was really problematic. Especially as it wholly glossed over the fact that using a biracial character as "ethnicity-of-choice-lite" is as unfair to THEM (in terms of accurate and fair representation) as to the "intended" ethnicity they "stand in" for.

  37. This is a great post, and I'm so excited by the discussion in these comments.

    Regarding biracial characters, I've written several -- Mandarin is a quarter Native American in LIKE MANDARIN; Rowan is half Mexican, half white in WANDERLOVE, for example -- and making them easier for readers to relate to has never figured into their biraciality. Many of my friends are bi/multiracial, and almost all of my IRL friends are part of interracial marriages or relationships (I'm in left mecca CA, but still). Kids with varied backgrounds are only becoming more common as society progresses, and I definitely agree they need representation too -- though as always, their identities are unique and complex, varying for every blend of ethnicity and culture.

  38. I adore this post. Really, really good stuff here. I take issue with one point, though. You said "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."

    I live in an area with a large Native American population. The unfortunate truth is that many Native people are poor and do live on reservations. How can you call it a stereotype when it's the reality that many Native people face everyday? A Native novelist from my town, Sherman Alexie, has written countless books about poor Native Americans living on reservations. All of his books draw on his personal experience and that of his tribespeople. Are his books stereotyping? Definitely not! I would agree that clumsy, unresearched writing can lead to stereotyping, but I firmly believe that it's acceptable--even admirable--for a writer of any race to explore truths associated with certain populations in novels, even if some would consider these truths stereotypical.

  39. I love this post and perspective.
    It can be a hard subject to even speak about much less be honest about. Thank you for sharing.

    I tend to assign skin color as decoration, not a part of my characters personality - you know like all green eyed people are not mean? What you look like is decoration. Who you are will have some culture flavor, but it doesn't have to beat anyone over the head. I don't know that many people any more who are All anything. We have a few German's in the family, but most of us are more interesting. I tend to write characters like the people I know. In my world white people can dance,a black guy can be the hottest guy on the football team because of his smile and his annoying humor - not because he can play the sport. In my place there are tough gay people, Latina's who obsess over italian food, cheerleaders who hate to shop and know what a Counter Trey is.
    I love people for who they are. If they know stuff I don't - like how to make sushi - then I love that they have that to share with me. I will never write a character good or bad as a decoration come to life and assigned the "cultural norms" of yesterday - unless that character lives in yesterday - I write for tomorrow. I was one of those little children who believed in Dr. Kings words and live without passing the torch of hate. Someday I hope even he fades from memory because we all find the concept of race so laughable that kids look back and say - Come on - nobody could really be that stupid!

    I don't choose reading material based on decorations. One of my MC's is of middle east flavor - He's a Genie but there is a beautiful exqisite african Genie named Banga who watches over an 11 year old grail knight. Banga is kind but will never be bossed around or do anything that he finds dishonorable - That was his personality long before I saw his decorations.

    I may never get published, but I would never write of any character based on color - only what they have to give no matter what the decorations.

    That is just my off beat drum - not necessarily true of anyone else. I want to see more authors of any sort of perspective find voice by writing what they know - especially if it Is diffrent from what I know.

  40. Thank you all for the kind comments. I meant no disrespect concerning Biracial characters. Yes,they do have a place in fiction and deserve proper representation as there is a trope attached to them as well. I am sorry if anyone was offended as that was not what I meant.

    Thanks,Kate,for the link. Very interesting reading.

    I am Kitty27 on AW. It is so refreshing to be able to discuss race with positive people. Y'all rock and thanks for reading my post.

  41. I'm glad that someone was willing to bring this up! Thanks!

    I liked how you detailed that as white writers, if we have a character come to us that is of color, or is simply NOT WHITE, we should portray them as such and not water-down their characters. However, I do agree with what previous comments have said about the biracial comment being problematic. Most of the books I read in college by Japanese, African American, Native American, and other authors had mixed-race protagonists, (and were also by mixed-race authors!)

    However, I have been trying to overcome something while reading this: Isn't simply populating your writing with more ethnically diverse characters just to include them almost as bad as not including them at all? It's almost as if we recognize that the majority of our characters are white, but don't want to appear racist, so we throw in a black friend here, a Mexican guy there, and call it square.

    I do think more main characters of color should be included in YA. For sure. I just don't want people to do it for the wrong reasons. Like you said above, it can result in flat characters that don't read like REAL teens of color. This is like the phenomenon you experience when someone is accused of being racist or homophobic or sexist, then responds with something like this: "I'm not racist! My best friend is black!" "I don't hate gay people! I have a gay friend!"

    Like using these people as a mascot to promote your own tolerance is really proving anything. All it says is that you are insecure about yourself and fear that you ARE racist, or homophobic, or sexist, so you use these people in your life as examples that disprove that fear in you. Well, it doesn't work. It's false. And the one thing that I think this post is trying to say most is that FALSE characters with FALSE ethnicity simply will not do anymore. Readers are more culturally aware and want to experience characters that are like the people they talk to at school, or at the bus stop, or at church.

    Like the poet bell hookes has professed, we all have our own inner prejudices. We go through life thinking that the people directly around us are the cultural norm. Therefore, white writers will generally populate their writing with white characters. I know I do this. I do want to represent the things I have to say about intolerance and racial equality in my writing, but I will not write someone of color just to do it. They have to be a real character to me first!

  42. This is such a useful post, and it couldn't have come at a more perfect time. I've been pondering about characters for a story I have currently stashed in my head. I thought I'd love to have people of color in it because the world isn't only filled with white people. But I was apprehensive. Isn't that awful? Various articles I've read seemed to always suggest white writers could not write about POC (for reasons like cultural appropriation, which I've been learning more and more about lately). This post offers a lot of insight for which I'm grateful. Thank you!

  43. Alyssa, you raise some interesting points. But here's what I strongly believe: as long as POC characters are written and researched well, I don't think your "wrong reasons" are necessarily wrong at all. If the reason is making your story more multicultural, no matter the motive, I think it's absolutely worthwhile.

    Sure, maybe many white writers don't "see" their characters as anything other than white. And maybe it's because they're not around non-white folk in their day-to-day lives (outside of TV, the internet, music...). But I don't believe that's an excuse to write only white characters. Not at all.

    In fact, it should be the opposite. If we imagine in white and only white -- even in this richly varied society! -- that is absolutely something to work on in ourselves. Something to change. Especially if we are in a position to affect others with our words -- kids in particular! If it takes a little extra effort to include a gay or non-white character -- effort through research, stepping out of our comfort zone, working harder to get them right -- it's still so worth it. It still needs to be done. That's how progress is made, and that's how any bias or bigotry is overcome. Not through accepting our prejudices, but by working to change them.

  44. (I want to add that in very setting-specific books, sometimes an (nearly) all-white cast is necessary -- such as in my debut, which is set in small-town northern Wyoming. However, I did it deliberately, and was careful to have my protagonist acknowledge it in certain ways. My second book, set in Central America, is by nature extremely multicultural.)

  45. Amazing post Nicola. Thank you for sharing this. Good stuff.

  46. I'm from Barbados, where we are 96% Black. Race was never an issue until I left the island. Except for in the media and publishing.

    The Caribbean is another massive market. Other than Trinidad and the Spanish-speaking islands, the populations are overwhelmingly Black. If there was a great Black novel outside the 'urban' category, we'd eat it up. And that's an easy couple million Black readers.

    Stereotypical black are even less popular for us. It's entire societies. There are some Black millionaires. Some of us are brilliant. Some are politicians. Books just don't have that diversity yet. I'm doing whatI can to make sure they do soon.

  47. Your timing is impeccable for me! What a great post!
    I have just finished a YA novel,historical in the sense that the backdrop is an event that takes place in 1967. Whilst writing, I was scared to separate my own personal feelings against those from that period.
    It was difficult, really difficult, and yet, I let the anger of that time flow and placed it within their story and where that anger stemmed from. A mix of racial climate and their own unfortunate circumstances. The racial element is there, but it is their own personal story that drives. I thank you so very much for your post and you are quite right about the movie thing, but it's not just with race right? What about hiring some dimwit that comes from Ireland but is clearly an american that gave a language coach a job. They never quite succeed.
    Thank you again for taking the time to share your views. Do you ever critique?

  48. Great topic. Thanks for covering this, and offering your honesty.

    Christine Fairchild
    aka The Editor Devil

  49. Kirsten, I appreciate you mentioning that some books, by nature of their setting especially, necessitate an almost all-white cast. My WIP takes place in rural Ireland, and there is no natural way (as far as I can see, anyway) to diversify my cast of characters. I suppose as the author I could technically do anything, but it doesn't make sense to the particular story. I do believe it is important to include many types of people if the story allows for it, but sometimes (rare cases, as in Wyoming and rural Ireland) it just doesn't work.

  50. Wow. Thanks so much for this - both Nicola and YA highway.

  51. Great post and fascinating discussion! I agree with a lot of the points being brought up re: biracial/multiracial characters (and in fact that's one of the things that inspired me to write THE LATTE REBELLION). But I take your point in the spirit I think it's meant--that it's important to give each character due respect and attention and fleshing-out, especially if you're writing someone "other"--whether that's someone of a different race, gender, culture, sexual orientation, etc.

  52. Thanks for writing this post! I recently blogged about this topic myself and I totally agree with your thoughtful and heartfelt analysis. Writers should be encouraged to make their writing as multiculturally rich as the world really is.

  53. "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."

    I half-disagree. Some black kids use slang. A lot of Asian kids, due to their parents' strong influence (a result of their culture), try very hard in school. And thanks to a lot of incredibly lousy politics and tough breaks, there are a tragic amount of impoverished Native American people living on reservations. (I spent my summers near a reservation as a kid. Some of it was painful to look at.)

    I am Jewish, and I will say this - some of the Jewish stereotypes are downright true. My father could sink ships with the amounts of coupons he clips, and my mother calls me about seven times a day PURELY. TO. NAG. If I were reading a YA book with these Jewish stereotypes in play, I may not be offended...if there was something deeper there. A Jewish girl with these traits CAN be a sincere, fleshed out character. Or, the author could just be trying to make a quirky Jewish girl cardboard cut-out character to serve as a wacky best friend, and THAT, to me, would smack of antisemitism. But if the writer created a Jewish character whose parents were the opposite of frugal and whose mother never nagged, that would smack of the author trying too hard to be politically correct.

    My point is that you CAN show these stereotypes...if you show what's underneath. A black character uses slang? Why? Are they doing it to try to emulate their friends? Where is this behavior coming from? You have an Asian character who's overachieving in school? For what reason? Is s/he happy about it, or do they have different goals, hopes, and dreams?

    I don't think it should be, "you can not have a minority character who displays ANY of these cultural stereotypes," because that's limiting. The thing is that you have to flesh these characters out. No quirky gay sidekick. No token black guy who says "diggity." (I can't remember where, but I read a YA book where the black kid said "diggity." Um, I think wherever DJ Jazzy Jeff went, he took "diggity" with him, so please, just no.)

    I think this post is excellent overall, and I'm sorry for the rambling comment!

  54. Nicola ... You absolutely nailed your comment. So true.

  55. What a thought provoking blog post! I'm an aspiring writer too. Being from Argentina, I have ancestors from every continent. I look like my Palestinian grandfather, speak Spanish, and have children who can --as a person once said as a "compliment"--pass as white, whatever that means.
    My MCs are all people of color because that's the way they appeared in my mind.
    I'll share a pet peeve of mine: It really bothers me when I read a book that has a few phrases in Spanish that are grammatically wrong, or just spelled wrong. If a writer includes words in a foreign language in their books, they should at least consult with a native speaker and make sure what they want to say is really what they wrote.

    I identify with your comment of your son having friends of every color. My son's three best friends are biracial; white and Hindu, Mexican, and South African.
    My daughter's friends are a boy from Taiwan and a girl whose mom is South African. Kids identify with kids who look like them, or who are in similar circumstances.

    And as another commenter said, people can identify with the part of their heritage they don't exactly look like. For example, my daughter has an Irish great-grandfather from her father's side. She loves Irish dancing. At competitions, people always comment on the champion Irish dance Latina girl. She could care less. Music is the universal language, and she's fluent in it.

    I'll link this wonderful post to my blog. Thanks for sharing.

  56. This is a fantastic post. I've been really hesitating with a character because he appeared to me as Hispanic, and I was afraid to write that (despite having Hispanic friends and growing up in a largely Hispanic area) because of backlash or "racism." But it's good to see all the difference perspectives on the issue and see that everyone agrees that whites can write about other races as long as they're respectful. Respect is always the key.

    What I'd really like to see are some book suggestions with characters of color-- sometimes it seems like there isn't much out there. It would be cool to get some sort of list together!

  57. @Morgan: Try Diversity in YA or Crazy Quilts to start with-- two fantastic resources. :)

  58. Thanks very much for the honest and provocative post, posing lots of important questions. Having worked in "multicultural" publishing (at Children's Book Press and Lee & Low), my thoughts have shifted on this topic over time. I now see that it is important for white writers to include and feature diverse characters - in publishing I always looked for what Children's Book Press calls "first voice" stories, written by people of color. But if all the white authors write only white characters, the books will end up looking very close to how they look now anyways - predominantly white. Nicola, you give excellent advice here for people who do write outside of their own background, in all directions. But I do still think there is a fundamental problem in publishing, a tendency to publish more "comfortable" stories featuring diversity, which might well be a white person's perspective/translation. I wrote an essay on white privilege in children's publishing (which has since been published by the Write4children ejournal based at Winchester University) and had an aspiring author comment. She said she was told by a publisher that they couldn't publish her book set in one continent because another well-known white author had published a book set in another continent - so that was their "multicultural" quotient covered. Happily, this author (who wished to remain anonymous because this subject can be so contentious) has since been published to great acclaim.

    I'm rambling, and I know this post is about writing rather than publishing. But the publishing context plays such an important role in terms of what we actually get in the end. And publishers need to take responsibility for actively trying to shift away from the almost-all-white world of YA fiction.

  59. Very, very insightful. Nicola, I love your honesty; I applaud the fact that you're addressing the elephant in the room. When I first moved to the US, I was advised never to bring up these three topics: Race, religion and politics. (i.e. be "politically correct")


    We need to talk about it to move things further. Awesome post!

  60. Late to the party here, but I wanted to say:
    1. Nicola, I deeply respect and admire you. This was a thoughtful and brave post.

    2. Thank you to those who have pointed out that in certain circumstance of setting, it becomes difficult to the point of awkward to to include non-white characters. I've been pondering this in my YA steampunk. This post gave me great food for thought.

  61. Nicola K.RichardsonFebruary 28, 2011 at 8:02 PM

    Thank you all again for taking the time to read my post. Kirsten,thank you for giving me the chance.

  62. This is such an important topic so thanks for covering it, Nicola and YA Highway!

    I'm an African American writer writing a contemporary YA story about a middle-class Black girl who lives in the suburbs. The book has nothing to do with her race, but that's her background. I grew up with a diverse set of friends so not all of the characters in my WIP are black or white.

    I really want to see more books about black characters that has nothing with their race so I'm writing one. I hope by the time I'm ready to get it published, these types of books will be more present in bookstores.

    1. One of my two main characters is black, and like your character, his race has no impact on the story (it's focused on his mother's recent death). He's a shy science-fiction fan who grew up in suburban Toronto and went to a private school. I'm afraid someone will accuse me of "trying too hard" to avoid stereotypes, but that's just how his personality developed. Advice, anyone?

    2. I don't think you're trying too hard at all! I think it's good that you've avoided stereotypes. He sounds like a very different, interesting original character. :)

  63. Wow, great post. I'm a white writer though, and here's my experience, so far. I often write characters of color, and am just starting my first book with an MC of color (Jamaican Canadian), although I have a screenplay with a black MC. WHY? Lots of reasons. Often the character will just pop into my head - why fight with the muse? I try not to stereotype, but I also try to respect the history of race, if appropriate. Sometimes the plot requires it – for example my new book concerns a sport played (in Canada anyway) almost exclusively by people of color.
    Sometimes I write about racism, but I write it as a horror and a burden for everyone, a dangerous disease that infects and harms everything. I try to steer clear of black vs white because to me, that’s not real.
    BUT I've been burned, not for stereotyping, but for "appropriation". A manuscript was shelved for years because of this until I took it out, "bleached" it, and now it's back on the market, whiter than white. Why? There was an Aboriginal character in it, and the plot involved the theft of a piece of Aboriginal art. I was told by agents that publishers won’t buy books by white writers that included Aboriginal characters and content. The publishers I consulted had the gall to blame it on librarians and teachers! It was a supporting character, a beloved schoolteacher, very positive and real, based on a professor I’d had in my undergrad degree.
    The final consensus seemed to be that readers of color wouldn’t read characters of color written by white writers. I hope this isn’t true, even for MCs much less supporting characters. Wouldn’t that result in racially segregated literature?

  64. sAre you for real? Wouldn't publish because of an aboriginal character? I've travelled extensively, lived in a hell of a lot of places, and those places and people are the fabric of my stories. I'm in a hell of a lot of trouble if I can't include all the colours of the rainbow, when of course appropriate. Can't get over that one. Great posts.Thank you YA highway for putting it all out there.
    Linda McLaren writerescape

  65. Yep, for real. Lots of books being published about Aborigines, but they have to be written by Aborigines. Long and rather strange story why. Lesson learned - I don't write books set in Australia anymore.

  66. Geez Petal, that's where I'm living. I'm North American though, but you know there's this whole thing over here about aboriginals not viewing content on television if it shows someone that has already passed. There's a lot about the culture that should not be tread upon for lack of understanding, but to say, don't write a character that's aboriginal, or don't write a book that's set in Australia, is mind boggling. I'm still spinning from this one. I'd love to hear the details of your experiences, sure sounds worthy of sharing!
    Thanks again to the YA crew for posting such an exciting exchange!!

  67. The gist of it is, because Aboriginality has been misappropriated in several high profile and embarrassing ways recently (a white man won best Aboriginal women writer of the year award, for example)everyone is now overly cautious. Australia has a long tradition of this kind of cultural prank (look up Ern Malley for an example) but this was taking it one step too far. That said, I think this instance is reactionary, rather than considered. In the end authors need to be able write what they want, and publishers publish what they think can sell. Anything less is censorship. I was prepared to face criticism from Aboriginal groups (although what for I don't know, there was nothing negative in the book. One Aboriginal writer I consulted about the whole issue said clearly I didn't understand the "protocol" to be used when writing about Aborigines. Like these are state secrets or something. Anyway, I digress)as any writer should be prepared to face criticism. Like I say, if your writing doesn't offend at least someone, then it's probably a recipe for sponge cake.

  68. Thanks Petal for posting a response to my response.
    I'll look up the Ern Malley thing.

  69. Some have said it, but I must echo ...

    Biracial characters are really important as we increasingly have children with multi-ethnic heritages.

    As a multi-ethnic person, I hate when folks ask me to pick a side. When I write characters, I won't do the same to them.

  70. GREAT post. Btw are there any books that you have read by white writers who did the research and gave respect and DID succeed in representing a Black MC in non-shameful fashion? Do tell. Only one comes to my mind... maybe two.

  71. >>"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."

    The list is definitely too short! There's MANIFEST, MYSTIFY, VAMPIRE ACADEMY (biracial, but the skin tones are vampire tones, so even dark skin is pale), HUNGER GAMES (sort of), ACROSS THE UNIVERSE (sort of), LIAR (depending on how you interpret the narrator -- as reliable or unreliable regarding the possibly paranormal twist), MAGIC UNDER GLASS, THE ICARUS GIRL (may not qualify; haven't read it yet), BLEEDING VIOLET, DEVIL'S KISS, and PEMBA'S SONG.

    I'm doubtless forgetting a few, but even a complete list would be a tiny fraction of the length of a list of YA novels of any genre featuring white protagonists.

  72. Nicola, you expressed beautifully why we need writers of _all_ backgrounds to think about the role of diverse characters in their writing. Thank you.

  73. Really interesting post, and I generally agree, but I DO think there are more and more good non-white characters in YA books, yes, also paranormal romance. Some of my favorite recent books are examples: "Liar" by Justine Larbalastier (with the infamous whitewashed cover), Cindy Pon's books, "Gullstruck Island" by Francis Hardinge, to name only a few I enjoyed tremendously. I also recommend the "Lionboy" trilogy by Zizou Corder. And there are plenty more examples. I find the YA blogger/author community, such as it is, to be very pro-diversity in many ways, as noted by the stink made over the whitewashing of Ged in a recent adaptation of "A Wizard of Earthsea" and similar debates.

  74. I admire the honesty of this post and I'm glad to see that such a widely read blog is posting such an important topic. As far as 'researching' to write about people of other ethnic groups, don't just do book research. As an author, you should know you can write what you don't know. If people of color aren't part of your life, don't make them part of your writing. It will sound fake.We can't just talk the talk.
    Having said that, I hate to do this publicly, but I don't see a 'contact us' button. I have to call to task the women of this blog. How can you post this when there is no diversity among you? Not only are there no people of color on your staff, but I believe among you there is only one book of color that you list as your favorite. You've got to walk the walk!

  75. This was a great post, and I really appreciated the insights. I also have to add that I would love to see the multicultural movement push a little farther. Whites are not all of a type, either, and I personally have never read a book that came anything close to the background I grew up with. I am quite confident in saying that most kids of a racial minority who grew up in this country have a shared commonality of experience much closer to the 'norm' than what I knew. It would be great to see a little more exploration of the different kinds of people who make up this country.

  76. Excellent post and AMEN to it all!!!

  77. Wow, this was great! I like how you include a variety of different races in here-white people, black people,Latino people and Native American peoples' stereotypes, as opposed to just mentioning one type of race that has its stereotypes. This will be a great help when I come to write my story! I get tired of all of the racial stereotypes too. Thank you!

  78. This post was really helpful! I get fed up of reading stereotyped characters. Not everyone in a certain group will be exactly the same, right?

    One of my characters is Russian, and I've watched so many films where almost every Russian character is evil,or works for the KGB, or spends all of their time drinking vodka- that it's made me really annoyed with the stereotype and it's want to write a Russian character who isn't just a boring stereotype that everyone has seen before. Thanks for this post!

  79. I especially like how you covered both black and white stereotypes here. :)

  80. '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.'

    I also like how you explore both sides of the stereotypes, since most blogs that talk about writing PoC characters only explains one side of the story. :)

  81. I agree with the others; I love how you cover both sides of the stereotypes here, since most 'How to Write POC' pieces I've found just focus on white people and how they badly portray black people- none of them seem to take into consideration stereotypes of other races, like Whites, Asians and Latinos/Latinas. :)I guess it's somewhat understandable about whites not getting much mention since there's more than enough white characters in fiction, but it's still cool how you cover most races here.

    This has really made me at ease about writing PoC characters! Thanks so much for this guide. :D

  82. This is SO SO SO SOOOOOOOO GOOD. As a white writer from Europe I have honestly always been a bit nervous about wanting to write books set in the USA. This has eased my fears, as I get bad anxiety about the issue and sometimes causes me to avoid writing. This was just put so succinctly, amazing article.


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Item Reviewed: Writing Race in YA: Guest Post by Nicola K. Richardson Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kirsten Hubbard