Friday, May 24, 2013

YA Epidemics #9 - They're All White

YA Epidemics is an original feature in which I rant about discuss a different one of the
numerous trends and cliches plaguing the YA genre. The Epidemics are posted most Saturdays.

Comments and discussions are encouraged!

The world we live in is a beautiful mosaic of origins, races, ethnicities, colors and orientations.  We all wear some mark of our ancestry and history on our skin, and each and every one of us should be proud of this.  My country and the setting of most popular YA books I read, America, is known as the melting pot because of how we embrace different cultures and swallow them up into the whole that makes our nation.

Or so we like to claim.  But taking a look at most major media will tell you differently.  A vast majority of the most popular movies, music, and of course books feature prominantly middle-class white people.  In fact, it's a standing joke when you see the one African-American character in a movie that he's the "token black guy".  And nearly every single book I pick up features a white protagonist, with mostly white friends and a white love interest.  There's even a whole section of books called "urban books" that are written for the black community.  And this isn't a form of segregation, how...?

I'm white. I don't think I often really realize what this means, but when I stop to give it some thought I know that I'm initially perceived as White.  As having certain characteristics because of the color of my skin.  I also know that I'm lucky, in a way, because there are so many people being judged in that inexcusably superficial way much more harshly just because their skin is a little darker, or the inflection of their voice less Western than my own.  And thinking about that, about how most of Hollywood is white and most popular books are white, it makes me wonder if that doesn't play a big role in racial/ethnic perception.

It just doesn't make sense to only utilize one type of person in these books.  Wouldn't diversity help make them stand out?  Wouldn't it make them more real, and more accessible as a result?  I've read books set in publich schools in Philadelphia - where I'm from - with no black characters, which is just so blindly unrealistic it's almost insulting.

If books are a mirror of reality, that mirror must be one racist f#&k.

Authors don't do this on purpose.  The vast majority of writers that I know of are liberal, open-minded people.  It's just gotten so ingrained that book characters are white and perfect that it just seems natural to write them that way, which is possibly even more sad than if there were a ton of racist authors.  Why?  Because that's showing us that it's just an accepted way of thinking. Most YA books are white.  It's a big deal when you do have a minority for a main character, which is just plain pathetic. It shouldn't be.  I shouldn't know before I open a book, before I even read that book's synopsis, that it's going to follow a white protagonist through whatever adventure he/she's having.  I just shouldn't.

I can only imagine the self-esteem issues this may cause in anyone who is Other.  Anyone who isn't white, who isn't pretty and straight and Western.  To basically be told by ommision that they don't match the conventional definition of what pretty and important is.  Diversity in books isn't just about realism or originality, it's about representing people of all walks of life.  It's about making this country live up to its idealistic Melting Pot nickname in actuality.  Because no matter how many of us want to shout out our color-blindness when it comes to people, these books and movies tell an entirely different story.

I was hesitant to write this post, scared it would come off as some white girl crying about the injustices of inequality.  But then I realized that this is yet another example of what I'm talking about.  I'm white.  I'm also pissed off about the lack of racial/ethnic representation in the books I love to read.  I can be both.  And I'm not going to shy away from a topic that I feel needs addressing just because I'm scared of a few butthurt people reading it.  Don't like it?


This is far from my typical YA Epidemic post.  What are you thoughts?  Do you agree?  Is more diversity something you'd like to see in upcoming YA novels?  And do you think it's even something that can happen in the near future?  I'd love to hear what you think in the comments!


  1. *clap hands* Very well said!
    The funny thing is, according to many comments I read on a Goodreads thread, there are lots of readers that would like more diversity in YA novels. Sometimes I think the reason why authors are not going there is (also) because most of them are white (and possibly straight) and so is their immediate circle, so they are unsure of how to write a different character maybe. As for beautiful...oh yeah, as for that, I'm not sure that so many readers would like an average-or-less character, though they say they would. But some of them, definitely yes.

    1. I agree, I also think a large part of it is that so many YA writers are white. I get that, I do, but I'd still love to see more of an effort to include minority characters. Even if it's not the MC.

      I don't know, I think a lot of readers would appreciate physically imperfect characters, as long as they actually had a personality. But most readers aren't exactly as avid as us bloggers, so they may be a bit less tired of the beautiful character thing.

      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment, Roberta!

  2. You're completely right. Although I call myself a book lover, I really am struggling to think of books which represents this diversity. I guess DIvergent does in some ways - with Christina, Zach and Uriah - but none of them are that a major characters. I found this the other day, and thought you might want to take a look: Scroll down to find out about ethnicity on book covers.

    1. Yeah, it's one of those things where you don't realize how hard it is to think of books with diversity until you actually try to.

      Thanks so much for that link!

  3. I seek out diversity in my books and read a lot of books set within other countries and about other cultures. Within YA, that's hard, actually impossible. This shouldn't be the case and it's something worth shouting loud about. This really isn't something we should compromise on. And I totally get your mixed feelings on blogging about this but you made the right decision, I'm proud of you :-)

    1. Thanks, Trish! I rarely venture outside of YA unless it's urban or high fantasy, which also seem to have more white characters than anything else, but I think I may also start making a point to read books with more diverse characters in it. Broaden my book horizons a bit.

  4. I've noted before that I live in Minnesota, one of the whitest states in the US of A, yet I see more diversity on a single bus trip or at work than in any six mainstream novels or Hollywood movies.

    I also noted this in my review of "Every Hill and Mountain" with its cast of white young people* learning about the history of slavery in Illinois. It makes me kind of suspicious when the protagonists are from the Chicago area, yet they're surprised by a church where black and white people worship together, and one of them has never been in an integrated church before.

    *The big shocking reveal is that one of them has a tiny amount of African-American ancestry. (I figured it out the moment the kids thought they'd found the wrong person with the name they were looking for.) The villain is still willing to marry her, but insists that of course they can never have children.

    This one, unlike some of the other epidemics, is the product of a vicious cycle. Most writers/editors/publishers white--most books written/published about white people--people with diverse backgrounds discouraged from becoming writers/editors/publishers--most writers/editors/publishers white.

    And it has gotten better over the years. I can remember when Robert Heinlein had to slip the fact that Juan "Johnny" Rico (of Starship Troopers) wasn't white past his editors and many of the readers because you just didn't *do* that in juveniles.

    Book review bloggers can do their bit by deliberately seeking out and publicizing books with more diverse casts, even if we have to go to imports or outside our comfort zones.

    1. "This one, unlike some of the other epidemics, is the product of a vicious cycle. Most writers/editors/publishers white--most books written/published about white people--people with diverse backgrounds discouraged from becoming writers/editors/publishers--most writers/editors/publishers white."

      That says it perfectly. Non-white people are understandably scared to try to stick their necks out when it seems only white people "make it" in the industry. Which is (excuse my language) utter bullshit, in my opinion. They should only be judged on the quality of their writing.

      That book you mentioned sounds like a perfect example of how insulting books can be about this kind of thing. Was it set within the last five decades? If so, that author needs to get his head out of his ass and catch up to the times.

      I also agree completely with your last statement. Book bloggers have so much power when it comes to influencing the future of publishing. This can be a great thing, as long as we make sure to shout about the changes we want to see within the industry and, as you said, seek out and review books that feature some of those changes.

    2. To be fair to "Every Hill and Mountain", it is trying really hard to be inclusive with minor characters being of color (and the main character of the past story is a black man.) It just feels odd how very very white the main character group is, compared to the topic of the olot.

      It's not the top problem the book has, either--you can check out my review at

      Should I ever get off my butt and actually write a YA book, it will have Hmong and Somali characters in it, because you can't attend a Twin Cities high school and not run into some.

    3. Some suggestions I found for YA books with non-white protagonists:

      "Circle of Magic" series by Tamora Pierce, particularly the books where Daja takes center stage.
      "Breaking the Wall" series by Janice Lindskold. Chinese and Chinese-American.
      "Mavin the Manyshaped" series by Sheri S. Tepper. Mind, due to the shapeshifting thing, it's difficult to pin Mavin down to any particular ethnicity.
      "Earthsea" series by Ursula K. LeGuin. (Note that this has not been reflected in the live-action or animated adaptations, or some of the book covers, something Ms. LeGuin is unhappy about.)
      Speaking of books whose protagonists are whitewashed in the adaptations, "Starship Troopers" by Robert A. Heinlein.
      "Mara, Daughter of the Nile" by Eloise McGraw. Ancient Egyptian.
      "Nation" by Terry Pratchett. South Seas islander.
      "Agency" series by Y. S. Lee. Half-Chinese detective in Victorian London.

  5. I'm and Egyptian, and I read tons of books. Only one (ONE!) out of those books featured an Arab character (Somali) and that's because the book focused on America post 9/11. I'm not saying I expect to see an Arab character every now and then, or at all. It's hard for an author to write about a culture they don't understand. Sure, I'd like to read about a character from the same region I come from, but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the movies or books where an Arab character or country IS featured. For example, the last mission impossible movie, the one with Burj Khalifa. I was really excited to see that one, but there was this scene where Tom Cruise runs out from the burj and in the span of two minutes he's in the middle of the dessert. What the fuck? I mean it's no wonder people think all of the middle east is a piece of dessert with huts and camels, because that's how movies depict us. It's frustrating, really, that the people behind those media production won't even make the effort of doing the research.

    1. I can completely understand the frustration! Hollywood especially is ass-backwards with so many of their depictions. I honestly believe it's one of the things keeping racial barriers so strong.

      About books, I do understand that white people are most comfortable writing about white people. Like Skjam said above, it's a vicious cycle that needs to end so we can get more minority writers writing about minority characters. It bugs me, though, when books almost seem to go out of their way to only have white characters. Like, when all the side characters, every stranger the MC bumps in to, is described as, what? Has that happened to anyone in America ever?


As you may or may not know, life is eating up way too much of my spare time right now, so pretty please don't hate me if it takes me a few days to get back to your wonderful comments. I read each and every one from my phone, and they always make my day. <3