This is a topic that I’m sure you guys have been hearing a lot about lately and I know you’ve all been wondering what I think about it…right? As a POC (person of color) myself, I do feel like I have a small sliver of authority on this subject. After all, I’m the kind of person who’s underrepresented, right? I came across a post myself just today and I left this long comment which made me think that I really just needed to write my own post. So here we are.
Just as an introduction, I’m half Chinese and a quarter Panamanian and I grew up near the Seattle area so there was a fair amount of diversity at my high school (mostly white, but a pretty large representation of Asian, some Hispanic, and some Black as well). I’ve always been a reader but it honestly never really bothered me that the books I was reading were all about white people. It’s just not something that I ever thought about. Growing up with parents and countless other family members who were part of interracial relationships made it so that race was seriously a non-issue for me growing up. Even now, despite the fact that I live in a very white area, I rarely feel uncomfortable or like I stand out because of my ethnicity. At the same time, I know that a lot of people have had a different experience than me. I know some people have acutely felt the lack of diverse characters in YA books–I’m just not one of those people.
Let me make sure to say that I do think we need more diversity in books. Absolutely. But I think we’re looking for that diversity to come from the wrong people. We complain about straight white authors who are only writing about straight white characters. Well…what else are we supposed to expect? For the most part, authors (and other creators–this can be expanded to television and movies) write about the things they know about. They write about what they have experience with. If they’re a heterosexual white person, then they’re most likely going to write about and focus on white people in heterosexual relationships. That’s just how it is. As a POC I would never write a book with 100% white characters because I don’t have experience living a 100% white life. I honestly don’t know what it was like to grow up in a white household. Anything that I would try to write would be inauthentic and probably stereotypical.
I think the worst thing that could happen is for authors to become so badgered by the “diversity police” that they start including diverse characters just to get people to shut up. There was a book I read not too long ago but I can’t for the life of me remember what it was…anyway, a character was included who had a diverse characteristic, but it literally had no affect on the character. The character might as well have not had that diverse characteristic. I don’t think it’s helpful to have characters who don’t embody the traits they’re supposed to possess. Just saying that a character is Asian doesn’t make the book more diverse if the Asian character acts like every other white character. I don’t just want to see diversity, I want to feel diversity. Despite my skin color, deep down I feel pretty white. I’ve never been to China or Panama. I don’t speak Cantonese or Spanish (to the disappointment of my grandmother). I don’t know how to cook authentic Chinese or Panamanian dishes. I live, basically, like a white person. That being said, my heritage and my culture still affects me. If everything else in my life remained the same, I would still be a different person if I had white parents. Those are the people I want to see represented in YA books. If white authors include characters who are diverse only on the surface, it’s not going to help diverse readers feel like they belong any more than a book full of not diverse people.
Then what is the solution? More diverse authors (and other creators). We need people out there who can tell our story because they’ve lived our story. It’s unfair for us to expect authors who aren’t part of “our group” to represent us. Instead, “our group” needs to step up to the plate instead of just complaining about how we’re underrepresented. We have stories to tell, but how are the white people supposed to know that? They’re too busy telling their own stories! I’m not a fan of everything that Jenny Han writes, but what I do love about To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is that she incorporates Laura Jean’s Korean heritage. I love hearing about the food they eat and the special things they do over the holidays. Even though Laura Jean is American, she’s also Korean and Han does a great job of highlighting that in Laura Jean’s story.
I’m not discouraging straight white authors from doing the research and including diverse characters in their books. If they want to do that, I think that’s great. What I am saying is that it’s not really their fault if they don’t include diverse characters. It doesn’t mean they’re racist or homophobic. It doesn’t mean they don’t think diversity’s important. I honestly believe they just don’t think about it when they’re sitting down to draft a new book. So instead of complaining about how authors need to include diverse characters that represent us (and not them) in their books, let’s do something about it ourselves. Instead of saying we need more diverse books, let’s let the publishing houses know that WE WANT MORE DIVERSE AUTHORS instead and support the ones that we already have.