Our Masterpieces...Err, Our Novels

Monday, February 28, 2011

Our Take on Race in YA

Writing Song of the Day: "Come Together" by The Beatles

Friends, with so much drama going on in the world, we try to make things really light here on the blog. However, there were a few blog posts last week that truly inspired me.

It all started with this gem from YA Highway. Nicola K. Richardson wrote a guest post titled "Writing Race in YA." You see, she's an African-American YA writer just like Quita and me, and she brought up concerns that we've quietly noticed for years: the sometimes lack of diversity in YA fiction. Growing up, we read a TON, but we didn't have many characters that we could identify with. So, what did we do when we first started getting really serious about our writing? We wrote what we generally read: about white characters. But to prove that we weren't "selling out" in the black community, we also wrote about biracial characters--mainly a character with one black parent and one white parent.

Why? Because we didn't want to ostracize the white reader. Even though we heart writing, we'd be lying if we said we didn't want people to actually read it. We didn't want to write about gangs and growing up in the ghetto, which makes up the majority of black YA fiction on the shelves. To us, we thought being successful meant writing about white people.

But when Nicola wrote about "Not Quite Black" characters, my heart sank. She was talking about me. I had to stop thinking I was being diverse just because I threw in a few biracial characters. I really need to write about my experiences--and growing up, I had friends of all races. So why couldn't I write about them?

Then I read another great blog post by the lovely @sjaejones. She's biracial, and she was a tad upset about Nicola's comment on biracial characters--which I completely understand. I think the biracial community needs a voice just as much as any other minority. However, this is how I took Nicola's comment:

On this sitcom, My Wife and Kids, Damon Wayans' teenaged daughter looked like this during season one:

But during season two, she magically looked like this:

As you can see, these two girls look nothing alike. I'm not saying the casting decision had anything to do with race. All I know is that most of the time when a black person is depicted in a TV show or a movie, they usually look like the second girl. I don't look like her, and not to sound conceited, but I'd like to see more examples of people that look like me.

Finally, the lovely Dia Reeves gave her take on race in YA. Basically, she agrees with Quita and me--not all black characters should have to go through the hardships of oppression or the ghetto. Sometimes they just want to kick some supernatural ass. Can I get a woot woot?

There you have it. My main characters will no longer just be white or biracial--they'll be whoever I want them to be. Besides, not just white characters can fall in love with vampires or overturn a dystopian government.

What would you all love to see more in YA? Are you doing anything in your writing about it?


Unknown said...

I've never given this much thought. I have characters of different races. But that's not what makes them who they are, so I don't dwell on it. If it was important to the story, though, I would.

Erinn said...

I'm as white as it comes. I glow in the dark I'm so white. But the school I grew up in was SUPER multicultural. In fact our international night lasted a week. Seriously. Although I find when I write, I write about whites. My high school experience doesn't really match in my writing. Does that make me terrible? It wasn't something intentional on my part, I didn't wake up and say "only people who can get sun burns can go to my fictional school WHAHAHAHAHAHA." My main character is white, he's pretty clueless about the people in his school.

You bring up a valid point.
On the other hand, sometimes throwing in a bunch multicultural character just to be PC feels forced. (IE Twilight movies) And it's sort of a turn off.

It's taken me 30 minutes to write this comment. Goes to show you how difficult this topic can be.

KatOwens: Insect Collector said...

I love hearing your take on it.
I agree in a lot of ways, that it shouldn't be just "about race" or else we risk falling into stereotypes which is not good.
I think it works when it feels organic. Sometimes when reading I can't tell the race of the characters at all, and I like that.

Tere Kirkland said...

I remember reading the YA Highway post and thinking the same thing, Pam, so I'm really happy to read your post.

This shows exactly what a sensitive topic it is on many levels, and (as far as writing is concerned) just how aware anyone needs to be when writing a character that is from a different background than their own, be it racial, cultural, or even religious.

But at the same time, if you start thinking of a character not as a person, but as a race, a culture, a religion, you might as well stop writing now. And if you think about characters as their characteristics first, what does that say about how you look at actual human beings?

I'd love to see a character who kicked some supernatural ass who just happens to be black. If there are issues of race that come up in the story, yes, I'd like to see them addressed and not ignored, but then resume the supernatural ass kicking. ;)

Great post!

Rose said...

This is such a multi-facetted topic. There aren't any easy answers, but I'm glad that we're talking about this more, especially in the YA community.

NiaRaie said...

I know you can't tell by looking at my profile pic, lol, but I'm also an Afr. American writer. And while I agree that diversity is seriously lacking in YA, I didn't combat that by writing about solely black characters. In fact my last 3 MCs were black, Peruvian/white, and Hispanic. I don't diversify my cast of characters to have a "token minority" but b/c I grew up in an area that was NOT racially diverse and I wished so much that I had and that's what's reflected in my novels.

Racquel Henry said...

Love this post Pam and Quita! This is a difficult topic and I do believe it can also be applied to other genres of fiction. I write literary fiction and I think it's pretty much the same thing. I just got done annotating a book for ELlen's module. It was called Caucasia by Danzy Senna. It's about two biracial sisters. One identifies with her mother who is caucasian and the other identifies with her father, who is Black. In the case of this book it was relevant to discuss race. For me, I don't ever disclose the race of my character because I don't believe that matters. In my mind my characters really don't have a race. If I'm writing a story someday when race is important then I'll write about it. But for now, if I'm writing a story about a character and her dead mother, I don't think her race is important. I want ALL of my readers to feel comfortable. I want them to all be able to relate to my characters.

I read the post from YA Highway and I have to disagree about seeing color. I don't see color. That was how I was raised. While I am proud of my cultural heritage (Trinidadian! Woot!) I don't let that determine who I associate with or what I should write about. I don't see myself as a sellout because I choose to be color blind. I'm often viewed as a sellout because I chose to join a multicultural sorority. None of it should matter. We are all human beings. End of story. Wow this was long, but that's just my take on it! Excellent topic! :)

Unknown said...

Like the YA Highway one, this was a great post. Like Erinn, I'm blindingly white and my cast of characters are limited to what my experience was/is. I think when you're writing, you should write what's true to you and not try to bend any certain way.

Jessica Love said...

Great post!

As a teacher I look around my classroom and see ALL kinds of kids. But then I look at my bookshelf and see a LOT of books about white kids. Oh, there's books about black kids, but, like you said, they're in GANGS or dealing with living in the GHETTO. And there are books about Asians, but they are SUBMISSIVE and their parents are STRICT. Etc etc.

I have so many kids who are...Indian and cheerleaders or black and in the marching band or asian and just dating their first boyfriend or hispanic and in ASB. I feel like so many books that feature characters of color DEFINE those characters by their races, but I look at my kids and they aren't defined by their race at all. Their race is part of who they are just like being a cheerleader is part of who they are. They aren't a Black Cheerleader. They're just a cheerleader. And also black.

I'm just trying to write my books the way my classroom looks. I just want my kids to be able to find books about people who look like them. Multi-cultural without being OMGMULTI-CULTURAL LET'S ALL LEARN A LESSON. My MC is Korean. She's also a total bitch. And has lots of sex. And eats kimchi.

Marquita Hockaday said...

You guys kinda rock! Thanks for coming out in full force and commenting on something that is really close to me and Pam's hearts. All of you have made great points and brought up things that we have thought about since reading that post on YA Highway. I think it's neat the discussion that this topic sparks.

Jessica- I am a teacher, too & Pam is a school counselor...but unlike you, we teach/counsel in an area that is not so multi-cultural. It is a rural area and a majority of our students are white. So, we don't see the mix of students that you do on a daily basis, but we did grow up in muliticultural environments and I think that's what helps us to see past writing only African American characters.

Racquel & KO - it is pretty awesome to leave a character's race ambiguous but in a novel situation--it seems like that will become an important factor eventually, maybe?

Erin and Tere- we def. agree--never throw in a token character just to have them.

Erinn said...

This was the best post you've done.
Don't forget on Friday March 4 you signed up for the gone but not forgotten blogest.

Ghenet Myrthil said...

Great follow-up post to YA Highway!

I'm African-American and like you, I grew up with a diverse set of friends. In my WIP, my protagonist is a Black teenage girl but the other characters aren't all Black. The plot of my story has absolutely nothing to do with race.

Like Racquel, I don't think about race too much when reading or writing. I identify with characters because of what they've gone through or who they are as a person. That's how I'm writing my WIP so I'm not even sure whether I should mention their races. I think I will mention my MC's race somewhere because it's important to me to see books on shelves about Black characters where the plot has nothing to do with race.

Claire Dawn said...

I love you, Pam!

As a black Caribbean female, there is NOTHING in YA for me. That's what's missing for me. And when I think of how many teens there are in my country alone (around 50,000) and then in the rest of the Caribbean and of Caribbean descent in the US and UK and the black in general, that's a huge market that goes unnoticed.

So that's who I write for these days.

Nicola K Richardson said...

Oh,thank you so much for mentioning my post. I regret that some were offended for that was truly not what I meant. But you explained it perfectly with the pictures. That is exactly what I was trying to say.
I am a horror writer by nature,but after spending an evening with my teen-age cousins and their friends,their remarks got to me. They wanted so badly to see themselves in Paranormal Romance and other genres. I normally don't write YA but I couldn't shake their pain and feelings of being left out. So I sat my crazy self down,made a playlist, and for the first time ever,wrote a YA novel.
I'm on my query game as we speak and I wish all my fellow writers the best.