I was in my second year of college, in an Intro to Creative Writing class and my professor told us that we should know what the characters look like within a few pages.
I tended to write characters with brown hair, like mine, although their eye colors varied. But then one day, it struck me. I imagined all of my characters as white.
The issues with this is that I’m half-Asian. I don’t meant to say that all the characters I write should be half-Asian, but it was boggling that I had gotten to age 19 never having written one, especially since I was so tied to my Asian culture.
Why were all my characters white? How did this come to be the norm for my writing?
I have one theory that I think at least, in part, played a role in this.
I suspect because it was because white characters were the norm in my reading.
This year I’ve been doing a lot of exploring on racial diversity. I’ve had a lot of support in my personal circle, as far as talking one on one, but I feel like most of the time, it’s something people just don’t want to talk about. Maybe they think it doesn’t pertain to them. Maybe it makes them uncomfortable. To be honest, the more people ignore my desire to have this discussion, the more I believe it is needed.
Look at the books you are reading. What was the last book you read that featured a main character who was not white? How long ago was that? Compare it to the number of books you’ve read that do feature white protagonists.
I’m guilty of this myself. I’ve read 18 books this year. I’ve only read two books where the main characters weren’t white: The Bluest Eye and Crazy Rich Asians. The former I read for class, the latter I chose based on the title alone. Someone in a Facebook group recommended it and I didn’t even read the Amazon description before clicking “buy.” It’s rare to see a fiction book featuring Asians recommended.
I saw two articles this morning that indicated that I’m not the only one thinking about diversity in reading. Author Walter Dean Myers sparked the conversation this weekend with his personal thoughts in “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books.” Blogger Grace Hwang Lynch provides statistics, reasoning, and suggestions that highlight the importance of this discussion with her post “#ColorMyShelf: Why Kids Needs Books That Reflect Diversity.”
What were the books of my childhood? Marvin Redpost, Junie B. Jones, The Magic Treehouse, Ramona, Naylor’s Alice books, Sweet Valley twins, Blume’s books, and The Babysitter’s Club.
The Babysitter’s Club had Claudia, an Asian-American teenager, as well as the minor character, Jessi, an African-American eleven year old. That’s the extent of the diversity I remember from elementary school. Yes, many of the books I read had great lessons that encouraged open-mindedness, but there was still an absence of main characters who were minorities. Perhaps, I had learned along the way, that book characters were meant to be white. After all,that was how most of them were written, it seemed.
So where is my responsibility in this? Should I actively seek out books featuring protagonists of different races as well as books written by minorities?
For me, the answer is yes. To not do so is to choose ignorance, to choose to stay comfortable in my own small world. We should normalize main characters of different races in books as well as be interested in the stories of people who are both like us and unlike us.
But what are my responsibilities as a writer, in creating my own characters? I’m still trying to figure this out. What do you think?