Jul 14, 2013

Racial representation in YA lit and what Trayvon Martin has to do with it.

On Saturday, George Zimmerman was declared not guilty of shooting and killing Trayvon Martin. Despite the fact that there was all evidence to the contrary, despite the fact that Zimmerman was expressly told not to go after Martin, and despite the fact that Martin had done absolutely nothing wrong, Zimmerman's shooting Martin because he was 'scared' meant that he got off scotch-free.

He even got his gun back.

I've been wanting to write a post on why it's important for YA to represent multiple ethnicities for a long time now.  On why, despite the fact that books with whitewashed covers still, it's important to show that there's as much racial diversity in the YA corner of the bookstore as there is in the world. On why writing stories and showcasing stories with people of color is important, not only to people of color, but to how the world around us operates.

People of color have different experiences from white people. They still have to fight racist tendencies and racist norms. They are more likely to be frisked in NYC for no reason. They are more likely to be killed or arrested. They can fire a gun to warn off an attacker, not hitting anybody, and still be sent to jail for more time as a man who brutally murdered a teenage boy.

They're told that they'll do less well in school because of something as inconsequential as the amount of pigment in their skin - or they're told that they'll do better and are shunned when they don't because of something as inconsequential as the amount of pigment in their skin.

And they are called names, offensive names and hurtful names and names I would never dare say because damn it, you don't dehumanize people like that.

You wanna know why I want more representation on covers and in books in the YA section? Because the more something is represented, the more accepted it is. And the less shit like this happens.

I have no funny lines today. I have no anecdotes, no links to Goodreads about books with protaganists who are people of color, no quotes from Twitter. All I have today is anger and shelves full of books with white faces.

And all I want is change.


  1. I'm not saying that George Zimmerman is guilty or not guilty, but the fact is that the prosecution could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he shot Martin in cold blood. It's the way our legal system works.

    While I understand your passion for representing different ethnicities in YA literature, I would say that most of the people reading multicultural literature already relates and sympathizes better with minorities. Changing YA literature is not going to make any difference in how the rest of the world treats certain individuals.

    1. I won't get into the details of the case with you - how Zimmerman stalked Martin, how Martin's murder was overheard by a friend on the phone, how he had done nothing but defend himself from somebody who thought he was doing something wrong because he bought Skittles and iced tea. How there were no black jurers because the judge thought that they couldn't be impartial. How Zimmerman would never have stalked him if he was a young white boy instead of a young black boy. How, even if it was cold blood, how Zimmerman didn't get manslaughter charges.

      Instead, I'll respond to your comment about changing YA lit. First off, I think the fact that we have to separate YA lit and multicultural lit is a huge indicator of how wrong this is. All lit should be multicultural, especially YA lit; they should be synonymous. YA lit should be multicultural. Multicultural lit should include YA. It's as simple as that.

      (That is, of course, assuming people even recognize that they're reading multicultural lit; with the consistent whitewashing of covers, it's hard to tell these days, and that's not including the fact that readers sometimes don't pick up on a person's race -- take the controversy with Rue in The Hunger Games.)

      Two, changing YA lit would make a difference. Maybe not a huge one, and maybe not immediately, but throwing in the towel because we can't fix everything in the world means that nobody will ever get anything done. It's a ripple effect. It might make one person more accepting or aware that there's a problem. That person might reach out to two or three more people to talk about it. You have to start somewhere, and we have that ability to do something that small, and that good, and hell, if it makes life a little better for readers of color - even it if's just seeing themselves more in texts, rather than the traditional Nice White Person TM - I'm all for it.

    2. Just to add onto what you said about YA lit making a difference: even if it doesn't make a huge difference now, in our generation, somewhere down the line it definitely can.

      When racism was at its worst, it happened because it was thought of as acceptable, and children were raised to think that people of colour were somehow less than they were and that treating them badly was okay.

      Things are different now, better, but still not how they should be. Little changes like changing YA lit is one step towards getting there.

      It's actually especially important in childrens and YA lit because it means that maybe the next generation will be better because they will be learning from a better example than ours did with white washed covers and POC protagonists being hard to find or only representing racial stereotypes.

      Racial stereotyping was the reason the whole Zimmerman mess happened and why the trial played out the way it did. If Trayvon had been a white kid (or if he had been female instead of male) then Zimmerman would be behind bars right now.

      I've seen way too many people on the internet say that Trayvon "looked like a gangster" and list all the things he shouldn't have done (he shouldn't have stood up to Zimmerman, he shouldn't have been walking at night, he shouldn't have been wearing a hoody, etc.)--all because he was black, and so when Zimmermans lawyers were portraying him as the victim acting in self defence and the actual victim is being racially profiled like that, the jury buy it.

      More books representing POC beyond racial stereotypes might not change that sort of attitude, but it's definitely a step in the right direction. And, even if it makes no difference at all, it should still be done because, like you said, we live in a multicultural world and books and movies and TV shows should reflect that.

  2. Best way I can disagree with Cassie's comment is this: It isn't enough for murder to be deemed illegal. People need to BELIEVE that murder is a bad thing in order for the law to be truly effective.

    That's the role of literature, television, movies and other things that shape the societal views we all have. That's why rape culture is the way it is despite the fact that it's illegal. It's because women are still not seen as equals as seen by looking at the percentage of women leads in film and television (or even STRONG & POSITIVE representation of women) in proportion to men. The amount of myths/stereotypes associated with women in the Criminal Justice System held by the jurors, judges, prosecutors etc due to their experiences and personal views is amazing. An example would be the idea of the "ideal victim" of rape who is white, middle class, and a virgin. If you didn't fit this mold then conviction was unlikely.

    These dangerous ideas are what get people convicted (or not convicted) and these ideas stem from what we read, watch and hear so to say that changing YA literature won't make a difference is not true.

    You underestimate the power of ideas.

  3. Books have had a HUGE impact on racial relations since the time of the Civil War. (Presumably Lincoln even said upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe that she was the "little lady wrote the book that started this great war!")

    I had friends who were prejudiced against transgender people until they read Julie Anne Peter's Luna. Obviously, that doesn't have to do with race, but the same concept applies. Reading about people who aren't exactly like yourself allows you to sympathize with and understand them more. Diversity on our shelves is desperately needed.


  4. I think when it comes to seeing more diversity in YA, there shouldn't be any debate about it. I can't tell you how many comments on diversity in YA-themed blog posts I've seen where people have said that the reason why there are less 'minority' MCs in YA is because of the fact they are...'minorities'. As someone who is a POC, I HATE being called a minority simply because it allows people to say bs like that and secondly, it allows people to see me as a percentage and not as someone who deserves equal and ACCURATE (not stereotypical) representation in ALL kinds of media (especially books) simply because I exist.

    As a teenager, I hate that there isn't any diversity in the books that I read. Not because I'm a POC but because I live in a country that is apart of a WORLD where people are different than me. And because the entire planet doesn't consist of one ethnicity, YA books shouldn't either.

    I was raised by a woman who taught me to accept everyone no matter the color of their skin, which is why for a long time I didn't see a problem with reading books with white main characters. They were 'different' from me and I accepted that. I still accept that. But when I see people making up excuses as to why white readers might not read books with POCs on the cover or as main characters (this is bs, too), it makes me upset because not only are people making an assumption but they are basically saying that white is the default so that automatically makes it relatable and if it's non-white then it makes it not relatable. Even if that POC character is from the same country (i.e. America).

    I'm only nineteen and maybe I haven't lived long enough to get a sense of the world but I do know that 'race' is only skin deep, and that in order for people to realize that POC characters need to be represented as PEOPLE and not walking stereotypes, there needs to be more books where they are depicted as people.

    Because when you label someone/define them by stereotypes instead of who they actually ARE, that dehumanizes the person. It makes it seem like that person, because of the color of their skin (or what they're wearing), can't possibly be more than what they look like on the outside. They can't possibly be anything more than their race/circumstances, and that...hurts.

    It hurts because I have cousins who are Trayvon's age, who dress like he did, and who probably might look like nothing more than potential criminals to people who don't know them. And people don't know them because there aren't accurate representations of them in books, in television shows etc. So, yeah, maybe more diversity in YA won't make an immediate change, but change doesn't happen in a day or a week or a year and people might not be comfortable with talking about race but...I'm not comfortable with the fact that a man walks free after murdering an innocent kid who is two years younger than me and is the same complexion as myself and many of my friends/neighbors/family members.

    And because I am not comfortable with that, I am angry. And because I am angry, I'm going to do everything in my power to change the world we live in.

    I'm going to start with reading more books.

    There isn't a lot of diversity in YA books now, but there are a handful of diverse YA books out now. They don't get a lot of buzz/people don't talk about them much but if YOU (this is referring to everyone as a collective) read those books, review them, and spread the word about them on your blog, at your workplace, to your friends, family, niece, nephew, son, daughter whatever...it will make a difference slowly but surely.

    I bought a few books w/ POCs as main characters (that don't have anything to do with them BEING POCs) and I'm going to read them and once I finish I'm going to spread the word about them.

    There is no such thing as a small change.

    1. Love your comment. Are there any good YA books with diverse characters that you would recommend? The only ones I can think of right now are Slice of Cherry, Brooklyn Girls, and Eleanor and Park.

      Also, what you said here:

      "if it's non-white then it makes it not relatable. Even if that POC character is from the same country (i.e. America)."

      I've seen that excuse used before too (not just in relation to race, but when people are talking about LGBQT* in books) and it bugs me so much.

      I'm not American (Scottish), but the majority of books I read have American characters.

      I obviously have no clue what it's like to be a vampire or a werewolf or a witch, and yet I happily read and enjoy books with characters who are those things.

      One of the books on my favourites shelf has Muslim main characters and is set in Afghanistan (A Thousand Splendid Suns), I'm an Agnostic and have never set food in Afghanistan (and actually, one of the big reasons I love that book is because it's so far beyond my realm of experience and it was fascinating to read about a culture so different to my own).

      Another of my favourites is about a brother and sister who have a consensual incestuous relationship (Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma) - something I have no personal experience with nor would I ever want to.

      Historical books, high fantasy, dystopian...never experienced any of those things firsthand, didn't stop me enjoying the books.

      Most of the books I read are set in places I've never been and characters living things I have never experienced. It doesn't make those books any less enjoyable or relatable. So when I see people claim they can only read books about straight, white, cis gendered characters because they can't relate to anything else, it pisses me off so much and they're totally talking a load of crap.

    2. I LOVE Slice of Cherry! Have you read Dia Reeves' first novel, Bleeding Violet? If you enjoyed SoC, then you should like this book. It has the same kind of feel to it, and I love it. I need to check out Eleanor and Park & Brooklyn Girls. I've heard so many great things about the Eleanor and Park. :)

      As for book recs, I haven't read it yet (I'm going to read it after I finish the book I am currently reading) but The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson is good from what people have told me. Also, Cold Magic by Kate Elliot (also on my list to read...I so many books to get through hehe). It's described as an "Afro-Celtic Post-Roman Icepunk Regency Novel" and that alone made me buy it without a second glance. It's about six hundred or so pages long but the fact that the author incorporated so many different cultures in the book really intrigued me.

      I can't think of any more off the top of my head, but a blog I'm currently using to get all my book recs because it covers a wide-range of diverse books in YA is the Diversity in YA tumblr: http://diversityinya.tumblr.com/

      I had some spare time the other day, and just decided to go through all the entries. I found out about books I have never heard of, and it's really sad because other books get so much more attention.

      "I obviously have no clue what it's like to be a vampire or a werewolf or a witch, and yet I happily read and enjoy books with characters who are those things."

      And YES. If people can enjoy books about vampires(or other creatures) they can't possibly relate to, then what's stopping them from relating to someone who is a different ethnicity, practices a different religion, or isn't straight? They're all human, and that's the important thing.

      I too love learning about cultures different than my own. I read The Kite Runner a few years ago (I have yet to read Khaled Hosseini's other novels) and though it broke my heart, it opened my eyes to a different culture, to someone else's experiences, that I probably never would have learned about if I didn't read that book. Maybe The Kite Runner isn't representative of the entire culture, but I did learn something from it, and that's what people should do when they read books with characters who might not be the same as them.


      Once people realize that just because someone isn't the same as them, and that it doesn't make that person any different, then I think we'll start to grow.

      I want to read more books with LGBQT characters because I haven't read any (only ones where they were secondary characters) and I want to change that. Diversity of all kinds is very important to me, and it really makes me mad when people say that they can't relate to someone who is LGBQT because you don't know that. You can have so much in common with a person and you won't know unless you talk to them. The same goes for books. You won't know unless you read.

      I just think the world would be a better place if we took the time to listen to each other instead judging each other on what we look like, who we love, the religion we subscribe (or don't subscribe...I, too identify as Agnostic) to etc.

      Books are all about escaping, at least in my opinion, they are. If you're not going to read without putting limitations on the books you read, then what's the point of reading?

      Errg. Okay. I'm going to step off my soapbox. I too get pissed off when I hear people make excuses for why they won't read diverse books. Life is to short to be close-minded.

    3. Yup, I love Bleeding Violet--Slice of Cherry was just the one I thought of because I'm halfway through it.

      The Girl of Fire and Thorns is in my TBR pile. Hadn't heard of Cold Magic but I'll check that one out and that tumblr. :)

      If you liked The Kite Runner, you should check out A Thousand Splendid Suns, you'll probably like that too (it focuses on two female characters in Afghanistan from childhood to adult, it has one of my favourite love stories too although that's not the focus). I still need to read The Kite Runner--I've read the graphic novel and saw the movie, they kind of stomped on my heart enough for me to put off reading the book for a while. =P

      I don't think any book can ever really represent an entire culture, but that's another reason we need more diversity--so that the different sides of cultures are shown, and not just certain parts of it (or worse, the racial stereotypes).

      "I want to read more books with LGBQT characters because I haven't read any"

      I haven't really read many either, mainly because I have an aversion to the "Coming Out" books or ones that are Issue Books. I get the necessity of those, but I'd much rather read LGBQT books where the characters are already through that stage and are content with their sexuality/identity (and those are important too, because it's something hopeful that people who are struggling with those things can read and know that someday they'll be there too).

      Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is supposed to be good, I've not read it yet but I've only heard good things about it.

      ...I'll stop rambling now, but I pretty much concur with everything you said. :)

  5. Brilliant post. I just can't believe Zimmerman was found not guilty.

  6. I hate white-washed covers. It's so incredibly annoying. I feel so bad for authors who write books about people of all different skin colours (ex. the main character is black), and on the front cover they feature a white person. WHY? We all know that's incredibly racist!

    This is one of my biggest pet peeves. I don't really know why authors choose to just write about white characters. Race is such a superficial thing, and it's not even based in science! You don't have to be black or asian to write a black or asian character! We're all people, just move on.


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