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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Color Outside the Lines

It’s one thing for adults to enjoy my YA books, but it is another thing completely when an actual teen reads my story. With that said, I used my 12-year-old niece as a test subject along with a few of her friends who are in their early teens. They enjoyed the storyline, even pointed out the scenes that made them laugh out loud, which made me do the Snoopy dance in public. That’s where the victory party ended.

I asked the kids if they would recommend the story to others, and they said yes. The reason was, and I quote, “Because Samara is half black.”

I’m not sure why this bothers me but it does, and it bothers me for the same reason people voted for Obama ONLY because he was a black candidate. It’s the same reason audiences flock to Tyler Perry movies even though it’s the same poorly scripted storyline every time. It bothers me for the same reason that shows that depict interracial couples suddenly get canceled. (A Different World, Legacy, Boy Meets World, Lincoln Heights, Flash-Forward, etc.) It’s for the same reason why minorities die within the first ten minutes of a horror movie. My suspicion is this: race still makes people uncomfortable and we naturally stick to our own.

I have a confession to make, and I’m sure a few people can relate to this particular subject. Back in school, whenever I entered a new class, I always looked for someone black to sit with. This is not a racist motive. Hell, I live in suburbia USA. It’s just the comfort of having someone nearby who looks like me. Even now, grown up, with 75% of my friends being white, I still have the same anxiety. When my white friends invite me to mixers, I am always the only black person there, and being 5’11 makes me even more conspicuous. It’s come to the point to where if there isn’t at least a 25:75 ratio of minorities, don’t even bother inviting me to the party.

Now before you get your panties in a bunch, consider the situation if the roles were reversed. Imagine if you’re the only white/ straight/ English speaking/poor/ republican/ single/ fill-in-the-blank-here person in the room. Odds are high that you would have the same issue and try to search the crowd for your likeness. This is the exactly what young girls of color are going through--awkwardly searching for their likeness in the crowded bookshelves.

To be fair, there are some things that people of different cultures don’t understand—an insider joke, if you will. Like there is a certain thing called “Caucasian humor” that completely goes over my head. Example: not once did I laugh while watching How I Met Your Mother. Not ONCE. At the same time, I wish the Wayans Brothers were dragged through town by wild horses.

Unfortunately, this dilemma is leaking into my writing career. My book series features a biracial main character who is torn between two factions. It appears that I’m also going through the same dichotomy. Young girls of color want to read fantasy; however, that genre is white dominated and the minority characters are placed on the token shelf and used as comic relief. And seeing all those pale, beautifully tragic faces on the bookshelves doesn’t help their self-esteem at all. How can they possibly relate? There is no gorgeous, mysterious guy interested in them, so why should they care? Publishers will only buy what sells, and if minorities aren’t buying, why should they care?

See the Catch-22? So do I, and it sucks. In a way I’m glad I can contribute a small drop of paint on a blank canvas of teen paranormal fiction, and I hope it leads to more diversity in the genre. Race is not the main issue in my story, but to say that it doesn’t matter is a pacifying, politically correct lie. One of the first rules of writing is to write about who/what you know. If everyone around you looks and acts exactly the same, step out of your comfort zone and strive to know more.

8 comments:

  1. Interesting topic. Since I was born and raised in south Florida, I've become so used to the cultural diversity here, that I don't often think of the skin color of my characters and how it will affect my marketing strategy. I wonder how my readers will relate to the fact my characters hail from different parts of the world.

    ReplyDelete
  2. The hardest time I've had with diversity was when I was in Texas, and was the only Canadian. The humor really didn't translate, my accent was funny, and I felt really out of place and weird.

    Oddly, when I was in University and hung out with people from other parts of the world, (generally China, Africa or the Middle East) it was much less awkward. I wonder if my expectations of the interactions were different because of assumed cultural and language differences, whereas in Texas I didn't think the differences would be so pronounced...ok totally off topic now.

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  3. It really shouldn't be the key focus unless the subject matter is about race. It's just something to bear in mind when creating characters. people don't have to write non-white main characters--it would be awesome if they did--but just don't make the supporting characters stereotypes or lifeless wallpaper that fills a quota.

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  4. I've had very similar thoughts in the construction of my MS. I'm a white female author writing from the perspective of a biracial teenage male in 1930's Saint Rosden (fictional city). I anticipate a few raised eyebrows over this.

    You're right, though. There needs to be more diversity in the YA MC world--and not just so there can be more books about how much it sucks to be non-white, non-male, or non-pale, beautifully tragic face.

    I blabbed about this more in my blog, if you're interested: http://byanyothernamejlb.blogspot.com/2011/09/color-outside-ze-lines.html

    ReplyDelete
  5. Once while dating a Hawaiian man, I visited his family in Hawaii and while walking down the street with him felt very out of place. I'm Caucasian. I couldn't count how many stares I got. I most certainly didn't belong. It felt very uncomfortable.

    My MC for my second book is a mix between my two daughters: Filipino, and Hispanic. To me, it's nothing special. Just my life. Funny though, my critique partner mentioned how much she liked the different races in my story and how unique that is in YA. I hadn't really noticed, but she's right. :)

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  6. It seems, when one writes about black characters, the books get placed in the African-American section of the bookstore which I imagine, seriously affects their visibility among the general population. I noticed on your cover, the white boy was placed front and center. I'm sure this was no accident. Looking forward to reading it! :-)

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  7. I hear you, Jaime. You've gotta write what sells but equally you've gotta write about what you know. Interesting conundrum. Personally, I don't give a hoot about colour (it not being a issue here in New Zealand) but I do have to ask myself: why were there no black characters in my latest book? Certainly, it wasn't planned - just didn't think about it. Maybe I should. Asians feature but that's an essential part of the book. I think literature (and movies) need more positive role models of colour that don't get killed off in the first few scenes. I hope your trilogy becomes a trend, Jaime.

    ReplyDelete
  8. As writer of color I think about diversity in my stories a lot when I'm cast my characters, then I get fist-shaking annoyed that I'm thinking so much about it when none of my stories are about race. But then I think, well, maybe its something worth thinking too much about sometimes when there seems to be a tendency toward not really thinking about it at all?

    While I want Black girls out there to be able to read something I wrote and be excited to find someone that looks like them at the center of all the superpowers and action scenes, I also worry about whether or not my book will be judged, or even just considered, separate from race.

    Then I have to tell myself to stop thinking about all the what-ifs and just finish writing the freakin' thing.

    ReplyDelete

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