YA in Real Life – Diversity… Take 1

Posted October 24, 2014 by Emz Chang in YA in Real Life / 12 Comments

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Note: I do not mean to offend anyone with this post. So if you find anything offensive, I’m really sorry.

Diversity is something that YA severely lacks. And how it is often implied in books doesn’t help. At. All. Take for example, the controversy over Rue’s race when The Hunger Games movie announced its casting decisions. Why was the fact Rue was African-American so shocking to so many people. Maybe one reason is because she wasn’t explicitly stated as being of African descent. Sure it was implied… it’s mentioned that she has “satiny brown skin” and “thick dark hair”, but wasn’t outright stated until Suzanne Collins confirmed in a interview that Rue and Thresh were supposed to be African-American. To me, those descriptions hint that they are African-American. But that’s just me, and I grew up and live in a very diverse town. I’ve learned to associate those descriptions with people of African descent. Some people may not have that experience with “minorities” and only have “mainstream” media.

But in all honesty, the implied description wasn’t the only problem. Sure it’s short and Rue’s race is barely mentioned which can cause people who are scanning (or rushing through) the book to miss it. It’s really an honest mistake. But that’s not the point. The point, and the sad reality, is that if Rue didn’t have such an important role in the books, her race wouldn’t have mattered as much. I feel stupid for typing this, but sadly, it’s more or less true. Because of her actions, how she’s viewed as a brave heroine, she’s automatically assumed to be of European descent. And that’s the sad truth in many novels nowadays. Every character is White unless otherwise stated.

But why is it this way? Why can’t characters be assumed to be of a “minority” race like Asian, Hispanic, or African, for example. Why White? Because in the world we live in, and in the “mainstream” media, almost all the main characters are White and the “minorities” are just the help. I get it. I really do. In America, majority of the people are all of European descent and it’s better for marketing and all that. Don’t want to alienate your audience, be bad for business. But would it kill the industry to put a character that’s not white in the spotlight once in awhile?

And then there are the stereotypes. When The Maze Runner (the movie) first came out, I made the mistake of checking reviews… of movie critics. One of them, much to my surprise (and later annoyance), criticized Ki Hong Lee’s portrayal of Minho because “it wasn’t Asian enough.” Ummm, excuse me? He went on and explained how he pictured Minho with an Asian accent. He did have a point – apparently Minho has one in the audiobook and theoretically all the Gladers came from different places. Newt has an accent, why not Minho? But the point is, the book never mentioned Minho with an accent. The reviewer (and supposedly the person in charge of creating the audiobook) automatically assumed he had one. Just like how a lot of people assumed Rue was White because of her actions, some people assumed Minho had an accent because of stereotypes.

Okay, so I admit, this one hits close to home because I am of Asian descent. And because of that I’m suppose to know Kung Fu (or some sort of Karate) and have an exaggerated accent when speaking English. But Asians aren’t the only ones that are stereotyped. Every race has stereotypes attached. What made me really annoyed with that reviewer is that Minho’s lack of an accent is one of the things I really liked about The Maze Runner. It defies a lot of stereotypes. He’s not just the smart quiet Asian nerd, but a Runner, a leader, someone of importance.

What I’m trying to say, is that YA books don’t have enough characters of different races. Characters that need to be explicitly stated of another race. Characters that need to defy stereotypes. Stating that a character has “caramel colored skin” is nice and all but doesn’t accurately reflect reality. No one describes people like that in common life. Sure it sounds prettier than saying “she’s African-American” but who cares about poetry? Get to the point. A character is either one race or another (or biracial). Just say it, no need for the dainty language. Characters that need to shine in their own light. In real life, not all the Asians are quiet nerds. Not all of them know Kung Fu or speak with an accent. Just like not all blondes are dumb. And not all Southerns (in the US) are red necks and racist. And how Hispanics are criminals. And how they are supposedly good at landscaping. And how all African-Americans are athletic and gangsters. Stereotypes are not always true in real life. They shouldn’t be true in books either. Also, in real life “minorities” don’t just play the supporting role. Take US President Obama for example. He’s of African descent and he runs the show. Why can’t that happen in books? Why can’t someone of a different race be the main character?

What do you think?
Do you think YA needs more diversity?

Emz Chang

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12 responses to “YA in Real Life – Diversity… Take 1

  1. This isn’t something I’ve thought about, because I don’t really pay attention to what ethnicity a character is when I’m reading a book. Then again, most of the books I read have characters that aren’t even human, so there’s that lol.

    I did just read a book where ethnicity was a huge part of the book-Zom-B, by Darren Shan. It was about zombies, but also a pretty deep look at racism (the protagonist’s dad was a loud racist in the veins of the KKK, and this is a major plot line in the book). Very interesting to read 🙂 Though, even in his attempt to bring light to this subject, Shan fell into cliche stereotypes as well (racist dad was an uneducated wife beater etc).

    • I guess it’s hard to have non human characters be part of a human race / ethnicity. I think diversity and stereotypes are problems in the real world that need to be corrected in books more often. It’s always one or the other, but the two of them go hand in hand.

      Thanks for stopping by! 😀

  2. Truth to be told, I’ve never paid much attention to the races of characters, but still I agree with you.I’d love to see a variety in the heritages of YA characters.
    As an Asian myself, it annoys me greatly when Asian characters are stereotyped.We are supposed to be nerdy, short and silent.In addition to that Sri Lankans are war victims and poor, it’s such an unfair portrayal of my country that I hate.

    Mishma @ As the page turns recently posted: 20 things you probably didn't know about me
    • If I’m honest myself, I don’t really pay close attention to the race of characters while I’m reading either. But it does make me happy when I realize a character is breaking stereotypes.

      I hate stereotypes for that same reason. It’s really unfair to a group of people to be portrayed a certain way just because other people feel like they can define a group by those characteristics.

      Thanks for stopping by Mishma! 🙂

  3. I don’t pay too much attention to the races or ethnicity of characters – I’m much more interested in their personalities and actions. So yea I was pretty shocked at all the people getting upset over the casting of Rue. That just shows how not only are we not used to diversity in our books, but how intolerant society still is.

    • Exactly. Why should her race affect the the way people see her? And to be honest, I don’t pay particular attention to the race of characters, but it does help to when it comes to visualizing them.

      Thanks for stopping by Julie! 🙂

  4. How about anyone from the Middle East is a terrorist or at least sympathizes with them (I’m half Persian)? I’ve been dealing with that crap since high school (when the whole Kuwait nightmare was happening). I’m completely with you. I did come across a series where the girlfriend was explicitly black, but she was pretty stereotypical. I’m wondering if the lack of diversity has to do with a lack of diversity in the writers. My knowledge is somewhat limited, but when I look at author photos in the back of my books, most of the time the writer is a white woman. I also hope I’m not offending anyone, but with an issue like this it’s inevitable. But I’m glad someone brought this up.

    Leila @ LeilaReads recently posted: Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal
    • I agree – the race of the author could influence the diversity of the books. Generally, I think most authors make some sort of effort to include characters of different races, but sometimes their portrayal can be taken in a different way than intended (for example, following stereotypes). In my experience, even authors from a more diverse background tend to write about more American and white characters. As sad as I am to say this, I think its just more marketable because racism still exists and people of European descent make up the majority in the US, and thus, I guess, are more relatable. I wonder if that trend follows in countries in Asia and the Middle East where a different race makes up the majority of the population. Do the race of their characters reflect the race of the majority of the people?

      Thanks for stopping by Leila! 🙂

  5. Great post and I agree with you on a lot of points. YA really needs more Diversity and that’s why I think the We Need Diverse Books Campaign is so, so great. We need to be reading diverse books and demanding more of them, so publishers, writers, authors and everyone takes note. It saddens that me some people have never seen themselves in a book. This needs to change.

    Rebecca @ Reading Wishes recently posted: Review: Nil by Lynne Matson
    • I actually haven’t heard of that campaign. I’m not on social media enough, I guess. But I will go check it out. It is a cause close to me. Thanks for bringing that up!

      Thanks for stopping by Rebecca! 🙂