I am a Racist Reader

How much do we really think about diversity in fiction?

A while back I was reading a fascinating article over on The Masquerade Crew by JeanNicole Rivers called ‘Are You A Racist Reader?’  JeanNicole made some excellent points and I began to look at how I picture characters when I read.  I have now come to the conclusion that I am a racist reader.  Then I immediately started feeling guilty.

The community I grew up in was not known for its diversity or even its political correctness.  It was predominantly white and racism was pretty much the default attitude for most people, especially the older generations.  There is a family anecdote about how when I was two years old my mother took me shopping in the city and I pointed at an African American man and said: “Mum, why is that man brown?”  Yes, that’s how white my community was.  I never actually had spoken to a ‘brown’ person until I was six or seven, when my father began importing Filipino workers, who we treated as part of the family.

I practically grew up on adobo, a Filipino dish. And rice. Lots of rice.

Despite growing up immersed in the Filipino culture, I have always found that the default picture in my head when I am reading is a white person.  Why?  Well, most characters in fiction are white and I grew up in a predominantly white community.  Yet I find that I’m not the only racist reader out there.  Many people were shocked that Rue was African American in the Hunger Games movie, myself included.  We shouldn’t have been.  Rue is described as having dark skin, but since it seems that her different ethnicity is never made an issue, the default picture in everyone’s minds was white.

In fiction when minorities are portrayed, it seems like the fact they are minorities is a major part of their characterization.  However, when an issue isn’t made of it, I find myself assuming they are white.  There really is no excuse for this, but the fact that minorities aren’t very common in mainstream fiction doesn’t help the problem either.  Things are getting much better as compared to, say, ten years ago, but there still isn’t really accurate representation of minorities in mainstream YA.

Should we add minorities for the sake of adding minorities?  No.  But should authors try to accurately represent the current population of the world (if they’re writing contemporary fiction)?  Absolutely!  Let’s face it, the ethnic make up of pretty much every country, especially the United States, is changing.  I can understand a mostly white population in historical fiction set in certain countries, but that doesn’t mean that there were never people of any other colour in those times either.

Fantasy doesn’t all have to be like this.

What I really hate is how fantasy is mostly Euro-centric.  Yes, there are some great Asian-based fantasy worlds out there, but they are severely underrepresented in the mainstream.  The last Asian-based fantasy world I read about was Eon and I read that in June.  Considering I read 1-2 books a week, with about half of them being fantasy, that’s pretty pathetic.  Yes, I recognize that a lot of fantasy is based of Tolkein’s works, but isn’t it about time to move past that?  There’s nothing wrong with incorporating African, Asian or Latin American traditions and beliefs in fantasy.  So why does it seem to be so difficult for authors to try for a little diversity?

Yes, I admit I am a racist reader.  But JeanNicole’s well-written article got me thinking and now I try to keep an open mind about race.  It really shouldn’t matter all that much, but it does, which is why I promise to do better in the future.

What do you think?  Are you a racist reader?

9 comments

  1. Andy Szpuk

    This is a bone-deep examination of yourself, Carrie, and I admire you for posting this. So many things you said ring true.I have to admit, when I visualize at the point when reading, I’m painting a picture of predominantly white folk. I think media and literature needs to look hard at itself to throw off some of the stereotypes that are so deeply ingrained.

    • Carrie Slager

      Thank you! As I’ve said, things are getting better than they were, say ten years ago, but other cultures and ethnicities are still underrepresented. Honestly, I had no idea just how unintentionally discriminating I was being before I read that article and it really did cause me to examine myself and my reading habits.

  2. gigigalt

    Enjoyed this! I think many of us feel awkward mentioning a race. It’s important to use the most current term so as not to offend anyone. Chicago Manual of Style 16th. Edition lists them. Thanks.

    • Carrie Slager

      I don’t feel the list bit awkward mentioning race because all I’ve said in this article was how I often picture ‘white people’ in fiction, which is my own ‘race.’ And I’m pretty sure ‘African American’ is still the current term. Thank you for the recommendation, but if I was worried about not offending anyone, I wouldn’t be blogging.

      • gigigalt

        You are brave. I find it depends on the audience, and how it is done. And if people use terms acceptable to each race, (There is a long list!) And yes, African American is still a current term for black people, providing it fits the individual.) Not all black people have African roots.) Some people make the mistake of putting a hyphen between the two words. It has been contraversial. Today, Chicago says not to do this with any of the combinations such as; Hispanic American. When I have doubts, I talk to a trusted friend, of the race I am mentioning. Thanks for writing!

  3. greencat365

    Ursula LeGuin had something to say about this regarding her own fiction. She imagines the people of Earthsea as being olive-skinned. Guess how they get drawn on her book covers?

  4. david

    I think a part of the problem is expecting this diversity to come so primarily from white authors. Minorities are underrepresented in actually creating minority characters, and what’s more, it’s often the case that anyone with a mainstream sensibility is uncomfortable with actively portraying a character as a minority beyond a few superficial differences. It’s easy to defend this, because ideally race doesn’t mean anything. However, since it’s not an ideal world, such differences can offer carry a weight that’s easy to gloss over for a typical mainstream sensibility. Few people don’t think their lives aren’t already heavy enough.

    • Carrie Slager

      You make some very good points. I agree it would be nice to have more minority authors writing about minorities in the mainstream. And you’re definitely correct in saying that many mainstream authors may shy away from dealing with the problems minority characters face. But the push not only needs to come from minority writers themselves, but mainstream authors as well. Change usually only occurs when a majority of people push for it.

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