White Privilege in YA Fiction

Disclaimer:  This post might make you squirm uncomfortably.  Especially if you, like me, are a white kid with a middle-class upbringing.  If you are not in the mood to read something that might challenge your way of thinking, I would be happy to direct you to a weblink with much more tame content here.

As a social work graduate student, I took a course on diverse populations.  One of our required readings was White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh.  In case you’re not familiar with her essay, McIntosh basically lays out a long list of the race-related privileges whites have in the U.S.  Some of these are large-scale, while others are a bit more subtle.  Here are a few examples:

“I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.”

“I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.”

“I can chose blemish cover or bandages in ‘flesh’ color and have them more or less match my skin.”

Are you squirming yet?  I certainly was (and still am).  It was an eye-opening experience for me, one that has changed the kinds of things I pay attention to and forced me to ask myself difficult questions about how I should respond.

I know Ms. McIntosh did not intend to write an exhaustive list of white privilege.  And so, with utmost respect to her, I’d like to add a few more conditions:

I can select a book from my favorite genre and feel confident that a significant character will reflect someone of my race.

I can trust that my children will be able to identify with the heroes and heroines of their favorite novels not simply on the basis of their personalities and challenges but also because of their appearances.

The lack of diversity in young adult and children’s fiction is astounding.  Did you know that only 10% of children’s books published feature racial and ethnic minorities?  And even when racially diverse characters are featured, they are seldom the main characters in their stories.

This, my friends, is unacceptable.

There are many layers to this issue, many obstacles to overcome in order for it to be resolved.  And I sure don’t have all the solutions.  But I do have a few humble ideas.

First is for those of us who write.  We need to challenge ourselves to ask honest and difficult questions about our characters.  We need to be willing to question why we’ve assigned specific races or cultural identities to them.  And if our characters’ racial identities are all the same, we need to have a sense of holy unrest about it.

It was a struggle for me to write a first person narrative from the perspective of a bicultural inner-city Latina youth.  I’m quite sure I got a lot of things wrong in the process.  So I’m taking the manuscript to those who can inform this perspective, who can correct my awful Spanish, who can tell me all the errors I made.  And though I know it’s going to be a hit to my pride to do this, I believe it’s worth it.  It’s risky, it’s challenging…but it’s a story that needs to be told.  My fear of getting it wrong isn’t justification enough to keep my character’s voice silent.

The work is perhaps even harder for those of us who read.  There’s a reason why the books that are published reflect the races and ethnicities that they do.  Publishing is a demand-based industry.  Therefore, those of us who read YA fiction have a responsibility to demand more diversity in our characters.  We can make noise about this problem instead of playing the role of mindless consumer.  We can support publishing companies that make concerted efforts to feature stories that showcase diverse characters, like Lee and Low Books.  Like so many of our favored YA fiction heroes and heroines, we can make our voices heard in the face of an unjust system.

Of course, white privilege in literature is only one aspect of diversity that is lacking in YA and children’s fiction.  There are many others:  gender role privilege, properly proportioned body type privilege, fully functioning appendages privilege, and the like.  None of these is to be taken lightly.  All are deserving of our attention.  I believe that ultimately, the books we publish and the books we demand to read reflect the values of our culture and society.

Ms. McIntosh, as it turns out, had something to say about this too:

“If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.”

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I am indebted to the many others who have inspired my thoughts on this issue and have written about it in much better language than I: