Whitewashing and Diversity in YA

Go to the bookstore.

Pick up a random book in the YA section, and read a few pages.

What do you think of the main character? The author may not describe the MC right off the bat, but as you're reading, a picture of him or her is forming in your mind.

Is she or he white?

About 99.9% of the time, the character is. I don't know why. But it's like we're programmed to think that the main character of any story is white, unless we are given descriptions. Or unless, the person on the cover is white.

Is that a problem?

Yes and no.

I don't care if the character is white. I don't care if they're green. As long as the story has a great plot, and as long as the character is relate-able, then I will be content.

But everyone has their own definition of relate-able.

I have been reading a lot of blog post that centered around this exact same topic. There was even a YA litchat about this over at Twitter.

Even though it may not seem like it, people are aware of the lack of diversity in YA. I live in a predominately black neighborhood. I went to an all black elementary school. My middle school, however, was more diverse. It was then that I started to appreciate different cultures more.

Diversity, to me, is beautiful. I mean, America is supposed to be this gigantic melting pot but when it comes to YA, it's a different story.

I don't remember the last time I read a story with a black MC or an Asian MC or to put it this way, a character that isn't white.

Sure there are African American authors and Asian American authors, but getting back to the whole relate-able thing. I can't relate to books written by African Americans. A lot of people think that is weird because I am African American.

But here's the thing. There are stereotypes. When I read a book with a black character in it this said character has an attitude or they're portrayed as street smart kids who like Rap music.

Very stereotypical.

And it seems to me that a non-white person can only be on a cover if she or he is so light that they can pass for white. If you've heard about the Liar controversy, then you know what I'm talking about.

Getting back to the point, relating has nothing to do with skin color. But it does have everything to do with feelings and beliefs. If you look past the skin, past culture, past the languages we speak, we are all a like. We are all humans, and humanity is something we all know.

The key word in that sentence is: know. One tip a lot of authors give writers is to "write what you know." This roughly translates to: If you are white, then your main character has to be white. If you are black, then your main character has to be black. If you are Asian, If you are Indian, if you are Mexican and so on and so forth.

Writing what you know has nothing to do with skin color. I don't know how many times I have to say that, to get the message across. How do you know a color? Someone, please, answer that question. Enlighten me, make me understand. Because I don't understand colors. I only understand thoughts and voices and beliefs and feelings.

But don't get me wrong. It would be wonderful to see more diversity in YA. It would be wonderful to read a book about a 'minority' where her ethnicity isn't the main focus of the story. It would be nice to read about an Indian main character or a Muslim one or a Jewish one.

This doesn't mean I want you to change your characters so that they don't fit the whitewashing profile. No, please don't do that. Diversity is diversity, and if you don't have it in your book, it's okay. No one will hate you for it.

I just think it's about time that we stop hiding behind stereotypes and start broadening our horizons. People mentioned that if they did have a character that wasn't white, they would have to do research. If you want them to come from a different country or if they practice a different religion, maybe.

But if they are American, let's be real. Every American teen is the same one way or another. We might not all be the same color. We might speak more than one language. We might belong to the middle-class or the upper-class. But no matter what, we are all American.

There is no such thing as 'white' culture. There is no such thing as 'black' culture. America is supposed to be a melting pot of all cultures, so it's time to look past black and white, and notice the gray area for a change.


  1. This was a wonderful post, and I totally agree with you.

    I live in Australia and we have many people from different cultures and backgrounds. I have many friends that come from different places.

    I hate how people judge a person based on their background, skin colour or anything else that is just plain stupid. To me, if they are nice and friendly, easy to talk to and a good person, then the skin colour or culture is nothing.

  2. This is a great post. I'm a white African-American, and I think it's important for people to see more than colour, or more than just black and white. :)

  3. It's very sad, but I do think that a majority of people read characters that aren't identified as any race or color as being white. I saw this very recently with a friend's book. Her cover came out, just like Liar, it had a white face on the cover. She told her publisher that the MC wasn't white, and they said, "there was nothing in the book that said she was black." She does admit that she didn't add more than subtle clues about it, but that she always thought of the MC as black. But she didn't fight them on it because it wasn't really a big deal to the story (like it was in Liar)

  4. Hmm, for me, I'd always want the author to do some research if they're writing about a character that comes from a background different from their own. I don't think being Asian-American is the same as being African-American, etc. You would not write the two the same way and um, if you did, the writing might come off as token diversity. I actually think that doing research will help to not use stereotypes because, to me, buying into stereotypes are usually a subconscious strain of thought.

    Well, then again, my opinion may be influenced by the fact that I don't buy into the melting pot idea, being the POC Canadian that I am.

  5. It's sad, but I completely agree with everything you said in this post. I hadn't really thought about how few colored people there were on book covers until now. Great post.

  6. You are on point with this post. I am a POC author and my characters are all different races. I loved the fact that my cover displays my multi-cultural characters. Hopefully my other covers will be able to also. Consumers have a voice and power to change things. Maybe the big houses will listen.

  7. Thanks for this post--I've seen a lot of bloggers making the opposite case--that writers who aren't of color oughtn't to write MCs of color. I agree with you--it's time to move past the walls and check out the grey area. As writers, we're supposed to be cutting into the intrinsic, basic human experiences that we all share--love, anger, grief, belonging. Sure, many of these may be tinged with the life experiences that race certainly informs, but at its base, people are people and human emotions are human emotions. Research if you feel you need to to create an authentic character, but in my opinion--the emotions are constant, and that's where an author hits authenticity.