I currently teach English in a 14-19 school in Leicester, with a good proportion of BAME students. One thing that my colleagues and I always notice is that the vast majority of students, regardless of their own heritage, when writing stories give their characters names that sound white British and clearly code them as white in their physical descriptions. It’s an odd thing to do and seems to support the idea that they see white characters as the norm in fiction. This is a great pity, and clearly supports the need for books (and TV and film, of course) to represent a wider range of humanity. We also rarely see gay characters, although a student who identifies as gay is quite likely to write about gay characters, while our Asian and Black students remain likely to write about characters called Dan or Emma.
I’ve been thinking about this today, having read that over the last couple of days, the marvellous Malorie Blackman has been receiving a lot of racist and critical comments online. In this Sky News piece she calls for greater racial diversity in YA and kids’ books, arguing that this is an issue of representation, that BAME children and teens can struggle to find themselves or characters like themselves in books. This certainly fits with my experience in teaching, with BAME students assuming that stories are usually only about white characters. Malorie’s piece concludes that this state of affairs gives this group of children/teens an additional and unnecessary reason to lose interest in books. My favourite line from her is:
“But I think there is a very significant message that goes out when you cannot see yourself at all in the books you are reading.
“I think it is saying ‘well, you may be here, but do you really belong?’”
The Sky News text originally appeared to quote her as saying there are “too many white faces” in kids’ books, even using this line as its headline. Watching the video interview, it is clear that she said nothing so inflammatory, and the headline has since been amended. Nevertheless, the comments under the article, and the vitriol directed at Malorie online reveal that diverse representation is clearly needed, as many people seem to feel that ‘people like her’ are messing with ‘our culture’ and ‘our books’. Horrific, and also clear evidence that representations of British society as white are dangerous.
For more on this issue more broadly, I’d like to recommend a couple of US sites. The brilliant Diversity in YA has a blog and tumblr, which feature books that offer more diversity, along with statistics on representation and clear discussion of the issues. There is also a campaign called We Need Diverse Books which promotes lots of bookish diversity.