#DiverseCharactersMatter

This post is a long time coming.

First, I am white. I was born to a family with a solid income. Both of my parents graduated from college. These are just some basic facts about me that, in my opinion, have impacted my life in ways I cannot control and I could not foresee.

My parents put me into the public school system in the second grade. I encountered much more diversity after that happened. My best friend throughout elementary school was Emeka Anen. I had friends who were Latino, Chinese, Japanese, and a ton of other nationalities. Diversity wasn’t a huge part of my schooling, but it was definitely present.

Looking back, though, I know my encounters with diverse populations were relatively limited. I played soccer and golf, two sports that are historically more white than say, basketball or football. At Cary High School, the majority of my Honors and AP classes were populated by white students. As a teacher, I know this is still a major issue and talking point for administrators and staff. They want to see more minority students in those sections because research shows that career paths and financial outcomes change when students are given those opportunities.

Teaching is actually where I encountered the most diversity. At Riverside High School, I taught sections that had zero white students. At Jordan High School, a group of students laughed at me when I called the school diverse. They thought I was crazy, because to them, Jordan High School was a “super white school.” In their minds, it was easy to look at Hillside or Southern as much more diverse examples. But in my mind, Jordan High School was three or four times more diverse than anything I experienced at Cary High School.

So teaching introduced me far more to diversity than schooling ever did. I had students from every walk of life, culturally and religiously and ethnically. When I first began teaching, I got really excited and went to Goodwills all over Cary. I bought tons of books. Hunger Games and Percy Jackson and anything I could imagine my kids reading. I compiled the library and excitedly assigned my students Sustained Silent Reading.

I had read a ton of research about daily reading and modeled reading impacting student learning. I was excited. So imagine my horror when a student came up to me just a month into my class.

“Mr. Reintgen. I’ve flipped through like six or seven of these books. And there’s no black people.”

I had no clue what to say. After class, I flipped through the books myself. And I was stunned to find a ton of white protagonists and mostly white authors. I quickly researched the statistics and found that of the YA bestsellers in 2012, only 22% featured a “diverse protagonist” (defined as characters of color, LGBT, or disabled). So it wasn’t surprising that many of my books made it difficult for students of color to see or find themselves. Not surprising at all.

So here’s the point of this whole post. For the past one hundred years or so, the literary industry has favored white people. This does not mean that I refuse to read characters that are white (I’ve read a lot of them). This does not mean that I’m boycotting white authors (I am one of them). But it does mean that there is a culture and history of one people group being featured above the others, more often than the others, and more favorably than the others. And I’m afraid this isn’t a fact that’s up for debate. You can’t debate the historical facts of an industry. We can look back. There is research. There are examples. For the past century, you are more likely to see yourself in a novel if you are white.

Now: why does this matter? Because we’re all different right? And can’t we all just kind of learn from each other? I mean you don’t have to be white to think Hermione is really smart. You don’t have to be white to think that Katniss Everdeen is brave. You don’t have to be white to dislike how much Bella complains in book two of the Twilight series. And this is all true. There is a universal empathy between human beings that’s wonderful and compelling. That’s why you don’t have to be an American from the South to love Scout Finch. We can absolutely be moved by characters from other backgrounds and situations. We can be inspired by people of another religion and heritage. I have always, always, always found this to be true.

BUT.

But. The past century has also sent a message to our minority populations through the world of literature. Unfortunately, it says you’re not worthy. At best, you are a side character. You do not belong at the forefront of a story. You can be the quirky best friend. How about the comical relief? Would you mind fitting into the role of scandalous prostitute? You might think these examples are extreme, but this is what’s been happening in books for a really long time.

So when I tweet about #DiverseAuthorDay, I really am excited about it. I want more diverse characters. I want more black characters. I want more black authors. I’d love to see some of my Latino students depicted fairly and equitably in YA. If you think this stance, of being excited about possible changes to something that has been unfair and imbalanced for decades, is “unfair” to white authors and people, then you’re really missing the point of the argument. You’re also trying to sweep the century of imbalance under the rug.

Diverse authors and diverse characters deserve to be celebrated because they’ve been hidden and pushed to the side for far too long. As a white author, there’s not a whole lot I can change about the fact that I’m white. But I think I’m responsible for doing a few things:

1.  Attempting to write minority characters into my storeis. I won’t always get it right, because my background and life limit my actual knowledge of what it’s like to live as a minority. But it’s a responsibility of mine to try and make the worlds and stories I create reflective of how our world actually is.

2. I have a responsibility to encourage my minority students through my teaching of literature. Now, I have this responsibility to all students, but I’ve also done a ton of research in an effort to find books that might appeal to students of every background. The more research I do, the more likely I am to have an appealing and representative book for my student to read. And if that’s the book that rings the bell for them. If that’s the book that gets them hooked because finally they can see themselves? Why would we ever be against that?

3. Finally, I have a responsibility to cherish and support minority authors. I know several people will say, “Well, shouldn’t you support everyone?” And yes, I do. I really do. You see me brag about authors on this blog all the time. I love all kinds of authors, including white ones. But I believe the historical imbalance and treatment of minority authors in our industry necessitates a more aware approach to how I support books in this category.

Final Note: I will screw this up. I really will. Some of my minority characters will piss people off. It’s inevitable that I will portray someone poorly. The goal isn’t to sweep that under the rug and say, “Well, at least I tried.” The goal is to suck it up, take advice from people, and try again. For too long we’ve accepted what’s comfortable instead of what’s right. I can only do so much to fix that injustice, because it’s a big and long and complex injustice, but I hope to do as much as I can in my career as a writer.

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