I’ll be the first to admit I haven’t been in the young adult section of a bookstore since I was about 13 and obsessed with vampire love stories. At 13, it never occurred to me that the books I loved so much, with female protagonists emblazoned on the covers, were actually whitewashed by publishing companies. Where I once saw mystery and romance, now I see rows of identical covers all featuring a white, beautiful female protagonist, even when the heroine herself is a woman of color.
Most recently, the massive publishing house Bloomsbury misrepresented protagonists of color on two different young adult books: “Liar” by Justine Larbalestier, and “Magic Under Glass” by Jaclyn Dolamore. Thankfully, Bloomsbury later re-released the novels with more accurate covers.
But it isn’t just Bloomsbury. The Book Smugglers blog lists titles from 1987 to the present that illustrate this ongoing issue.
How could publishers get something as characteristically fundamental as race or ethnicity so incredibly wrong? Moreover, how has a system so incredibly racist and colorblind gone unnoticed by bibliophiles like myself for so long?
Publishers have convinced themselves and their readers that the only thing that sells is whiteness, because there just aren’t many books featuring people of color to choose from in the first place. The young adult market seems to prefer white protagonists because they are the only ones offered, not because of an aversion to or lack of demand for protagonists who are people of color. Quite the Catch-22.
What’s distressing is that the trend of whitewashing so apparent in young adult books begins at the earliest ages of reading and development.
In a study done by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, there were 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, yet only 93 of them were about black people.
By exposing children to only white protagonists, it sparks the conception that protagonists must be white in order to be successful, and a black protagonist must be the exception and not the norm. That’s just about as white-centric as you can get.
Christopher Myers, an author of books for children and young adults, calls this paucity of black protagonists the apartheid of children’s literature.
“Characters of color are limited to the townships of occasional historical books that concern themselves with the legacies of civil rights and slavery but are never given a pass card to transverse the lands of adventure, curiosity, imagination or personal growth,” Myers wrote in a recent article for the New York Times.
Publishers come up with all sorts of reasons for featuring a majority of white protagonists. The most ridiculous reason I’ve come across is that white readers just won’t be able to relate to characters of color — which is complete crap. Young adult readers aren’t looking to identify with a character based only on their skin color. They’re more likely to identify with the personal struggles of the protagonist.
In an interview with Vanity Fair, actress Anika Noni Rose the voice of Princess Tiana in Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog” voiced a similar sentiment about what happens when black authors approach their editors with stories that have black protagonists.
“And why can’t you expand yourself so you relate to the humanity of a character,” she asked, “as opposed to the color of what they are?”
What accounts for the fact that most popular young adult novels feature supernatural creatures or other fantasy creations? Certainly not the fact that white werewolves are more popular than black ones, because that’s truly ridiculous.
To escape being blamed themselves, publishing companies place the blame for underrepresenting people of color on a lack of demand or empathy from readers. The publishers are the ones who perpetuate the system by limiting the market to mostly white-centric novels, and not because readers are demanding only white characters.
While it’s unclear how deeply the trend of whitewashing extends into more adult novels, the current situation reinforces a system of power and oppression through books marketed to children and young adults who are just developing their sense of self and awareness of the world.
A lack of racially diverse protagonists systematically reenforces the conception that a hero can’t be any race other than white. Publishing companies evade blame to save face, when what they should be doing is fixing the problem by adding more diversity to characters in young adult literature.
— Mackenzie Brown is a pre-physiology freshman. Follow her @mac_brown01