Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Why Are Our Main Characters Always Nearly White?

I wasn't going to write this today. I was going to write this once I knew how to write this better. I didn't want this post to feel either like I was screaming into the void, preaching to the choir or saying this and have someone going "You Racist B******!"

But before I go further, if I offend anyone reading this post, I didn't intent to upset or offend. If I did, please accept my apologise and I won't do it again.

I first thought of this just after I read I'll Give You The Sun for the South Bank Centre's YA Book Club. I read the book, I enjoyed the book, I wrote my review, I was excited to talk about this book. But a few days after finishing the book and before the Book Club day, I suddenly thought "Why did I imagine these characters as white?". There was a reason for this sudden thought. But I went "Ok, why? Why did I do that?"

The reason, at the time, was simple. I related to Noah, a young man who was struggling with his sexuality, and as someone who has been in that situation, I saw him as a younger me and, because of this, his family (his twin sister and his parents) were white in my head. I didn't ever really give it much thought, nor did I with two other characters - Noah and his sister's love interest. They popped into my head as white.

But there was another character - an artist called Guillermo - who I imagined being of Hispanic. But it unnerved me that my brain made that jump. That I saw these characters as white.

There was no line within this book that said Noah, his parents, his sisters, their love interest were white. So why did my brain jump to that conclusion?

And that more I thought about it, the more I realised that this happens in books ALL THE TIME. I looked back over my books/audiobooks and I realised that unless the main character states that they are a person of colour, is shown to be a person of colour on the book's cover or the author is a person of colour themselves, the main character doesn't point out their skin colour which leads the reader to believe them to be white.

This also works with official art. In the case of reading Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl, I saw one of the characters - Reagan - as black. She wasn't described as black, but that is how I saw her. So, when I saw the official art that was published into my copy's front cover, I was shocked to see that Reagan was white. My reaction: "No. That is not Reagan." then I looked at all the characters "Are... are all these main characters white?"

This was stated much more beautifully in a recent episode of a podcast I listen to - Oh Witch Please. In this episode (full of Cursed Child spoilers), they talked about the casting of Noma Dumezweni as Hermione in the West End show and one of the hosts (I believe it was Hannah, correct me if I'm wrong) said this line:

"... and how revealing that was to so many of us of how we continue to treat whiteness as the status quo, whiteness as the default, that a character doesn't need to be marked as white but must be marked as non-white, and if you do not explicitly mark a character as a person of colour then it means that they are not and you are absolutely not allowed to imagine them that way."

This, to me, hits the nail on the head. Why must a character state "I am a person of colour. I am BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic)" but a character that doesn't is instantly classed as white? It's not stated, so why do we instantly think that?

Furthermore, what can we do to change this? Can authors do more? Can they make their leading characters a person of colour without the character stating something about their skin or remarking that the Police are going to stop search them (it's a sad fact that, in the UK, there is a higher chance of a person being stop search if that person is are black)? The author could call their character a name that shows to the reader that the character is a person of colour, but there are people who have traditional white names who are BAME so what should the author do then?

Is there something the book's editors and publishers do? Can they do more? Could they read a story and ask for there to be more diversity? But, if they do that, isn't that messing with the author's vision for the story? Is that a dangerous thing to do as, if this happens, storytellers would slowly begin to feel that they can only tell a story if they tick every box within diversity that their editor/publisher asks for?

Is there something we readers can do? Can we see this and instead of thinking "This character is white" without a moment's hesitation, we stop and go "Ok, let's blind cast this character" (Colour-blind casting [also known as non-traditional casting or integrated casting] is a term used in the media for "... practice of casting a role without considering the actor's ethnicity" and has been used in recent TV shows and movies, such as Grey's Anatomy, Merlin, Fantastic Four, The Dark Tower just to name a few)? 

I, sadly, have no answer. I wish I do, but I don't. Hence why I am writing this post. I wanted to talk about this and see if we could start a conversation. Figure it out together.

But what this has made me want to check my white privilege.


  1. This is so interesting, thank you for your post!!

  2. In response to the question of why do we do this.. I think it's a natural thing we do. In the same way, when I read anything, be it a book, or an online chat conversation, in my head it's a British accent. I even do this with chats with friends who I *know* are American.. I 'hear' it in British.

  3. A very thought provoking post - thanks for sharing :)