There’s a certain line I dread reading in reviews of books featuring black characters.
“She might as well have been white.”
It steals my breath a little every time. Because it means so many things. It means that the person who said that has a set of criteria by which they’re judging these characters. A stereotype that they’re holding these black characters up against. If racism isn’t a main thread in your book, they’re disappointed. If your characters don’t talk exclusively in whatever way they consider to be “authentically black” then you lose points. They can believe in dragons, in vampires, in mermaids, but a black character in a middle class home who worries about friends and her weekend job is just too much of a stretch.
It’s exhausting. And it’s a little heartbreaking. I don’t write my books to educate white people. I don’t know that many of my fellow black YA authors do, either. Maybe there are things you can learn in our books, yes, but that’s not the entire point of them. They’re not purely for consumption by white readers, so white readers can begin to humanize us. But that’s how it feels, often.
“She might as well have been white.”
It feels as if there is a list of things our characters can’t do, because it will invalidate their authenticity. Being a drama kid. A ballet dancer. A girl in a punk band. A photographer. A witch. A hunter. A spaceship pilot. Simply being queer. People will read about those characters and where their white counterparts are lauded as “breaking the mold”, “feminist and strong”, “shattering ceilings”, our characters instead get “didn’t connect”. People can suspend their disbelief to read about dragon riders and teenage assassins, but make those assassins black and it’s so often a step too far.
You can’t put black people in a box. We are ballerinas (Misty Copeland), tennis players (Serena Williams), cellists (Sheku Kanneh-Mason), performers (Lizzo), professors, lawyers, hair stylists, nail artists. Yet when we try to represent these multitudinous realities in fiction, we are policed and criticized and diminished.
Do this for me: think of a music YA—or any other popular contemporary YA theme. Road trip. Bucket list. Secret admirer.
Now—how many of them featured black main characters? Did any of them? How long did it take you to think of them? How many books with white main characters did you think of before you got there?
Publishing is slow, in every sense of the word. It’s getting better, step by tiny step, at showing an increasing number of black leading characters, but we still face pushback when we dance too far outside the lines people keep trying to draw around us.
In my upcoming book This Is What It Feels Like, two of the lead characters are black girls. They play punky music with guitars and loud drums. They like Aaliyah and Biggie, too—and Carly Rae Jepsen. They call out that ignorant people look at them as oddities, and they subtly call out other instances of microaggressions in their lives, but racism is not a high-level theme in the book. So I know that some people will come away saying they didn’t “learn” enough, that they wish there’d been more “culture”, that it “just seemed unrealistic”.
That “she might as well have been white.”
But those girls are not white. They play in a band—that’s not exclusive to white characters. They fight and fall in love and do what so many other characters in much –loved YA books do, without ever being called “inauthentic” or “unrealistic”.
When white readers say such things, they often mean that the character’s blackness didn’t add anything to the story. But one—why should it? And two—how can you know that? What makes you qualified to say that a character’s blackness didn’t add anything to a story? You think that because they didn’t talk about racism or hate crimes or slavery that they weren’t including anything black? Because we so often are, and it’s easy for white readers to miss these things—the quick references to hair wash day, silk scarves, how my characters rarely blush but instead have warm faces, because our skin shows that feeling in so many different ways.
But back to the first question—why does my character being black need to carry something extra along with it in order to justify their existence? Why am I laying out the things I write in that you might not notice, as if they need to exist for the book to qualify as real, as if my characters simply existing while black isn’t enough? When I think about these things, I end up asking myself painful questions: am I not valued because I don’t fit a certain person’s stereotype? Is my own personal story unbelievable? If I wrote a fictionalized version of me, would the reviews say I might as well have been white?
Like I said, publishing is slow. Every week some other genre or trope is declared dead, but black people haven’t even had a chance to scratch the surface. Maybe people are bored of princess fantasies and love-triangle contemps and coming-out stories but—we’ve spent so long fighting to get even the smallest slice of representation, and now we see opportunities vanishing before us. All I want is for us to be able to write ourselves as whatever we want to be—dancers, knights, doctors, rappers, science geniuses, athletes, vampires and vampire slayers.
For me, writing two black girls in a punk band was pure wish fulfillment, and not something I would have dared to write without those who have opened doors for me—Brandy Colbert and Theo, Nina LaCour and Emi, Malorie Blackman and everyone. And nothing fills my heart more than seeing my fellow black and mixed race authors carrying this on to the future—Ashley Woodfolk with The Beauty That Remains, Carlie Sorosiak with If Birds Fly Back, Kristina Forest with I Wanna Be Where You Are, Justin Reynolds with Opposite of Always, Karen Strong with Just South of Home.
I hope these books and authors continue to flourish so that ten years from now, “she might as well have been white” is replaced by my favourite review phrase: “I felt like she could have been me.”