All of the central characters in my YA novel are white. Yeah, sure, one of them isn’t human, one of them is bisexual, one of the secondary characters is trans, I address mental health issues to some extent. I tried to actively include things that could be othering to young people and have those people affected by them kick ass. I was careful to have female characters retain their agency regardless of romantic attachment. I avoided the icky cultural narratives of romanticizing quasi-abusive relationships as best I could. I thought I was doing pretty well on showing a variety of people doing awesome things.
And then I realized that all of these characters were white. They’re from different socio-economic backgrounds and some are immigrants and there’s an age gap between people who would sociologically be considered the same generation, so I got to address a bunch of things I find interesting. I don’t think about race a lot, because I don’t have to: I am white. I also try to deal with people as individuals, and when they mention something race-related (delicious collard greens their grandmother makes, or parents having a hilarious Mumbai/Halifax accent), that gets tagged in my head as something related to their culture of origin, much in the same category as my parents being hippie journalists.
That’s one of the reasons one of my characters is Polish: I think the idea of ‘white culture’ is crap, because there are so very many different cultures. But I’ve been reading a lot about social justice in the past year (thank you, Tumblr, I think), and have been reminded that having heroes that look like you is really, really important. Belle was my favourite Disney Princess because she looked the most like me (and also because I have an absurd weakness for that fairy tale).
So it kind of sucks that all of these characters are white. I didn’t set out to write a perfectly politically correct novel. But I kind of want to rewrite it so that one of my characters (the all-American football star) is African-American. So I am dithering.
Another part of the argument is that I don’t want him to be token, I don’t want him to be ‘just’ inclusion of people of colour. Additionally, I’d kind of envisioned him as an American mish-mash: part Ojibwe, part French, lots of German, some Lakota, some English, a fair portion of we’re-not-really-sure. Tanned and tall, but not particularly easily pinpointed in terms of subculture of origin. But he’d still read as white, so that would make him not particularly perfect as the All-American Hero.
There’s also the really tempting part that, if I’m not changing him, the book is ready to go. I started on this four years ago, so being done is a really, really tempting thought.