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Reflected Faces

by Tanita Davis

“I always chose to ignore the weird feeling I got when I realized that, in my dreams, I was always, literally, a white knight.  When I dreamt I was a superhero, I was a white dude with superpowers and the Mary Jane to my Peter Parker was always white.  Even though I had a nagging feeling about it, I thought I was justified in my dreams because, hey, none of King Arthur’s knights were Asian and therefore my dreams wouldn’t be real if I dreamt otherwise.”
—Bao Phi, Performance Poet & Community Activist, as quoted in “NOCs: Nerds of Color” Jan. 2010 Minnesota “Your Voices” blog.

“When you grow up in an environment where you are always invisible, when everything associated with fun, good-looking and valued is white, you stop looking for yourself. Teens and children I know gravitate to what has been promoted to them — white kids having the kind of adventures they want.”
—Blogger Black-Eyed Susan, as quoted in “Kids of Color and the New American Whitewashing,” Bookslut, February 2010

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I usually stayed in the bathroom until about 1863.

I’d had lots of practice since junior high at gauging when it was safe to be in history class, and when I would be better served taking a brisk stroll to the beige and gray restroom up the hall. I was one of two African Americans in my Freshman class, and had about all I could take of feeling all the eyes in the room swiveling toward me as our history teacher droned on about the commoditization of human beings, the horrors of the Middle Passage, and the far-reaching cultural fragmentation of a people enslaved. The Emancipation Proclamation usually meant it was safe to come back.

I missed entire chunks of the formation of the United States this way. I couldn’t sit still through the Civil War, which was fought, we were taught, strictly over African Americans and the right to keep slaves. (Mea culpa.) I cringed over the cadaverous Lincoln, who was alleged to be the savior of the race. (We could not save ourselves.) I was blindsided the first time we covered the post-Civil War era in depth, but after seeing trees burdened with “strange fruit” dangling from twisted hemp, I knew enough to hear the word “Reconstruction,” snatch the hall pass, and run. Through cross burning, sheet-clad hatemongers and small Sunday shoes flung with deadly force from a bombed out church in Birmingham, I sat balanced on the back of cold white porcelain, my feet tucked up to avoid Mrs. Henry’s bathroom checks, and read my English anthology, uneasy with the past, and longing to escape into an alternate present.

It was a very distorted mirror in which I saw myself as a young adult. Sports and entertainment icons were not included in my history courses, and those were where most positive—or at least neutral— portrayals of African American life could be found. In textbooks and books passed around among students, the only brown faces I saw were those of oppression: slaves in chains, caricatures in blackface, lynched men, migrant laborers, maids, and dead civil rights workers. It was as if I didn’t exist, not even as a sidekick in a Sweet Valley High novel.

Present day high school students don’t face quite this same disadvantage. The multicultural landscape has flowered, and varicultured characters have flowed into the mainstream. Young adult fiction has benefited from this largess in the form of characters who have charmed, disgusted, amused, and informed us, and widened our reading world. And yet….

Yet, it still seems as if young people with brown skin are acceptable to ignore, at least in the marketing departments where the Powers That Be have determined that Brown doesn’t equal Buy. The distorted mirror is still with us, as long as the assumption remains that characters of color on the cover of a book discourage Caucasian buyers. With every “Race fail” situation that results in a whitewashed Earthsea or Liar or Powers or Magic Under Glass or White Cat—with every refusal of publishers to recognize that young people of color read, and seek representations of themselves and their lives in their literature, the mirror further distorts. Somewhere, there’s a high school student escaping to the bathroom, disregarding the importance of an appreciation for literature, as it offers him or her only the rarest opportunity for self recognition.

This may seem unimportant—at least young adults of color are included in contemporary YA literature. They’re IN the books, and so if the nonwhite characters don’t make it to the cover as often, at least there are nonwhite characters, right? Shouldn’t that be sufficient when Caucasians comprise two thirds of the American population? We shouldn’t expect anyone to cater to the minority group.

And yet, a minority, while a smaller part, is still a vital part of the whole. Allowing young people the opportunity to see themselves as members of society, integral to and depicted as part of their world, on the covers of the books that they read, hardly constitutes catering or preferential treatment. Denying young people this chance for self-recognition underscores a deeply divisive message from the dominant culture, a message of “we are, and we are MORE,” which in the end becomes a continual reenactment of white supremacy. This omission allows the insidious message of “you brown children don’t matter” to become louder and more commonplace from a source that should be celebrating their potential. Avoidance of the faces of minority readers trumpets the message, “We OWN this. Literature is OURS. It is not a Brown thing. It is not YOUR thing.”

Most of us, I believe, would very much like reading to be every young adult’s “thing.” We are not writers, teachers, librarians, and bookpeople because we want young people to go find something else to do. Nor are you, fair-skinned reader, responsible for the idea of white supremacy. It predates you by some several hundred years, and I am not trying to force anyone into a hair shirt comprised of the unnatural fibers of guilt and reparations. Mirror distortions happen. “Othering” happens. Where we bear responsibility in the present day is in allowing race to be reconstructed as a barred gate to the imagination, when it should be as common and integral to the function of inclusiveness as the hinges holding open that door.

Adults argue that a brown model on the cover of a book for young readers indicates a book about “minority issues,” which will hinder sales. We must discard the assumption that the presence of a minority on a book will confront YA’s with “issues” which they find boring, unpleasant and inconvenient. We must abandon the idea of a “minority issue” as something trivial and strange that has nothing to do with them—or us. Worlds overlap; a true mirror reflects a humanity which shares a commonality of experience regardless of color.

When we accept that our “issues” are shared, we will abandon this indefensible and marketing-dictated elitism. Our young adults will see themselves and their peers in their literature, and embrace the multitude of stories—and faces—diversifying our world.


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To read more YA and Children’s Literature, click here.

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Guest Post: Steampunk/Alt History Week Living in Color
December 23, 2010 at 2:15 pm

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Laura Purdie Salas June 10, 2010 at 1:40 pm

Beautifully said, Tanita. I especially love:

“Worlds overlap; a true mirror reflects a humanity which shares a commonality of experience regardless of color.”

Thanks for sharing your experiences and making me think about this in a new way.

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Sara Lewis Holmes June 10, 2010 at 4:18 pm

One of the reasons I read is to feel like I’m not trapped in my own little stall anymore. See? We have the same “issues.” :)

I really like the way you put this:
“Othering” happens. Where we bear responsibility in the present day is in allowing race to be reconstructed as a barred gate to the imagination, when it should be as common and integral to the function of inclusiveness as the hinges holding open that door.

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jama June 10, 2010 at 5:00 pm

Brilliant, eloquently stated, and painfully true.

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Ari June 10, 2010 at 11:25 pm

Amen! Thank you for writing and sharing this. It’s right-on.

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Laura June 11, 2010 at 4:12 pm

I second Ari’s amen. You’ve put this all so eloquently. It’s not about blame, but recognition and active efforts to change and move forward.

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Doret June 11, 2010 at 6:45 pm

Beautiful, very true and well said.
Thank you.

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Tarie June 12, 2010 at 4:47 am

The story of you escaping to the bathroom breaks my heart. Especially since you are right: there are students today escaping to the bathroom disregarding the importance of literature.

Thank you for writing this. I would love to see children’s and teen book covers reflect the rich diversity of our world. ALL young readers should think of literature as “their thing.”

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Andromeda Jazmon June 13, 2010 at 5:55 am

YES! I love how you’ve expressed these truths. Thank you!

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Mary Lee June 13, 2010 at 6:21 am

My favorite paragraph is the “hair shirt” paragraph. Race and inclusiveness as the hinges on the door of imagination–BRILLIANT. (The whole essay is, but especially that part…)

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adrienne June 13, 2010 at 10:01 am

I worry about these issues a lot in my Children’s Room. I feel like at a very basic level there are just not enough books being published that feature characters who are nonwhite, but I also feel like there aren’t enough with characters who believe in a variety of religions, who are being raised by same-sex parents, who are adopted. The list could go on. It seems to me that the basic appeals of reading have to do with imagining different ways you could live and getting glimpses into lives that are in ways unlike your own. Not having a rich variety of characters on covers and in the books themselves denies young people something really fundamental.

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Tameka Fryer Brown June 15, 2010 at 11:28 am

Thank you for writing this, Tanita. Thank you so much.

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Jeannine Atkins June 15, 2010 at 5:51 pm

Tanita, This opened my eyes to much of importance, but especially that girl hiding in the bathroom during certain years in history. I won’t forget her. Thank you.

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tanita June 16, 2010 at 10:42 am

Thank you, guys, for chiming in on the conversation. I so appreciate not just throwing this out here to silence!!

Adrienne, I fully agree with you. Colleen Mondor once said something along the same lines, about YA literature succumbing to a sort of one-note thing where everybody’s got the same kind of parents who work the same kind of job, and do the same things at home — making Caucasian characters a sort of boringly homogeneous muddle, and othering any other group into something wildly exoticized.

We need to reflect the faces of who we are — shades of color, styles of living, all of it — or else we fail in reflecting the world as it is, and as it should be. Period.

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Elizabeth Simms June 17, 2010 at 11:05 am

The truths written here speak to so much in my heart. Where the dominant culture has NO IDEA that there is anything wrong with what is being portrayed. That having a non-Caucasian character on the cover makes the assumption that the subject covers racial “issues” ??? What about the fact that a non-Caucasian can have the same “issues” ??? Like not finding friends, like not have a boy/girl like them, etc. The list goes on. That “we” are so different that “our” story is inherently different that only people of our racial group (which is a social contruct) will be interested. Thank you for speaking out loud about this issue. Only when we say thing out loud do they become acknowledged. There can be no change without voice.

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Aths June 18, 2010 at 7:53 am

Thank you for this amazing post! I grew up similar to this, and it was no fun. But in my case it wasn’t race-based, but color-based, since I grew up among Indians. The fairer-skinned strutted around, looking down upon the darker-skinned. Luckily that perception has mostly changed now, thanks to some eminent dusky-skinned actresses.

I strongly feel that changing the attitude from the inside is the way to go. We NEED more colored people on book covers. We NEED readers to understand that a colored person on the cover is not an indication that the book is of serious content.

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Carrie Jones June 18, 2010 at 9:23 am

I am so glad you write, Tanita. What a poignant, exceptional piece.

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tanita August 2, 2010 at 5:04 am

Aths, isn’t it ironic how that color thing works. Many of us don’t realize that when we do that, we are defaulting toward some dominant culture/Eurocentric ideal, and unfortunately, a lot of the covers I see with brown people on them default to that as well — the lighter the model, the less uneasy people feel.

That’s kind of crazy, isn’t it? SO much beauty in the world, and we deny so much of it.

Thanks, all of you guys, for stopping by and continuing to be a part of the discourse on this important subject.

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