How Assumedly White Characters are a Disservice to, well, Everyone

photo via natello-universe.tumblr.com

By Hannah Cuthbertson

I’ve convinced myself that if Buzzfeed was a real, living person, that person would be me.  Their posts are funny, they put these sticker like things on their best articles that just say “YASS”, and there’s a plethora of cat memes.  I am Buzzfeed.  Buzzfeed is me.

But, all humor aside, I came across a post a few weeks ago called, “What a ‘racebent’ Hermione Granger Really Represents”.  Quick disclaimer: I’ve never actually read the series (I know I know, shame on me.  I’m getting around to it, don’t worry).  But I am a fan of the movies, and of writing in general, and of Buzzfeed.  In the article, biracial Buzzfeed community member Alanna Bennet pulls from Tumblr artistry in an effort to imagine Hermione as African American, and even goes on to say: “As I grew up I stopped comparing myself as much to Hollywood actors and tried to train myself out of seeing white as the default for fictional characters.”

At the time, I thought it was just an interesting take on a topic I hadn’t known much about.  This was, afterall, my first exposure to “racebent” characterization, and it led me down a winding internet path of all sorts of things- Disney princesses as races other than what had been originally depicted, book characters, movie characters.  It was fascinating, interesting, and just kind of neat to think about because, to be honest, I hadn’t thought of it at all before.

It should be known that I spent my childhood in a southern Alaskan suburb where racism and discrimination seemed virtually nonexistent.  I was lucky enough to be raised in a safety net of equality, and those values will be with me for the entirety of my life.  Of course, I noticed that the African American girl that lived across the street from me, whom I rode bikes with frequently, looked different than me.  But do you know who else looked different than me?  My tall friend.  And my blonde friend.  And my friend with blue eyes and my friend with brown eyes and basically every other friend that I’ve ever had because (shocker!) I don’t have a twin.  My neighbors’ skin color, while yes, different than mine, was not a trait that differentiated them from me any more than any other physical trait, be it eye color or hair color, would differentiate me from anybody else.  People are people.  It really is that simple.

So imagine my surprise when we moved to a small(ish) town in Virginia which might as well have been the state’s very own Mason-Dixon line.  Go to ten minutes south of my old house and there are cowboy hats and confederate flags.  Go ten minutes north and everyone has an Obama-Biden bumper sticker on their car.   Calling my experience in the lower-forty-eight a culture shock would be quite the understatement.

Then, at the ripe age of eighteen, I packed my bags and came out to Missouri.  For the most part, I went my entire freshman year without discrimination ever really coming up.  I was (falsely) under the impression that my generation was smarter, better, and kinder than that of our grandparents and great-grandparents; that the confederate flags waving from the truck beds of high-schoolers in my county had been an abnormality.  The rest of the world couldn’t really be that bad, right?

Then, Ferguson happened.  And, more recently, the infamous SAE video hit the internet.  As a human being, I was appalled.  As a member of the Greek community, I was ashamed.

Not long after, two officers were shot in Ferguson.  Then, an African American student was arrested and beat outside a bar near UVA.

Suddenly, the Buzzfeed post about a “racebent” Hermione seemed less like a fun display of Tumblr art and more like a call to action.  I re-read it again, and, as someone who wants to be a writer, I was empowered.

In her Buzzfeed post, Bennet, multiple times, includes quotes from Dominican American writer Junot Diaz.  The most powerful, taken from a lengthy passage in her post, is this: “You guys know about vampires? … You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”

So I did some digging, and I found out just how much that reflection is denied thanks to a phenomenon called whitewashing.  Turns out, there are a plethora of Caucasian models on the covers of books that actually have racially ambiguous characters.  Now, maybe there is a theoretical advantage to writing racially ambiguous characters- if the author never identifies a race, then, in theory, everyone should be able to see themselves as that character, right?  But thanks to the cover art, media, film adaptations, and unfortunately, society, racially ambiguous characters are often assumedly white.  Which is a problem for so many reasons.

More disturbingly, much of this whitewashing occurs in children’s and young-adult literature.  Just last year, The New York Times published an article about this very issue, and cited research done by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center that found only 93 children’s books to be about African American characters out of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013.

This got me thinking about my own characters.  More often than not, the characters I write about are young and female.  Is it because I am young and female?  Probably.  But I am also white.  And while I can’t think of an instance where I’ve explicitly stated the race of one of my characters, it’s fair to say than anyone reading my work could make the assumption that they are Caucasian as well.

So then I asked myself- why don’t I state the race of my characters?  And am I doing something wrong by not explicitly including a diverse cast of characters?  Could I be doing something better?

The short answer is yes.

The longer answer is this: African Americans, along with every other race and demographic, shouldn’t have to turn to the internet to find “racebent” characters in order to identify with literature.  The creators of such literature should be creating characters that are vivid not only in their emotional grit but in their representation of the world and of people.  People, who are vivid and beautiful and inspiring no matter the color of the skin or their cultural identity.

So, moving forward, I am making it my mission to diversify my writing.  I am saying goodbye to assumedly white and racially ambiguous characters.  There will be characters who are vivid and real and who have stories that are vivid and real.  Because I do want to be published.  I do want to be an author, and it pains me to picture a little girl like Bennet once was, reading my book and not being able to see herself in a character that I created.

And, I hope, I’m not the only one.

Alanna Bennet’s original post can be found here and the New York Times article here.