Many a book-lover is made in childhood, minted by the first books she gets her hands on in that precious, impressionable first decade and a half. I was definitely one of those indoctrinated into book-nerd-dom at a freakishly young age. Leo the Lop, about a misfit rabbit with floppy ears instead of the pointy ears of his fellow litter-mates, was one of my first favorites. And I have no doubt that there is a crushingly obvious reason why a book about looking different was one of my early favorites.
From there, it was a blur of books with blonde princesses, valiant white heroes, and red-headed, freckled misfits on various misadventures, heroics, and lesson-driven quests. At the time, I was dazzled by all the worlds and wonders and different ways of living that I saw in all of these books — from Harriet the Spy’s covert lifestyle to the harshness of an English boarding school in A Little Princess (Leigh Anderson points out some of the racist problematic-ness in that novel in her own exploration of race in children’s books over at Vox).
I remember reading exactly one children’s book that featured women of color — Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, about two beautiful young African women vying to become the queen of some unnamed African country. With exactly zero context as of yet as to what this “Africa” place really was and how I was connected to it (I wasn’t yet at an age or in a school where there were enough white kids to hear the “go back to Africa” insults just yet), still I clung to the book for dear life, reading it over and over and imagining this distant world where magical kings reigned and African queens wore their hair in cornrows like me. After the standard period of early childhood obsession, I moved on, back to the books that populated the library shelves, back to the long-haired, pretty, white heroines and their adventures in a world that looked like them.
Bizarrely, despite living in a black and Latino neighborhood with nearly zero white people, it somehow never really crossed my mind that it wasn’t perfectly normal that none of the characters in the books I was reading looked like me. I might not have realized it consciously then, but the consequences of my heavily monochromatic reading list showed themselves in other ways. Years later, I can easily identify the sometimes hilarious, usually messed up ways that this early whitewashed literary education affected my formative years… and, well, the many years after that, some of them (like my love-hate relationship with my natural hair) even lingering through to today. Being a young bookworm, you learn a lot about the world, about history, society, about the way people behave, but by ingesting a plethora of books in which characters of color are non-existent, marginalized, or misrepresented, you learn a lot of... other things, too.
Here are some of the things I never knew I was learning from my early years as a reader of POC-lacking literature"
Stories — All Stories — Are About White People... Or, You Know, Animals
Like so many early bookworms, I ventured into writing my own (definitely super-terrible) stories very early on. I wrote stories about a girl who lived in the zoo, about a band of princess sisters who ran away from home and defended themselves against witches, a story about a young girl who became a bold reporter at the ripe age of 10, and even one about a young girl living through the Salem Witch Trials. My heroines always had different personalities and backgrounds, and led vastly different lives all over the historical timeline. But they were always, always white.
I, like any child writer, was basically making the characters into magical versions of myself, using my own experiences and personality. But, still, the characters were always white. I didn’t notice this until later. But it makes sense, doesn’t it? At an age where imitation is everything, I learned that stories were only written about white characters, so even when I wrote about my own life, made up my own characters, the heroines in my mind was always white.
Beautiful or Heroic Women Are Thin, With Long, Straight Hair and Colorful Eyes
It was shockingly early that I began to hide my thick thighs under baggy jeans and pull at my kinky hair to try to straighten it out. There was nothing I could do about my dark brown, almost jet black eyes, but I ached for the day I would be old enough to buy colored contact lenses, and, since I still kinda believed in magic, I sometimes even went full-on Pecola Breedlove (from The Bluest Eye) and imagined one day I’d just wake up with “pretty,” colorful eyes; it didn’t matter what color really, just any color that wasn’t brown. I didn’t even really think I was ugly (there were plenty of boys at my mostly black school that countered that), but somehow, subconsciously, I thought my real adventure wouldn’t begin until these “flaws” were corrected. With all that magic in the stories I read, I actually thought these traits would just naturally “resolve” themselves.
Romance Is For White People
Unless, of course, there’s a brown character of the opposite sex, in which case the two brown characters basically have a duty to get together and have an underwhelming, barely side-noted romance. And this idea, backed by the notion that beautiful meant white, straight-haired, and thin, seeded in me a pathology in which I actually felt that finding love meant I had to find a white guy (yep, he had to be white) who might like me (of course, this would happen naturally after my hair magically straightened out and my eyes changed color...).
Black People Are “An Experience” for White People
The book that perfectly sums this up: Sweet Valley High #94: Are We In Love? In this “daring” installment of the Sweet Valley High series, we meet the very first black character ever to appear in the series, Nina Harper. And it is an ordeal for the popular twin sister and everybody else in the perfect little high school. You see, Nina, with her short kinky hair and brown skin, manages to bag herself a white boyfriend. The students, including the twins, all promptly gasp and cast side-eye and must go through the oh-so-challenging ordeal of sorting out for themselves just how moral and upstanding they are by accepting this interracial couple.
Nina is barely a character at all. She’s just something the Wakefield sisters have to “go through” to learn something valuable about themselves. Oh, and on top of that, in the end Nina realizes she doesn’t actually love this white guy, but was just using him to make a point, so she ends up dating the only other black character to appear (pretty briefly) in the series (see point No. 3). There are, of course, more famous examples of this "experience" treatment of minorities... anyone read Huck Finn?
Physical Traits That Mark You As Different Or Ugly Mean Red Hair, Freckles, Glasses…
Think Ramona Quimby or Pippi Longstalking. They’re quirky, weirdo characters and their “non-traditional” beauty marks them as such. As a minority reader used to books pretty much pretending the likes of me didn’t even exist, I adored these characters. And I admit that, once I started attending schools and social situations where white people were more abundant, this “rule” definitely influenced who I sought out as friends. Little did I know, freckles and red hair hardly made for an exact similarity of experience.
A Minority Character Is Always The Exception to the Rule
In Little House On The Prairie, the Ingalls family makes it perfectly clear that they don’t like Native Americans. But, of course, there’s the exception, the “noble” chief who’s one of the “good ones.” There’s no doubting Little House On The Prairie is just pretty racist. But this “exception” idea is hardly restricted to dated novels from the '30s.
Got Curves/Large Breasts/Dark Eyes/Dark Hair? You’re Probably a Villain...
There are, of course, exceptions. But let’s also not lose sight of the fact that these physical markers didn’t mean these stories were making characters of color into villains. Oh no, usually, there were no characters of color at all. These curvy, dark-haired villainesses were white, as well. Think Mrs. Trunchbull in Matilda, think Mrs. Coulter’s “sleek black hair” in His Dark Materials, think of every classic Disney Villain ever. One notable exception (at least on the dark-haired thing) is The White Witch and other pale, white-haired villains in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.
There Can Only Be One… And She Can’t Be The Main Character
Do I even have to point this one out? If there is a character of color in the story at all, she will be the only person of her ethnicity in the story at all, and she will most certainly not be the one who saves the day. The exception, of course, being when the character of color needs a significant other… (see No. #3… again). Most kids tend to imagine themselves as the heroes of their own lives; hell, most people do that. I did, too, at least until I started attending a school where I was one of the few kids of color. Suddenly, even though I was still identifying with the heroes in the books I was reading, in real life, I literally saw myself as an accessory — a side-kick, the exotic “flavor” in the circles of my white friends. Seriously. This is also probably around the time I started opting for more of a “loner” status so I could go back to being my own protagonist.
So... where does that leave us?
Happily, there are slightly more diverse books these days and all sorts of initiatives to increase diversity in children’s and young adult books, and the push for more diverse books is no small thing. Seriously, do you not see all the potential for some serious therapy sessions in this article? Luckily for me, my love of books continued, and I began to see the glaring lack of my own experience reflected in the books I was reading. I started seeking out books with any characters of color at all, crossing my fingers for a lead character.
The first book I ever read that was actually about a black American woman was Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis (now called Lilith’s Brood), and I was way, waaay too young to be reading a book that was not only a serious behemoth of a book, but was also… full of alien sex. My mother raised an eyebrow when I hoisted that beast onto the bookstore counter, but when she saw the thick-haired brown woman on the cover, she just pushed the book to the clerk and I took home the first book I would really treasure — the first book, ironically, that made me feel less alien in the world of literature I had so fallen in love with. I don’t think Octavia Butler’s author photo was even included on the jacket of the book, since it wasn’t until years later that I even know the author was black as well, and that little discovery changed everything.
But that's a whole other story...
Images: Warner Bros. Pictures; Giphy (1); Courtesy of Crystal Paul