“why does it matter if the best books have white protagonists?”

“When A Popular List Of 100 ‘Best-Ever’ Teen Books Is The ‘Whitest Ever'”

Read the article and the comments. I’ll wait.

In place of what I actually want to write next, just imagine a big guy with a red face yelling a lot.


Let me explain myself in a more measured way.

I have this daughter. She’s real cute. I don’t hang out with her as much as I’d like, but enough that I can’t really tell whether she can pass for white. I think maybe she can’t — though she’s changing every day, so in the long term, who knows? But even if you don’t know her mama, she does, and she’ll figure the genetics out, like you do.

It’s going to be some time before she can read at all, and some more before she can read with any sophistication. So there’ll be a period in there where she doesn’t have any idea whether “race/skin color [is] important to the context of the stories being told,” or whether a story is “ABOUT being black or Indian or Asian-American and how tough it is.” But she will have some idea whether there’s anyone who looks like her, or like her mama, in the book. And if there isn’t, and there isn’t in the next book, and there isn’t in the book after that or the book after that, she’s going to notice.

Beyond that? I’ve probably spoken too much for her already. But I’m guessing she’s going to wonder why. And I’m guessing she’s going to wonder if there might not be something weird, or off, or not quite right, about being the way she is, since no one seems to want to write about those sorts of people.

I’m white. I’m not going to pretend I know how that feels. Maybe it’s not that bad. But I’m also not going to pretend that “I’m so special that no one will write about me!” is a likely outcome.

The brain is a statistical engine. Our conscious minds are shit at probability, but unconsciously, we soak it up. We automatically notice what’s amiss.

The brain is a social engine. What’s talked about — what’s in other people’s brains — is attractive and valuable. What’s ignored and hidden is shameful and worthless.

Is this difficult? Have I said anything anybody doesn’t know?


And, by the way, what is with all this speculation that maybe a huge chunk of kid’s books contain racially ambiguous protagonists? Did you ever notice that characters have a weird way of having names? My daughter, for example, one of my own movie’s main characters. Shin-Yi and I agreed (and here, by the way, I refer not to Shin-Yi O’Shaughnessy of Cork County, Ireland, nor to Shin-Yi Kvaratskhelia of the Republic of Georgia, but to my wife, Shin-Yi Lin, whose ancestry, it may shock you to learn, is mostly Han Chinese) way before she was born that, whatever her name was, it’d be part Chinese and part Western. And we loved Una for a first name, so her last name is Lin. So, go ahead, speak to me about how Hermione Hussein Granger was really Kenyan all along.

While we’re in Q&A time, I’d also like to understand how “Making such a big deal out of things like this keeps racism alive and well.” I’d like that explained to me in meticulous detail. Is the KKK marching in the streets outside the publishers’ offices in New York, burning crosses for greater racial diversity in YA literature? I did not receive that telegram. Perhaps there was a paper jam in my fax machine.


I couldn’t give a shit about basketball, truly I couldn’t, but I gave a shit about Jeremy Lin. (No relation.)

Look, I don’t get to pick who my daughter is. She gets more of a say, but she, too, is not without constraints. When I hear people being too cool for school about Jeremy Lin my fucking brain-pan overheats, because it matters if my daughter has a pro athlete for a role model. Not in my ideal world, maybe not in the world that will be, but in the world of weird wobbly possibility that obtains when your little girl is 11 months old and might, just might, find herself able and hungry to do literally any given thing at all, IT MATTERS.

I would have blown off Linsanity a year ago as well. Being a dad has made me hella more political, in the “identity politics” sense. I have probably jumped at shadows once or twice. I’m not sorry. Protip: Do not get me started on sexism.


I am actually not fussed at NPR’s response, by the way. I think the article was badly titled, the solution of flagging the popularity-contest nature of the thing with a better title is easy and obvious, and the matter can more or less rest there. No need for NPR to distort reality, as long as they call it what it is. The top sf & fantasy list was called “Your Picks.” I wasn’t happy that NPR’s audience couldn’t bring themselves to upvote a single author of color, or that NPR was too oblivious to notice that fact, but that’s what it is. NPR listeners’ picks, which elevated a piece of STAR WARS companion merch over Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany, but there you go.

It’s the self-satisfied complacency of the commentariat that’s nasty. Race is done, am I right? If you didn’t hear about it before it was cool, then it’s lamestream. (That’s right, you fuckers, I just called every one of you a hipster Sarah Palin.)

I don’t like the concept of “derailing.” I don’t like sniping over “privilege.” But I am starting to get where all this anger is coming from.

6 thoughts on ““why does it matter if the best books have white protagonists?”

  1. It’s especially tough to criticize when it’s user voted. I remember reading a critique of Times “100 Best Novels since blah blah blah” and it was talking about how many more men had been voted on than women, and specifically asked “Can anyone honestly tell me Fitzgerald’s ‘Tender is the Night’ is a better novel than ‘Beloved?’ — and I could only think, ‘Yes, I can!’

    “Tender” is my favorite book, and I didn’t enjoy “Beloved” at all. I’d have voted the same way, and I guess others did as well.

    But NO writers of color on a top 100? That’s just suspect.

  2. I agree that it’s hard to complain too much about the list, hence the ante-penultimate paragraph — people said what they said. And I think that some combination of (a little bit of) the ranking system and (mostly) the respondents led to the result; NPR’s bad move was to sanctify it with “best,” which the ombudsman has eagerly walked back. It’s the comments that really sent me into time-wasting rant mode. I wonder if NPR isn’t somehow importing commenters from YouTube.

    At least YA doesn’t suffer from the sexism problem. (Unless it does — that was me totally assuming. But, based on no information other than occasional perusal of the relevant shelf in Barnes & Noble, women seem to be on equal footing in YA.)

  3. I wrote a big ol’ post and then deleted it. It was too unwieldy. In short, I hear where you’re coming from, and agree with you.

    I’m about to release a trilogy whose protagonist is a young african american woman. Her love interest is an asian/white american. It’s set in cities that have been ceded to vampires for them to rule as fiefdoms, and I’ve modeled these cities on post-hurricane katrina new orleans–though with vampires instead of floods. As such, almost everybody involved is a person of color.

    It’s a lot more nuanced and thought out than that brief paragraph might make it seem, but I’m nervous about what kind of reception it’s going to get. Not from people who would prefer to see a white protagonist, but rather from people who might accuse me of cultural appropriation or not ‘getting it right’. I don’t know. I’m writing the story as best I can, but it feels like very thin ice I’m walking on.

    • Hey Phil. Thanks for the comment. Your situation (which is also my situation) is of course part of the problem — not in the sense that we’re writing in anything less than good faith, just that we’re a bit epistemically disadvantaged. We see fewer people of color in fiction and in life than we do white people; our understanding of their lives and personalities is inevitably more inflected by stereotypes; our own whiteness likely puts some people of color on their guard when they’re around us. There are worse problems to have, of course, but this is a problem and we have it.

      I guess my read on the issue is that anything worth doing is worth doing badly. I know not everyone agrees. And I can totally understand the idea that, at any given decision point, a writer might feel that he/she is capable of making better art with a character of his/her own race (, gender, sexual orientation, creed, color, power animal), and that at least some of the overall whitewashing of fiction emerges from the million-times-multiplied influence of that basically benign artistic intention. But there are obvious reasons to resist that influence. The outcome itself is one of them, and that’s something that’s become more salient to me as the father of a girl who may not present as white. But the other is a principle that people who are serious about art generally recognize, and that is that it’s good to work on one’s weaknesses, and sometimes that requires making things worse so they can get better. Making a safe artistic decision is sort of like gradient descent — it’s easy to get stuck at a local optimum even when there are better places in the search space, if only you’d looked. If you can’t write dialogue, for example, you have to find some sort of balance point between avoiding your weaknesses (so you can sell work, or just so you can have the satisfaction of writing things that are good) and remediating them. The political freight adds some extra pungency to this particular issue, but it is at root a technical one.

      Anyway, presumably we agree on much of the above, since you’ve clearly found it worthwhile to attempt a protagonist of color. The post was really targeted at the suggestion that the NPR results represent a perfectly unobjectionable situation. I’m happy to admit that I don’t have the philosopher’s stone. What I don’t like is when people point at lead and call it gold.

      • I may simply quote you on my site when it comes time to explaining my authorial decisions. And yes, we agree on these issues.

        I’ve just deleted some stuff I wrote. After rereading it, I found it unnecessary; I was mostly just continuing to agree with you at length. So let my first agreement suffice!

  4. Pingback: prolegomenon to “the american infant as manic pixie dream girl” « the pulchrifex papers

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