I went through elementary and middle school with the one friend that mattered: books. For those first years of my life, books filled the void where other friends would have been. I would be mistaken if I denied that the books I read then helped shape my personality today. The lack of influence from the real world is important in that, up until recently, my reality was based on the people I saw and the books I read. To make up for the real people, I read book after book about fictional ones. I lived through Harry Potter, Nancy Drew, Matilda, and the kids from The Mysterious Benedict Society, but I couldn’t help noticing that the girls with dark skin were not the main characters.
I grew up feeling as though I was alone. All of my favorite characters, so varied in personality, were white, whereas none of my favorite characters were people of color. I was never shown that I could be anything other than the stereotypes I saw. At the time, this was so strong in my mind that I can remember wanting to be white. I felt like I was wrong, like I didn’t deserve to be in the skin I was in, because I had never seen anyone else like me. No matter how many times I was told the color of my skin didn’t matter, it seemed obvious to me that I was neither white enough nor black enough to fit within the confines of the media I consumed.
I’m a mixed-race suburbanite who went to a predominantly white public school. As long as I can remember, people have been asking me what I’m “mixed with,” why I “talk so white,” and “how my hair gets like that.” The questions were alienating. I was treated like a novelty, which, in my eyes, confirmed my identity issues.
If you’re white, you’re represented everywhere; books, movies, television, even the news. There is significantly less representation for minorities, and much of it is negative or unrealistic. I saw so much that I identified with in the white representations, but the only part of the minority representations I identified with was skin color. I was a strange mix of assumed cultures, and I never got the approval I needed to blend in. Because of this, I saw myself as an outsider, and everyone else who seemed just fine with themselves became an elite inner-circle.
At the same time, I walked past every book on the library bookshelf that featured a person of color on the cover, because I didn’t think I could relate. I didn’t do this consciously—it was a force of habit; a trend taught to me by all the other examples of books I had seen. In the midst of my identity crisis, it would have been nice to read about people who were more like me.
It’s important to have characters of color written just as complexly as all the other characters—they should be everything from brainiacs to cheerleaders, to dancers, to gamers, to athletes and every hybrid in between. That said, just having the characters isn’t quite enough. An integral part of these characters should be having them go through the same barriers that most kids of color have to face. If not for the kids who need it most, then for the kids who may never have the opportunity to meet someone like going through that stuff in real life.
I’m excited that the need for representation of all kinds is beginning to become an issue in the spotlight. If I had had the opportunity to read more books featuring kids of color, perhaps I wouldn’t have been so uncomfortable with myself. And, perhaps, some of the prejudices that surrounds people of color would be less prevalent. For now, though, I’m content that the conversation on diversity in literature is taking place.
I thank Walter Dean Meyers, author of the article, “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books,” for this excellent quote:
“As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. I didn’t want to become the ‘black’ representative, or some shining example of diversity. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me.”
Morgan Baker is a sophomore in high school. She keeps herself busy with dance, music, writing, and learning all she can about the world around her. She is an avid fan of any movie that includes singing as a major feature, and is not ashamed to sing along loudly.