Dear Readers - Have You Been White-Washed?

31/08/2016 16:59
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I'm a bookaholic. I love reading and I also like to spend time browsing and searching for my next good read. The trouble is, I'm faced with a very restricted choice because we readers are being whitewashed. The bookshelves are full of books and those books are all full of white characters. In fact, white characters are in such powerful dominance we probably haven't even noticed.

If I go into any high street bookshop, I shall be confronted by rows and rows of book covers with pictures of white people on them. The bestseller shelves are lined with books that are full of white main characters. In fact, this is such a pervasive and never-ending trend, that when most readers start reading a book, they automatically assume that the characters they're reading about are going to be white.

It's an unconscious bias and we tend not to think about it. But we should.

Probably there are many readers who've never even read a book with a black main character, and one of the reasons might be because finding a book with a black main character is a struggle. Likely I shall have to search out a 'specialised' section for fiction with themes of 'race and identity'. There are several well-known titles that come to mind (The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Beloved by Toni Morrison, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou). These books are iconic and wonderful but the thing is, I want contemporary, mainstream books with black characters not books that have race as a specific theme.

Why can't I find a recent thriller with an Asian protagonist? Or a romance with a black woman as the main character? Or a popular woman's fiction read of the last few years with a posse of diverse characters? Or a mystery with a person of colour as the detective? I could go on and on, because so few books exist with racially diverse characters. There is so little choice. I shall have to hunt high and low for the one or two titles with diverse characters that exist, amongst the sea of white. Likely, some readers have simply given up on their search and settled for a diet of white books.

I shall be honest - being offered the same type of white characters again and again is starting to annoy me. Why can't we have more black heroines? More main characters who are people of colour? Can you even think of a book you've read with a diverse main character? Asian? Chinese? A character with a different mind-set to the usual tropes? With a different world view?

When I'm selecting a book to read, I'm looking for something exciting, intriguing, a novel that's smoothly written and liked by other readers who enjoy the sort of novels that I like. I want a story that can pull me into another world.

I think many readers enjoy variety. Or would enjoy variety, if more of it were on offer. We don't want to read about the same type of people all the time. We like the insights and surprises we discover when we read about characters with other world views, and who come from different backgrounds. In fact, discovery is one of the great joys of reading.

I think it's about time the mainstream bookshelves reflected the mix and diversity that actually exists in society. I think it's time that diverse characters, with racially diverse backgrounds and parentage and histories, finally found their way onto our contemporary bookshelves in the 'main' sections - women's fiction, romance, thriller, mystery, suspense, science fiction, chick-lit.

This hasn't yet happened simply because not enough books like that are being published. This is not, I believe, because they're not being written.

This scarcity needs to be addressed. We need more good books, well written, with diverse characters and great stories. I believe this will give us insights and surprises. We'll make little discoveries when we read about characters with different world views. I think this will add enjoyment to our reading experience and a dose of texture and flavour to our current, bland diet of white books. It's time for more discovery and a more open attitude in the world of book publishing. Let's have more choice on our bookshelves.


Footnote on terminology - there are plenty of different terminologies in use. For instance, in the UK, we tend to use 'black and minority ethnic'. In the USA, the current terminology is 'people of color'. Non-white or non-Caucasian are sometimes also used. In this article, I've used these different terminologies interchangeably. (Remember - the terminology is much less important than the spirit of the inquiry.)