Ethnic diversity in books: Is it black and white?


I have been feeling especially empowered by my race recently. The #BlackandBritish season on the BBC has served to teach me things about black history that I wasn’t aware of as well as set free feelings of pride of being both black and British. Alongside this, Alex Wheatle, the first black author I ever read, became the 50th winner of the Guardian’s Children’s Fiction Prize.

As a young girl growing up, I was always struck by the lack of characters that looked like me in the books I read. I would often imagine my favourite characters as black, Matilda was black, Mildred, The Worst Witch was black too. This took a good degree of imagination and wasn’t something I always managed to adhere to. It was hard when the author would describe their appearance or you were presented with an illustration of said character but I tried anyway.

It has led me to the following question:

Is there really a lack of diversity in publishing?

It’s difficult to gain a clear picture of the current representation in British children’s books as tracking of this kind hasn’t been carried out in the UK. However, in the USA, in 2013, 93 of 3,200 children’s books published were about black people. And it goes beyond that, I would be hard pressed to think of many children’s or YA books which feature Pakistani, Chinese or Japanese protagonists, let alone those with disabilities. I’m sure the thought is that if you are writing about a minority, you are selling to a minority—something publishers obviously do not want.

Some will argue that we are doing so much better than we were before.

We have lead protagonists who are homosexual, transgender, protagonists with disabilities and protagonists from all kinds of ethnicities. Yet these are still in the minority and I feel we have a long way to go.

Is representation important?

Last week, I was bemused to have a tweet shared with me about this year’s John Lewis Christmas advert, which features a black family. A woman had seen this advert and felt the need to write a letter of complaint admonishing the brand for featuring a black family as “white Brits are STILL the majority in the UK“. Whether this tweet was racist or not wasn’t my concern (spoiler alert: it is), it was more the idea that because white people are in the majority, the woman felt black people didn’t deserve representation in the media.

The idea of telling a black child that there aren’t characters who look like her in books because they are more people who don’t look like her in society is something I am uncomfortable with. Children seeing representations of themselves in the media allows them to open their minds about what they are able to achieve.

When Barack Obama became president, it taught black boys that world leadership was something they could aspire to. When John Boyega became Finn in the new Star Wars film, it gave black children one of the first prominent black action figures to play with.

Former Children’s Laureate and YA author, Malorie Blackman, was met with a lot of backlash when she raised the issue of a lack of diversity in publishing in 2014. She states that she once had a bookseller say to her, “‘Your books are just for black children and we don’t have that many black children in this area‘” Are books with black characters only for black people? I don’t think so.

It is important for all children to see differences in the characters they read; to know that differences amongst people do exist. By not seeing the world around us reflected in the books we read, there is an inconsistency created in the lives of children.

Can black authors only write black characters?

In the field of publishing, I feel we are let down by the lack of black authors being promoted and championed. But is it only black authors who are primarily responsible for creating black characters?

In a Guardian article, Alex Wheatle explains that he turned to YA fiction after becoming disillusioned with with the world of adult publishing, “I felt like I was this token black writer who writes about ghetto stuff”. As a freelance writer, I notice when I pitch to media outlets, I am often asked to put a ‘racial spin’ on topics I am writing about as if, as a black writer, the only contribution I have to the world is my blackness. This can be frustrating.

Conversely, white authors can and do write black characters and it’s important for any author to write about ethnicity because everyone has an experience of it. However, the phrase ‘write what you know’ can spring to mind.

Can a white author successfully write a non-white character in a way which is authentic and does not portray a stereotypical depiction of a person they have never experienced?

I believe so. Just because a person is black doesn’t mean they truly know black people and in turn, just because a person is white, it doesn’t mean that they have no real understanding of black people.

However, we must remember lived experience and viewed experience are different things. Having spent a years growing up alongside black people doesn’t mean you know what it is to have lived like a black person. I can hear you now, ‘You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.’ I am not claiming that white authors shouldn’t write about black people in the same way that I am not claiming that black authors should only write black characters. I am claiming that authenticity is hugely important.

Wheatle himself, a black man who grew up in Croydon still needed to evoke “intricacies and hard work” for his book, Island Songs, which uses Jamaican patois. Painstaking research, full checking of backgrounds, having a character that exists for themselves not just to advance your reader’s understanding of race; these are the steps to writing an advanced ethnic character.

In the same way a male author will need to be sure that they are able to create a female character who is three dimensional and well-rounded, a non-black author needs to ensure their black characters are the same. It all loops back to representation, does a white writer truly feel that there are able to accurately represent a non-white character?

White authors also need to acknowledge the privilege of being accepted to write a book about back characters and not being rejected by publishers because there are too many white, middle class authors already.

Is the world of YA a more diverse place?

Is there a difference in the diversity between adult fiction and young adult fiction? Alex Wheatle feels there is, “Even though I had a good reputation, I always felt a resistance. I didn’t feel like I was making inroads”. Despite having written six adult novels, the Children’s Fiction Prize is the first major literary award for 53-year-old Alex Wheatle, and he feels this is due to him now being in the “more diverse” world of YA, stating that the YA industry seems to have received him “with open arms“.

So is the world of YA fiction really a better place for black authors?

The success of black and mixed-race authors such as Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie and Monica Ali would suggest that Wheatle may be wrong about adult publishing. Or maybe that these figures are all we can currently fit on the pedestal. Can we think of similar big, black British names in YA fiction?

Malorie Blackman has been lauded since her standout novel, Noughts and Crosses, in 2001 and she has gone on to win over 15 awards. How many black authors are receiving the same praise? How many YA books exist which represent black British youths? I’m currently conducting my own research, trying to read as many YA books that highlight diversity as I can.

Blackman, like me, feels we still have “a long way to go” when it comes to diversifying the stories teens are reading. Books like Liccle Bit, Crongton Knights and the Noughts and Crosses series are mere drops in the ocean; add these to The Fault in Our Stars (dealing with teens with diseases) and books by authors such as David Levithan including gay protagonists, it is clear some progress is being made toward diversification of YA literature. But I feel it needs publishers need to take responsibility by publishing, promoting and lauding more diverse authors.

As Blackman says, “Books written by black and minority ethnic writers are not minority interest books. They can and do sell

What are your thoughts? Do you think ethnicity matters when writing fiction?