Racism and the need for more diversity in fiction

photo by phantomswife, flickr.com
photo by phantomswife, flickr.com

My seven-year-old daughter is a huge Nancy Drew fan. I have fond memories of reading Nancy’s adventures, even though I laugh at some of the writing.

Top rules for Nancy Drew writers of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s:

  1. Every verb must have an adverb attached to it. Nancy can’t just “say” anything; she must say it “excitedly” or “forlornly” or “quickly”.
  2. When in doubt, have the bad guy conk Nancy on the head and knock her out and tie her up. And gag her, lest she scream for help while knocked out.
  3. If there’s a racial minority in the book, this person must meet all the stereotypes of that race.  

My husband drew my attention to that last point. Little Cecelia begs him to read to her, and so he’s been forced to read about the blonde-haired Nancy, pleasingly plump Bess, boyish and athletic George, and perpetual boyfriend Ned. Last night, he mentioned the racism in one Nancy Drew book.

“All the African-American characters talk in stereotypical ways, and they’re all servants to the white people. Racist.”

(Then he had to define “stereotype” and “racist” for Cecelia’s benefit.)

I flipped through the book. Sure enough, the servants are called “Mammy” and “Pappy”, address Nancy as “Miss Nancy”, and practice voodoo. Nancy’s swamp tour guide, an older man named Rufus, refers to his “ka-noo” and refers to himself in third person, like this:

“Want ol’ Rufus to tell ’bout the time–”

Cringe.

Yes, I know this was written in 1957. Yes, I realize that the (presumably) white author thought she was capturing the dialect of African-Americans living in New Orleans.

But this is 2015. I know my daughter knows that African-Americans don’t speak like this. One of her best friends at school is black, and she’s had black teachers and neighbors and classmates. Absolutely none of them speak in this way.

But she didn’t see the racism in the text. Is that too much to expect from a seven-year-old white girl? My husband and I feel the need to point out the prejudiced attitudes we see.

We’ve had similar experiences when reading older books, where the racist attitude is casual and acceptable. For example, in the Little House books, Ma hates the Native Americans and is shocked that young Laura wishes she could have an Indian papoose as her own. At one point, a character says that “the only good Indian is a dead one.”

So we tell the kids, “Is that a Christian attitude for Ma to have? Is that kind?” To which they shake their heads and say no, of course not.

That’s how we handle it. But what if we weren’t white?

What if my seven-year-old were an African-American girl reading Nancy Drew? Would she notice the racist undertones? Would she wonder . . .

  • Why Nancy has no friends that look like her?
  • Why Nancy herself is blonde and drives a convertible and has daring adventures while the novel’s African-Americans are servants?
  • Why Nancy doesn’t look like her?
  • Where are the mystery stories that have a black girl as the main character?

A recent Writer Unboxed post addressed the issue of diversity in fiction. Grace Wynter, a guest blogger, wrote,

As a teenager and later as a new adult, I devoured romance novels. But as much as I enjoyed those stories, something was missing. I read about blondes and brunettes, blue and green-eyed girls who, in the end, always found love, but there were no stories about girls who looked anything like me or my friends. In my school library and at my local book store, there were no stories about nerdy, fat, black, skinny, Latina, Caribbean, or Asian girls getting the guy. There were no stories where girls like me got to be the heroes. Where just for a little while, in the pages of a book, someone’s world revolved around them.

That’s sad to read. It’s also disheartening to read on and acknowledge the truth of what’s she’s written: if a romance novel features a black protagonist, it will be shelved with African-American fiction (a small part of a bookstore) rather than with other romance novels (where it belongs). I don’t even care for romance novels, and this saddens me.

But I think there’s hope. More people appear to be acknowledging the need for diversity, and writers can definitely help with this. I may not be a racial minority, but I can do my part. Grace has three suggestions:

I can read widely. (This one is hard for me, actually. I have a helter-skelter attitude toward what books I pull from the shelves, one based on titles and covers rather than author. So I end up with a grab-bag of novels that have caught my eye that may or may not be diverse in terms of author’s ethnicity/race/gender/orientation.)

I can recommend books, assuming that I’ve read and enjoyed them. (This might be easier for me. When I like a book–and especially if I love it–I will babble on and on and on about it online. But not at church. That’s an entirely different story!)

I can incorporate minorities in my own writing. (This one is tough, as I’ve written before.)

If we try, I think writers can make a huge difference in racial perceptions among readers.

So, do you have any minority authors you’d like to recommend? Share them with us! 

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On a tangent, I’d like to note that it took me more time to find a free and labelled-for-reuse photo of an African-American girl reading than it did to write the post. Why? I don’t know. It just took a very long time. PS: I just realized that the photo isn’t displaying properly. Sigh. 

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15 thoughts on “Racism and the need for more diversity in fiction

  1. I’ve found this in reading the older books as well. mark Twain captured dialectic dialog well, but his characters were still stereotypical at times. “Injun Joe the half breed” might be the most egregious, but not the only example.

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    1. Would you believe that I’ve never made it through either Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn?! I’ve tried numerous times to read those novels, but I give up. What’s strange is that I’ve enjoyed other Twain novels and short works.

      Gosh, when I think about some of the phrases and stereotypes in these works, I’m amazed at the attitudes toward minorities. But before I can congratulate our society on “how far we’ve come!”, I remember that 1) it’s still not far enough . . . we’re still far from equal, and 2) some people still hold those prejudiced ideas and use the offensive terms, and 3) it’s really, really hard to undo the prejudices that are deeply engrained in our society and in our hearts.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I used to love Nancy Drew books, and I read them all back in the day. The racism in those books was lost on me as a young reader, but I’m sure I would be shocked to read it today. You raise an excellent point, Laura. On the up side, it shows how much more sensitive we are now as a society. It’s a start. On the not-so-up-side, your observations about the few black heroes and heroines in today’s books demonstrate that we have a long way to go. Thanks for the eye-opener.

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    1. Judy, thanks for weighing in. The racial content in the ND books was lost on me as a little girl, too.

      I hope that more minorities end up as the protagonists in modern books. I also hope that these books can be grouped with the appropriate genre. I can’t remember if I mentioned this in the post, but the WU blogger said that many books by minority writers end up in the small African-American novels section of bookstores regardless of what genre the novels are. She writes romance. Her books need to be with the romance novels, where romance novel readers will find them. Placing the novels with only other A-A fiction ensures that few romance readers will find them and the romance novel readers will still only be reading about white heroines, even if they’re open to reading about diverse groups of people.

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  3. We had a similar experience reading ‘Pippi in the South Seas’ a few years ago, when Pippi Longstocking goes to a tropical island to find her father. Her father has been appointed king by the ‘natives’ and there are some cringe-worthy descriptions of how the little ‘native’ boys and girls act.

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      1. I’ve glossed over words before, too. (For example, in the Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis sometimes uses the word “queer” to mean “strange”. Obviously, “queer” has taken on a different meaning in recent decades, but my kids were very young and it would’ve been too difficult to explain the new meaning. I just didn’t want my children my kids using the word the way Lewis used it and being misunderstood. I had similar bewilderment as a child when I heard kids giggling about the word “gay”; I’d read it in old books and didn’t understand what the giggling was about. Sigh.) Yeah, I don’t see how you could take out that implied racism when it’s so deeply embedded in the text. I guess you could’ve totally revised Pippi and made her and her father the same ethnicity as the “natives”! 🙂

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    1. When I taught English as a second language, we were instructed not to use the term “native language.” Instead, we were supposed to use “heart language.” Your recounting of the Pippi story reminded me of that.

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      1. I would have given up on it altogether if it wasn’t for the fact that we were camping and an alternative would have been hard to come by. I had two bouncy little girls at the time and listening to a story was the best way to settle them.

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  4. I appreciate all the points you’ve made here, Laura. When I look back at the Little House books now I am kind of horrified at the attitude toward the “Indians.” I was also thinking of one of my favourite movies, “It’s a Wonderful Life”: the only black character is the family’s maid, Annie, and Mr. Potter, the villain, calls George Bailey’s Italian clients “a bunch of garlic-eaters.”

    You make a good point about how it’s easy for white readers to tell ourselves (and our kids) that the attitudes being conveyed by an author or characters in a book are not right — but it’s a different matter if you’re a minority reader yourself and see your own race portrayed in a negative light. I like your suggestions re reading more widely and (if we’re writers) trying to incorporate minority characters in our work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Also I think this applies to other types of prejudice that can be equally disturbing and distressing: prejudice against women, prejudice against disabled people, prejudice against mental ill health or those living in poverty. When a human being is either ignored (as in a book or a movie full of healthy white males) or reduced to a stereotype, all literature suffers.

      Which makes me think to ask if anyone has read the new Harper Lee novel?

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      1. No, only the hype! I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time last year so it’s still very fresh. I have a long list of books to read so I’ve no immediate plans but maybe in a few months.

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      2. Wow, that is fresh! It was required reading in high school for me, but that might be because Harper Lee is an Alabamian and we don’t have very many famous authors. (At least not as many as some other places!)

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    2. Thanks, Jeannie. I hadn’t thought about movies, but that’s a good point. This is a consideration in all types of media, including movies, music, and books. (I remember being surprised at seeing a country music video with a black female singer as the star. #1: Female country artists don’t get played very much on the radio. #2: Minorities in country music are scarce, sadly.)

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