‘White bias’ hits ‘favorite teen books’ list

A friend drew my attention to the voting for NPR’s “best ever” teen books some months back, and I gleefully voted. Then I wrote a post about the final picks. Now a friend has alerted me to the latest “buzz” about the NPR list: it’s the “whitest ever.”

To be completely honest, I suppose my first reaction as a white person was: “So?” I think that if this list is what the most enthusiastic readers (who were aware of the NPR poll in the first place) voted for, then so be it. Can we not talk about race all the time? I am not going to say that our society has evolved to a level at which race is no longer an issue. In fact, I can say for sure that it’s not. If we were at that wonderful place where we could say race just didn’t matter anymore, we wouldn’t ever have to talk about it. It simply wouldn’t be an issue anymore. (For instance, when Barack Obama was running for president and then elected as president of the United States, everyone talked exultantly about how wonderful it was that our country was open to a black “leader of the free world.” It was talked about a LOT. Right there, I felt confident in saying, No, we’ve made strides, but we have not reached that ideal point yet because if we had, no one would have talked about his race AT ALL. It would never have been brought up. Merely stating that it was great we were electing a black president showed that it was still an issue.) So that’s my take on the race topic in general. Someday we will truly be color-blind as a society, and that will be the day when no one even thinks about someone’s color or ethnic background, let alone talks about it in the media.

Let me also clarify this point: I am white, but my husband is Asian, and my three older daughters are half-Asian. The youngest is black. And they’re just people to me. It just never occurred to me that my husband’s race could be any kind of topic. He just was and is who he IS. But from the things we talk about now and again, I do appreciate that he feels somewhat of an outsider sometimes in our culture at large, especially in certain areas of the country.

But on to the actual “best” list. The list was compiled in a non-scientific manner, and it was answered by NPR readers/listeners and those who heard about it from readers/listeners. NPR is clearly known to have a white, older audience. For its poll to skew white was a “duh” to me. If it had been otherwise, I would have been surprised.

I also observed that probably half of these books are from years back (one to two generations), and the diversity in books representing more of the American experience wasn’t there decades ago like it is now. So if we were to post a list that just contained new and current books, that wouldn’t skew quite as much to the white past.

I should also note that I am not an “expert” on YA. I just love to read anything; I remember with great fondness the books I read when I was young and still want my daughters to read because they just hold special meaning for me; call it nostalgia. And I do read a fair amount of newly-published YA, but I also read a lot of “adult” fiction and nonfiction. I don’t specialize in YA. But from what I can gather, it is still true that a lot of the most popular books even now in the YA market have white protagonists. Yes, there are lots of other books that have non-white protagonists and are well written, but they’re simply not getting the attention. Look at the best-seller list: Twilight, Hunger Games, Harry Potter. The main characters are all white, with some sprinklings of other ethnicities as secondary characters.

Which brings me back to my earlier point about our society and color-blindness. We’re not there yet. While definitely pretty well mixed in terms of diversity, our society is not thoroughly past a white-dominated era. This is reflected in media. I think as we continue to move forward, that will slowly change and diversity will be better reflected in all media, including the best-sellers in YA. It’s still good to have conversations about race and how we as people view it, but I do think that these kinds of large tectonic shifts just take time. Maybe in twenty or fifty more years this list will look much more diverse. In the meantime, this is a reflection of our society as a whole (and, again, just the white-skewed NPR; the source is not diverse, and the methods for gathering the “top” picks were hardly geared toward getting diverse answers).

What do you think?

Author: Cathy Carmode Lim

I'm a copy editor, writer, and book reviewer with three decades of experience. My book review website is RatedReads.com. I'm a mom of four and grandma of three.

4 thoughts on “‘White bias’ hits ‘favorite teen books’ list”

  1. So minorities are supposed to wait twenty to fifty years to see themselves on more equal footing on such lists? Would that also entail books with minority characters actually written by writers whom happen to be minorities seeing the light of day? (I think that writers should be able to write characters who don’t look like themselves, but to say that works to in favor of what’s typical is an understatement.)

    When I ask that first question, I’m simply trying to point out (in that time span) how many people will lose to the status quo. Society’s been sold on the ideas of virtues through a pale spectrum, and intentionally or not, that affects everybody. It’s easy to dismiss as a shallow notion that can be disregarded, but it’s often a shallow world. I agree that the results of that poll shouldn’t be surprising, but maybe if you found yourself measuring against that spectrum, you’d understand why there is a buzz — or maybe, why there should be a buzz. Unfortunately these things are also often about how showing off how one is aligned with enlightened ideas rather than anything practical.

    1. I definitely don’t say that I LIKE that society is like this, but I can say that I don’t see these things changing overnight. Sea changes in culture usually don’t happen immediately. I eagerly await the day when our society truly is color-blind and that these things aren’t issues. But right now, it is not at all a surprise that NPR is so astonished at the whiteness of its list and at the backlash. If it had been another “news outlet” or organization that wasn’t so deeply entrenched in old white America, there might have been some differences as well. But it’s still true, as I said, that the best-sellers are not really, truly diverse. That is a phenomenon that simply reflects society, and, again, it doesn’t change overnight.
      Oh, and I definitely like your last sentence. I think that’s why I felt some of the “so what” reaction I had. It does seem to reflect that notion of “I’m white but I really want to point out that minorities are getting a raw deal” in a public forum setup.

  2. Glad the last sentence worked even with that extra ‘how’ I just noticed.

    My initial reaction to your post, in part, stems from the idea that any real diversity in books requires a tectonic shift. Beyond the obvious business element of it, it doesn’t seem like it should be that hard. But I suppose I overlooked just how big that business element often is. Business as usual.

  3. I really enjoyed your post. I had a similar reaction to the outrage over the list (which didn’t really surprise me that much). I think you accurately captured my feelings. I am not surprised, and although I wish things were more equal I’m also not really outraged. I’m just hopeful that diversity in children’s and teen books will improve.

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