Unpopular Opinion: White Privilege and Reading

Earlier this week April @Good Books and Good Wine tweeted about how she was proud to have recognized her own white privilege when she realized she had been picturing a character who turned out to be Black as White.

Quick lesson, White Privilege, as defined by Wikipedia, ” is a way of conceptualizing racial inequalities that focuses as much on the advantages that white people accrue from society as on the disadvantages that people of color experience.” So basically, white people have these advantages that can be invisible to white people because we don’t even realize that we’re getting that advantage. An example the professor of my Women, Race, and Social Justice class gave was band-aids being called flesh tone and really only being the colour of those of lighter skin colours.

Now, when April tweeted this, it immediately made me feel uncomfortable because I do the same thing: I always picture characters as white, even sometimes after they’ve described as having darker skin. For example, I did this with Rue from the Hunger Games. Until the casting for Rue happened I was still picturing her as white. I tried to explain this practice away as me picturing someone like myself. I am white, so I reflect myself onto the characters I read about by imagining them as white.

But then I had to take a step back and really think about it. Even if my reasons for picturing characters was the truth (and while I like to believe it is, who really knows what’s going on in my head), does that make it any less of a privilege? Isn’t it a privilege to be able to picture people as like myself? And the fact that this came as such a shock to me basically proves that it’s a privilege.

It’s not easy admitting to privilege. I like to believe that I don’t let things like racism affect me, but they do influence me. That’s why I think admitting that is the first step. Recognizing the privilege is the second step. When I figure out the third, I’ll let you know.


Agree or disagree? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

About megtao

Student. Writer. Nerdfighter. Fights for love, justice, and awesome.
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29 Responses to Unpopular Opinion: White Privilege and Reading

  1. Angel says:

    When I was a little girl growing up in Philly, I honest-to-God thought that when I grew up, my brown skin would peel off and I’d be white like my classmates. For real. I believed this for about two years before I realized that that would never happen. But the scariest thing about this was I was hoping it would happen BECAUSE IT WOULD STOP MY CLASSMATES’ BULLYING. I.E. If you’re white, you don’t get hurt. The idea of white privilege was so deeply ingrained in my understanding of society that it took a while before I learned how to deal with it.

    Because of that, I quickly learned not to automatically assume that ANYONE is like me in race, culture or religion. Whether they’re literary characters, unseen people on the internet or just a stranger on the phone, I don’t create an image of that person in my head until they actually describe themselves.

    Granted, that’s difficult to do, especially when it comes to books. If the cover shows a white girl, you’re going to assume that the MC is a white girl. And a lot of that bias (albeit subjective) has to do with the fact that there are still more Caucasian kids who are given a chance at good education than non-Caucasian kids. They are more likely to grow up wanting to write than kids who have to prioritize the livelihood of their family or their own safety. So the literary market (especially when it comes to YA fiction) tends to have more white characters, which perpetuates the unconscious belief that most characters in books are white.

    I personally don’t understand why characters have to be white in most stories I read. Is it because people are afraid they might end up stereotyping certain races?

    • Briana says:

      To answer part of your comment, I would say that, yes, as someone who is white I would be terrified to write a story with a main character who was a different race because I have this impression (whether true or not) that a lot of readers would jump on me for stereotyping or somehow “getting it wrong.”

      • I’m less afraid of stereotyping than I am of making a character totally unbelievable, if that makes sense. As writers, we’re always told to write what we know and… I don’t know anything about the other sort of world view. I’m not saying this means that I’ll never write a character who isn’t from a similar background to me, but I know that I’d want to do some kind of research on it first to “get it right,” so the easier (and yes, lazier) option for now is to write the stories with the characters I feel I already understand first.

        And as to the rest of your comment, I am so sorry that things like that happened to you. It’s… well, it SHOULD be unbelievable. *hugs*

    • I grew up in a mostly-white town, so I sometimes have a hard time writing an MC as a different race thanks to the fact that I don’t know other cultures as well as I’d like to. I’ve written love interests of different races, but never a MC. I honestly want to change that, but God, yes, I’m horrified of stereotyping, even after massive amounts of research.

    • megtao says:

      Imagine I am hugging you right now. I love you so much, and I am so happy that you are my friend.

      Any of the stories I’ve written have had white, female protagonists. For me it’s because I write what I know, but I think that part of it is a fear of stereotyping. It’s the same reason I would LOVE to write a story with a homosexual protagonist but I’d be afraid I wouldn’t do the topic justice. I’m afraid that if I wrote about a character who wasn’t white, because there are so few of them, it would be making a statement and I would somehow screw that statement up.

  2. I hadn’t really realized how much I do this until I’ve read this post (and Angel’s comment, which was beautifully written as well!) I feel like anything I write here is going to sound trivial or come out wrong, or both.
    Honestly? For me the cover is a big part of it (if there is a character on the cover) and I was standing in my bookstore not long ago thinking “Geez, everyone is white!” as I looked at covers. (I live in a primarily Hispanic community, where I – a white female – am in the minority.) In fact, I have found myself picturing main characters as more Hispanic lately, inserting my own friends into the faces, if that makes sense.
    I do think that White Privilege definitely plays into many peoples thoughts as they read. And the example of Rue is an excellent one – I had also pictured her as white, and felt a pang of guilt when I realized how wrong I was.

    • megtao says:

      You remind me so much of me when I first heard about white privilege. I remember being afraid to say anything because I’d say something wrong and I totally felt the guilt (still do).

      I think it’s really interesting that you’ve begun picturing characters as Hispanic because that is the majority in your area.

  3. I love this whole post! I think a huge part of rectifying racism and white privilege is recognizing that. Maybe step three is fighting for a more equitable system? I don’t know. I am not an expert by any means.

    And Angel’s comment makes me so sad. I hate that in our supposedly post-racial non-racist society that someone could feel like that. It sucks.

    • megtao says:

      The problem with the idea of “fighting for something” is that it’s such a broad thing. Like, HOW do you fight for this? It’s so easy to throw your hands up and say there’s nothing I can do. They always say one person can make a difference, but sometimes I wonder how true that is.


  4. I picture pretty much every character as white. This is something I need to work on. I think it’s just out of habit and visualizing what I know. Along those lines, I also just have generic people I picture in my mind for every character. It’s difficult for me to visualize people from an authors descriptions…that’s just me.

  5. Great post on such a sensitive topic.

    I’ll admit that I’m fully guilty too. I project myself and how I grew up onto the characters unless overtly told otherwise and I’m right there with the rest of you who pictured Rue as white. Maybe I skim-read… I don’t know. It seems that I either need to be knocked upside the head with a description or need a visualization. It’s not right, but maybe recognizing it is the first step towards fixing my brain’s “wiring?” I don’t know.

  6. Heidi says:

    Acknowledging that you do this is, in fact, the first step to stopping it. I don’t think that there’s a way to eradicate this for everyone, but for people who read as much as those in the blogoshere tend to, I think it is important to be aware of this as a potential issue. When you mentally work to counter your assumptions while reading, and discuss them, you help others to do so as well.

    I took a Race, Gender, and Culture class in undergrad as well, and had the same discussion about the box of crayons where the ‘flesh’ colored crayon was for pinky white people (I’m totes telling my kids they can draw people any color they damn well please!). Our prof had us read lots of books that challenged our assumptions, and since that time I have made an effort to keep an open mind when reading. For example, I like to look up authors I’m not familiar with so that I know who’s speaking. Like if I hadn’t looked up N.K. Jemisin, I might have had a different approach to The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. It’s not intuitive, and you have to mentally force yourself to think about characters in a more diverse way, but I personally feel it’s worth it and totally rewarding. The more you do it, the easier it is, to the point where I’ve found myself assigning various ethnicities to characters I’m not sure are dictated by the author (like, I picture Ky from the Matched series as African American, though I’m not sure he’s supposed to be).

    This isn’t just a problem with readers, minority characters haven’t always been prevalent, nor have minority authors. Hopefully, this will eventually change, and it IS improving. Bearing these things in mind as someone who reads and talks about books will ensure that you’re doing your part to counter a white privilege mindset.

    • megtao says:

      I think a lot of people view reading for fun as just that: reading for fun. They don’t realize everything that they’re absorbing or projecting when they do that. It’s the same thing with watching tv. If we don’t view these things in an active and questioning way then the status quo will never change.

      I think it’s really cool that you research your authors!

      • Heidi says:

        Thanks ladies! I totally agree. Just because something’s fun, doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. Also, just because it matters, doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. =)

    • I wish I could press a like button on this comment!

  7. Candice says:

    I have a feeling I’m gonna be “that girl” in this conversation… you know, the one who has a completely different opinion than everyone else. I’ll go ahead and admit it: unless given a character description, I see every character’s appearance as an image of myself. Not because I don’t think that character could be red, yellow, black or white but because I have a pretty good idea of what I look like. That being said, I think sometimes we put an over-emphasis on race in books. Obviously if the book deals with the issue of race, then yes, there needs to be emphasis. But with other books? It doesn’t matter to me if the character is purple with blue hair; if he or she is a good character, he or she is a good character. When I was in high school I was very involved in our school’s theater department and one of the key lessons we learned was that the actor makes the character, not the other way around. We took a field trip to see a production of Guys and Dolls. I knew nothing about it other than Frank Sinatra played the main character and in this production there was a black man in this roll. I was unsure about this and how I would like another race playing this role I had imagined in my head, but after 2 seconds of watching him he could have been purple with blue hair – he was amazing and made this role. So, my point is this: I don’t know if I totally buy “white privilege” (or imagining a character in your own image) as being a bad thing unless you purposely change character’s race in your head to suit your needs. We all identify with what we know, whether as readers or writers. As long as we don’t discriminate how we like a character due to their race, culture, sexual orientation, whatever, imagining a character to be the way you imagine him or her to be isn’t going to take away from how powerful of a character he or she is. Awesome discussion! I can’t believe I wrote as much as I did; my bad! 🙂

    • Briana says:

      You’re not completely alone! I have to admit that I don’t think that imagining characters that characters look like you is a huge problem. I agree that unless the book is in some way about race or incorporates elements of a certain culture, it doesn’t matter. The character is the character. So, like everyone else, I imagined Rue from The Hunger Games as white. But unlike everyone else, I wasn’t horrified to discover my mistake. What she looks like doesn’t change anything she did in the book, and discovering she was black hasn’t put any of her actions in any sort of new light.

      I also think it would almost be random to sit down and, as I read, decide “Oh, this person should be Hispanic, and this one should be of African descent, and only these two are white.” If the book doesn’t say, there’s just as little reason to decide that the characters are black as to decide they’re white. So it makes sense to assume the characters of the book are about as diverse as whatever region you personally live in.

      On a final note, I tend to read a lot of European classics, so the characters are white. And I like fantasy. A lot of fantasy is set in pseudo-medieval Europe. So the characters, again, are probably white. Fantasy set in other pseudo-historical places tends to draw on the culture, so it’s clear from the start that the characters are Indian, for example. Contemporary YA fiction is obviously a little different.

    • megtao says:

      The problem with white privilege isn’t that you see all characters as white or whatever, it’s that we have the ability to do so without even realizing it. Another example my prof gave is that as a white person in Canada (’cause that’s where I am), you’d never be asked “so where are you from?” But those of other skin colours will often be asked where they’re from and if they answer somewhere in Canada the person will generally persist with “yeah, but where were you from originally.”

      It’s a white privilege not to be asked those questions. To just be automatically accepted.

      I understand your opinion, but I think it’s a very optimistic view.

  8. I think you’ve done a wonderful job discussing such a sensitive topic – and I’d have to say I agree. It’s often a habit of mine to believe that a character is white, unless it’s explicitly stated that he/she isn’t. I know that’s not necessarily the most fair perception, especially when they aren’t supposed to be white characters, but I believe that you’re correct: recognizing that I do that is probably the best first step I can take to remedy it.

    • megtao says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed the discussion! It’s not an easy thing to change. Even though I’m recognising the problem, I’m having fixing it while reading.

  9. Lauren H. says:

    Great post! This is something I’ve given a lot of thought to, and is a sticky subject. I actually did a post on it called “Writing Diverse Characters” back in July 2011.

    One of the biggest issues and a reason why we don’t see more diverse characters in books is because the majority of YA is being written by white females. Make a list of the authors you love… See a lot of white females? We need to get more diversity in our authorship if we want to see a more diverse cast of characters.

    I did end up writing a great short story this summer where none of my cast was “white.” But it was difficult and definitely outside my comfort zone. And I was constantly worried about unconscious messages I was sending in my writing because I was writing outside of my own background. It’s really hard to write outside your background, not impossible, but REALLY difficult. Because so much of what you write is who you are and what you’ve experienced. So that’s why I believe we really need more author diversity, not just character diversity.
    Lauren @ Hughes Reviews

  10. reutreads says:

    LOVE this discussion. I cannot participate because I am SO TIRED and Wither is calling to me, but really interesting. I think that racism and stereotyping subconsciously affect us so that we’re never really rid of them, to the point where I sometimes feel I have to be *consciously* un-racist when I walk by a “Person of Color” on the street. I did something awful the other day when my friend and I were talking about creeps on the subway and I said something about black people. I was going to add on with “you know, to be stereotypical,” but they immediately jumped on me all “that’s racist!!!” So that says something.

    • megtao says:

      I think consciously combating personal prejudices is definitely important. I think everyone’s a little bit racist. It’s near impossible not to be in our society. But I think it’s better that we’re aware of our prejudices than simply ignoring them, so good for you for being conscious of them!

  11. Holly says:

    I love this post. If characters are described as something other than white, I imagine them as white – usually looking like me. For example, if a character is described as having dark hair and dark eyes, she could very well be black, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, etc. But I picture her as white with those attributes.

    I didn’t picture Rue as white, though. She was described as having “satiny brown skin” and I imagined her as black (Thresh, too). I have talked to friends who pictured her as Hispanic or very tanned from working in the orchards, which also makes sense to me.

    • megtao says:

      I don’t know if I completely missed that description or if it just didn’t leave an impression on me. I always pictured her as Prim but with dark hair.

      And I do the same thing. I’m really trying to fix this and read more actively, but skin colour is often not addressed. I’m currently reading Daughter of Smoke and Bone and the MC is described as having milky skin, an angel is described as having like golden suntanned skin, and then like everyone else isn’t described, so I’m trying to think of the best friend as black, but she keeps alternating between these two versions. It is so hard.

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