Here's Why Black Youth Representation in Media Matters7/28/2015
by Naadeyah Haseeb I'm a grown(ish) woman who loves media made for teenagers. It can provide,...
by Naadeyah Haseeb
I'm a grown(ish) woman who loves media made for teenagers. It can provide, as entertainment is so often meant to, a bit of escape from pressures of the adult “real world” I've found myself thrust into only semi-prepared. It takes me back to the time when the problems of life tended toward the frivolous and easily solved, though they felt just as intense. And although young adult literature, which is my favorite form of teen media, can and does tackle more serious issues, I tend to gravitate towards more lighthearted stories.
This escapism is just as important for the audience these books are meant for—teens—as it is for me. And yet, now that I am older and revisiting old favorites, it strikes me as odd and disheartening to realize how many of these books are sorely lacking in black protagonists. It’s surprising, because it means that as a teen I clearly had accepted and did not question this obvious erasure of my black female identity. Now, as an aspiring young adult novelist myself, I wonder how damaging it actually is to our teenagers’ sense of humanity.
We need stories for and about black youth. We need stories where they are painted in the same light as their white counterparts. "I turned to books to figure out how to navigate life and relationships," said I.W. Gregario, a founding member of the We Need Diverse Books campaign. As a result of not seeing her identity as an Asian woman represented in the literature she loved, she says she became self-hating.
Author Varian Johnson, who is Black, offered a similar perspective: "You walk into a bookstore and it's a sea of white. It's tough when you're not represented out there in the world—it makes you feel very strange about yourself, like you don't matter."
We live in a society that sees black kids as both less innocent and older than white children. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that “black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.” The U.S. Department of Education revealed in a report that black children face discrimination as early as pre-school. This systemic dehumanization has life-altering results in the case of, say, Dajerria Beckton who was tackled at a pool party, or the life-ending case of Tamir Rice.
In publishing, too, it is often lamented that it is difficult to get others to care about the humanity of minority characters and relate to them. The example of widespread anger to the “revelation” that the character Rue in the Hunger Games was black—a fact that apparently made it difficult to care about her eventual death for some—illustrates this. However, the solution to this problem is not to shy away from publishing stories featuring black characters; it is to embrace and push for greater diversity, so that it becomes the norm rather than an anomaly. Is it not possible that the lack of regular representations of black youth plays a part in perpetuating negative stereotypes that lead to seeing black teens and children as older and less innocent?
Bustle recently published a piece titled “8 Things I Learned Growing Up As A Black Kid Reading Books About White People”, in which Crystal Paul demonstrates perfectly what is so troubling about the dearth of stories about black teens just being teens. Through her voracious reading habit Paul learned that “romance is for white people”, and that black people represent only “an experience” for white people to learn from.
Black youth deserve to have themselves portrayed as protagonists, as the hero—not just as a backdrop for white characters' projections, if represented at all. To see black teenagers as fully realized characters, as human beings, means including them stories of all kinds—romance, adventures, and, yes, even ones where trouble-making leads to personal growth. Black youth need the same room to breathe given to whites, both in literature and in life.
With the surge in popularity of young adult literature among both teen and adult readers, the opportunities for representation have increased, with books being adapted for the big and small screens. The demand for diversity in TV and film has been heard, and to some extent heeded. Thus, it is important that black youth see themselves on screen and in writing—not just for their own self-worth, but because it normalizes their humanity to others. This is clearly beneficial, given our current racial and social climate.
It should also be noted that a greater demand for inclusive literature not only benefits minority readers, but writers as well. As Roxane Gay said, “The problem is and has always been the exclusion of writers of color and other marginalized writers who have to push aside their own work and fight for inclusion, over and over and over again. We beg for scraps from a table we're not invited to sit at. We are forced to defend our excellence because no one else will.” The lack of protagonists of color also stems from this exclusion. Calls for greater diversity in which characters are represented will uplift all those involved—from authors to lovers of books.
Most importantly, readers are created young. Greater representation of black characters in children’s and young adult literature would surely mean young black readers interest in and love for reading would increase.
Reading can provide a great escape. Everyone deserves the chance to fall into a great book and get lost in the story entirely. And black youth deserve to see their lives and their voices validated not only in literature, but in the world.
Naadeyah Haseeb is a writer living in Raleigh, NC and an editorial assistant at For Harriet. You can find her on Twitter @sothisisnaddy or email her at email@example.com.