Thursday, March 19, 2015

Are you racist – and you don’t even know it? 3 easy ways to fix it.


You know you’re not racist.  But do your readers know it?

Check your writing for signs of these 3 mistakes.  They’re probably there unintentionally, but rest assured that readers will find them – and take it personally, even if you didn’t mean any harm.

Be prepared to root out these problems wherever you find them.  Let’s try to create books that accurately reflect children’s reality, regardless of their skin colour or socioeconomic status.

Only one, or Tokenism

I’m sure you’ve seen this one before:  all the characters in a story are white… except one.  You can see the one black, or Asian, or East Indian, character hanging out in all the illustrations.  Maybe it’s one character in a wheelchair, or a girl in a hijab.  Or one character with some other type of difference, whatever it may be.

Yes, diversity is important.  But that doesn’t mean throwing in a single character of a particular “type,” simply to serve the goal of diversity.


If there’s only one character of his or her type in your story, ask yourself what he/she is doing there.  Is she leading the way or following a white character’s lead?  Is her ethnic background an organic part of the story?

I’m not saying don’t include diverse characters.  But try to include more than one, and show him/her interacting with other people, both of the same and of different ethnic groups.  And be sure that white characters aren’t hogging all your “lead” roles.

Backhanded compliments

You already know enough to avoid some of the adjectives and descriptions of bygone eras, such as...

  • savage,
  • primitive,
  • conniving,
  • lazy,
  • superstitious,
  • treacherous,
  • wily,
  • crafty,
  • inscrutable,
  • docile
  • backward

I’m sure you’re smart enough to avoid these stereotypes.  But there are others, as well, that are a little more insidious. 

Did you know that some stereotypes can actually masquerade as compliments?

If you describe a black child as musical or athletically talented, isn’t that a good thing?  What about an Asian character as being the brainy one who solves any problem that needs math skills?  Yup, that’s racist too.  The most well-meaning kind, but racism nonetheless.


If you have a minority character in your story, does he or she behave the same as any other character?  What are his/her distinguishing characteristics?

It’s okay to make your characters unique and individual… just choose attributes that are not typically associated with that character’s ethnic group.

Folktales / Ethnic heritage

Here’s another one that can seem like a compliment, a nod to diverse ethnic traditions.  Let’s say you use a classic African story about Anansi, the trickster spider.  Or a native North American story that illustrates traditional native values about relating to the earth.

True, preserving these tales is important within each culture.  But by focusing on these stories from the past, we are also perhaps perpetuating stereotypes – the idealized “crying Indian” standing by the roadside – rather than depicting the living, breathing reality in which people from these ethnic backgrounds live in the modern world.


Even if your story isn’t a folktale, make sure you haven’t incorporated some of these “folky” elements by accident, maybe even unconsciously, creating an atmosphere of racism without even realizing it. 

Do you have an East Indian character who spouts Buddha-like wisdom?  A blonde girl who needs rescuing, like the classic European fairytale princess?

This fix is actually fun:  swap things up a bit.  Let the white princess spout the Buddha-like wisdom.  Introduce a ditzy Asian character who doesn’t like math, or a native character who’s big into technology: the more modern, the better.   Whatever attributes you give your characters, let them flow naturally from their personality – don’t just tack them on as an afterthought.

How do you catch problems and create books with diversity?  I’d love to hear about it in the Comments!

(Love those fish and you’re wondering where you can get great pictures like that for only a buck?  Try DollarPhotoClub!)


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