1: to whiten with whitewash
2a: to gloss over or cover up (such as vices or crimes) refused to whitewash the scandalb: to exonerate by means of a perfunctory investigation or through biased presentation of data
3: to hold (an opponent) scoreless in a game or contest
“Whitewash.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 23 May 2017.
So, if we took Merriam-Webster’s definition of whitewash and applied it to creative writing and literature for children and teens someone who didn’t know anything about the current state of YA would think that it all had something to do with color swatches. Maybe we were in an epic battle of online lacrosse and traditional publishers were dominating writers of color with their awesome slapshots, but no, as with many things, the intelligentsia is behind the times or willfully ignorant. Whitewashing is often seen more than read and if you’re not looking you’ll miss it completely, which is exactly the point.
Whitewashing can take many forms. It can currently be seen in the following tropes:
Biracial Betty: The biracial main character or best friend of the main character. One or both of said character’s parents must be dead, as the idea of a happy interracial couple is still being road tested with audiences. The love interest of Betty must be white, this is critical because just a dab of blackness will do ya.
Sassy Sapphire: Sassy Sapphire is the black best friend. What makes her new and improved for the 21st century is that she’s black, but all cultural markers have been removed in addition to her existence being used solely as a support for the main character. If the main character has a boyfriend Sapphire does not. If the main character plays basketball, Sapphire will be second string.
Mysteriously Missing Asians: This is not a single character but an entire race of people that disappears from stories set in Asia or originally created by Asian people and then rewritten to feature white people. This happens mostly in feature films. A good example is Scarlett Johansen in her most recent vehicle, Ghost in the Shell. Another example is the movie 21, a real-life story of students at MIT who create a gambling scheme to get rich at a casino. It was based on the best-selling book Bringing Down the House. Most of the students were Asian, but the movie decided to make nearly all the students white.
These are the most blatant forms of whitewashing and it isn’t by far the only forms, but these can be easily pieced together, but there are other more insidious forms. The pressure or suggestion by editors to remove Spanish language terms from a book because they “alienate” or “confuse” the audience is one way. The suggestion that two main characters of color in a relationship is too niche to sell or the reluctance to put characters of color on book covers is also a form of whitewashing. Take the controversy of Justine Larbalestier’s novel, Liar. The main character is a biracial girl, described as having close cropped hair and dark skin. When the book was initially published it featured a white girl pulling hair over her face. After a backlash they changed the cover to feature a black girl, but the girl still had the look of non-threatening Biracial Betty (lighter skinned with curly hair).
Now this is not to say that biracial girls and guys don’t deserve to have their stories told. They do, but that means that speaking to their existence as real whole people. Do we get to see them navigate the world as a racially blended family? If you don’t think this is necessary, I would argue that characters of color rarely get to make it out of any YA book without addressing their race in some way. By making the character biracial there is an effort to appease all of the voices calling for more color without having to deal with the messy business of discrimination. And because the practice can be insidious, often taking place well before the book is printed and sold to the masses, we as consumers often don’t see it happening or are tipped off far too late.
There are signs of change in the marketplace. Dhonielle Clayton’s upcoming novel, The Belles is getting a large marketing push from her publisher and features a beautiful black girl on the cover. This is a departure from previous novels that featured girls of color. Many of them featured only text.
But if you’re looking for novels featuring black boys on the cover, I hoped you packed a lunch because you’re going to be on a long journey. Dear Martin by Nic Stone comes out in October and is highly anticipated, but if you’re looking for anything with a black boy with a black girl love interest that has mystery, fantasy, science fiction or historical elements you might die looking. That is the most glaring incidence of whitewashing there is, the purposeful removal of stories of color from the marketplace to perpetuate the idea of whiteness as mainstream and normal. Sounds harsh doesn’t it?
Maybe we’ve been too easy on the industry. Excuses have been that there aren’t writers of color out there, but that’s been proven to be untrue. There’s also the idea that quality stories aren’t out there, and yet they still publish I Woke Up Dead At The Mall. No shade to the author of that fun romp, but there is this narrative that writers of color have to be Tolstoy to deserve publishing. It’s just not true. It needs to change and it’s time that it happened. Join me for a twitterchat so we can gab about it or drop me a line in the comments. I’ll post a storify of the chat on my blog, later.