When I was young and inexperienced, all of the characters I made were, by default, white. To put this into perspective, I am of mixed race, black and Filipino, and grew up in a predominantly black and Filipino world. I like to joke that I could count on one hand the number of white people I knew growing up, but thinking back, I’m not sure that’s an exaggeration.
And as much as I love my cultures, and I celebrate who I am and the color of my skin, this wasn’t something that I recognized until college. Even then, it took me until my junior year before I had a main character that wasn’t white.
When I was in second grade, I drew a picture of my teacher, her aide, and another teacher down the hall, all of them blonde stick figures. The teacher down the hall, Ms. Gaines, was a black woman.
I believe that this is a direct result of the books that I read when I was young. Even today, I can’t think of a book I’ve read, that has stuck with me, that had a POC protagonist. I’m trying to change this for myself, of course, but as a kid, the books that I read certainly made an impression on me.
This goes for TV, as well. Don’t get me wrong. I loved The Cosby Show, Family Matters, Moesha, the list could go on, but these shows were the small number in the ratio. White faces and white characters were everywhere. In the commercials, in the magazines, on the billboard ads, everywhere I turned.
Despite my blatant brownness, my work was white-washed because that was the default.
Of course, there have been strides in the POC writing community, even more in pop culture as a whole, but it’s still frustrating when I create black characters and my white classmates don’t understand a simple reference or a hairstyle or a name. I have to explain those things, even though those things are normal to me, to my community.
Our lives could be normal to everyone if they were common in our media and in our pop culture. Representation matters. It matters so much.
This doesn’t mean that I’ve sworn to never create another white character. Sometimes a character wants to be white, sometimes a character has to be. What this does mean is that I’ve made it a goal to represent the people that look and live and love like me.