When you think of JK Rowling, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Wizards? Broomsticks? Transphobia? For some, casual racism might not be their first thought, but many believe it is present in The Harry Potter series.
From stereotypes such as putting the only East-Asian character in the WHOLE of Hogwarts in the ‘academic’ house to naming one of the only black characters Kingsley Shacklebolt (has Rowling never opened a history book?), there seems to be a severe lack of research here.
But the biggest shock is, one of the most successful authors in the world got away with this and so do many white authors to this day. How can that be possible?
An investigation by The New York Times found that of the 7,124 books they analysed, 95% of them were written by white authors.
I repeat, 95%.
The article suggests that the imbalance is due to the editors at publishing houses. And wait, you guessed it! They’re mostly white as well.
A 2019 poll from the Open Book Blog found that 85% of book editors do not identify as a person of colour.
So statistically, the book industry is seriously lacking in black, indigenous and POC voices from authors of that culture.
Unsurprisingly, many readers across the globe are unhappy with the current state of the book industry.
Teeda Tangprasertchai Stiles is a Thai-American reader and aspiring author living in California.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen myself within a story,” she said. “I try and read books written by Asian authors because even if the cultures are slightly different there are always familial themes that I feel connected to that I just can’t achieve when I read books about white American families.
“A lot of times I will read novels and think ‘what is this?’ and it makes me assume the author is white. Sometimes in books I’ll see stereotypical descriptions where Asian American characters are described as ‘exotic’.
“Why are we described as exotic? There’s literally no way I’m exotic. I was born and raised in the States.
“Despite this, I would love to see a white author successfully create a POC character one day. There are risks writing about a community you’re not a part of, but if you write with empathy and consideration, maybe those risks should be taken.”
Teeda Tangprasertchai Stiles, aspiring author.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that racist and micro-aggressive literature written by white authors can be damaging to POC readers’ mental health.
According to a 2018 study by the Synergi Collaborative Centre, experiences of racism have been linked to an increased chance of developing depression, hallucinations and delusions.
This impact on mental health explains why white people poorly constructing POC characters isn’t just ‘bad writing’ it can also be irresponsible.
So next time you hear a book is a bit dodgy, don’t even bother picking it up.
Sameen Khan Sayyed is a published author and psychologist in Mumbai.
“I think inaccurate portrayals of POC characters can definitely affect consumers’ mental health,” she said.
“Reading literature with strong opinions and morals over and over again eventually makes you start to believe it. If readers constantly see diverse characters as the sidekick or the token diverse best friend it can perpetuate damaging stereotypes.
“I have never left India, when I was younger I read an Indian book where one side character was English. Because of that I automatically assumed that’s what everybody is like in England.
“There is a habit from readers to generalise, we don’t really understand the characters as humans, so there’s a lot of less mental work required to just categorise.”
On the other side of the spectrum, not allowing authors to write about certain groups of people can be messy.
Where would mixed-race authors stand? Can they not write a certain character because they’re not quote-on-quote ‘POC enough’?
If white authors can’t write POC characters, can straight authors then write LGBTQ+ characters? Can a 21st-century author write an Elizabethan character?
One novelist who feels very passionate about this is Heather Morag Sealey.
Heather is a white author living in Wales, her bold and outlandish literature sparked criticism online when she re-wrote King Arthur as a mixed-race man.
Sameen Khan Sayyed, author and psychologist in Mumbai, India.
Heather Morag Sealey, author.
“To me it just made sense, it tended to be a lot of white liberals who got very sensitive about the character, people of colour didn’t and were happy to talk about it,” she said.
“I think anybody can write anybody in a meaningful way providing they’re not doing it in a stereotype. They’re a common mistake some new white authors make when they first start writing.
“It’s lazy writing and offensive, why would you make the only black character the aggressive one? I have no fear writing characters that are not me. If you could only write about who you are, I would have a load of books about white, 40-year-old, middle class women!”
Is it right to limit creative authors like Heather to only writing characters they can know for certain?
As with every other debate, there is not a black-and-white answer.
But there is one thing that is certain, this article wouldn’t have needed to be written if POC creators had the same advantages as white novelists.
If there were an equal amount of POC authors being signed to publishing deals as white authors, there would be no need to question whether white people can write POC characters because there would be enough POC authors to write POC characters.
We all have an opportunity to impact the publishing industry.
By reading more books by POC authors, publishing houses may see the demand for diverse literature and give more opportunities to smaller, non-white authors.
Rightly or wrongly, white authors will continue to write POC characters and if they are well researched and thoughtful then that would seem to be okay.
Black, Asian, indigenous, Arabic, Caribbean, etc. voices all deserve to be heard – and reading books by authors actually from these cultures is the best way to listen.
If you liked this post then read Why the rise in LGBTQ+ romance novels is important or Paul McVeigh: “Working class authors still don’t have a seat at the table” next.
Heather Morag Sealey
Heather was born in North Wales in 1974 and has been living in her own little fantasy world ever since. Some of her earliest memories involve folding pieces of paper into books and writing about sea-shells with legs. She is the author of dozens of one-act-plays, the occasional two and three act play, and The Kingdom Rising series.