A few years ago, I walked into a conversation between two colleagues about a movie.
The film had just been released, and there was a lot of excitement surrounding it. Then one of my colleagues mentioned, that there was apparently a small fraction of White audiences, whom were upset about the casting choice of one of the characters. They were upset that the actress was Black. My immediate reaction was, “Why? The author never stated the character’s race, so they can cast her as any race they want.”
The response that followed shifted the way I understood privilege forever.
My colleague said, “I guess people were just surprised. Don’t people always project their own race onto the characters they read in books?”
He is White. I am not.
I never imagine the characters of the books that I read as Asian, unless they have ethnic names, or if the author explicitly states their race. If anything, I am more surprised when characters in books are not White when they are adapted into Hollywood films. My colleague did not realize this; that I didn’t think like him. I don’t blame him, because he genuinely thought imagining book characters as your own color was normal. He didn’t realize that this was a privilege he had that I didn’t. I didn’t even realize how strange it was that I never imagined the characters I read in books as Asian. I started to ask myself why.
I grew up reading Harry Potter, Little House on the Prairie, Roald Dahl, and various teen magazines where White celebrities glossed the pages. I also watched Charmed, Dawson’s Creek, Seventh Heaven and all these other TV shows where there weren’t a single leading Asian character. The answer to why I never saw any book characters as Asian in my mind seemed pretty obvious. I was conditioned by American main stream media and literature to think of ‘White’ as normal without even realizing it.
What’s the point of all this you ask? To be honest, I’m not quite sure, but it’s been on my mind a lot lately as I write and read more. Writing has forced me to confront who I am more than anything else, and it makes me wonder what I have to share with the world. If I grew up thinking that all book characters were White, then perhaps it’s a sign. A sign that we need more diverse authorship in books and all other forms of writing including blogs. By diversity, I don’t just mean race either. I mean in terms of sexuality, gender, jobs, lifestyle and much more. If I don’t share my perspective as a traveler, a vegan, an Asian American female, then who will?