More on Race-Neutral Characters

by Kathleen T. Horning

Don’t miss Linda Sue Park’s thought-provoking response to the notion of a “race neutral” character.

This issue first came up for us at the CCBC back in July of 2001 when we discussed Virginia Euwer Wolff’s Make Lemonade and True Believer on CCBC-Net. We hosted quite a lively discussion about the race of the main characters — it’s never specified in the books but many readers assumed that LaVaughn was African-American, and argued the point quite assertively.

But then, ten days into our discussion, Linda Sue Park responded with a most perceptive and personal comment:

I was ‘fortunate’ in a way not to have read Make Lemonade until recently and so read the two books back to back. I couldn’t put either of them down, and I am certain that ML has earned a place on my list of books that come back to haunt me years after I have read them. (Going somewhat against what I see as the grain, I preferred the first book for its more unusual plot line.)

That first graph of this post was easy to write. Now for the difficult bit. (deep breath) The least satisfying part of both books to me was the race question. I am not black, but as a nonwhite I can attest that my race is an everyday issue. For Asians such as myself, it has negative ramifications far less often than for blacks in daily U.S. life, but not a day passes that I do not confront the question in some form. This is perhaps the single most difficult aspect for those of the majority complexion to understand: There may be moments or even hours when my Asianness is not at the surface of my thoughts, but NEVER a whole day, much less weeks or months. I am struck by the number of readers who said that the question of race ‘didn’t matter to them’ and would be very curious to know if readers across the racial spectrum felt that way.

Therefore, as the first book unfolded and race was never mentioned, what it meant to me was that LaVaughn could only be white. Yet in the choice of her name and other story details, I perceived that the author’s intent may have been to allow the reader to ‘decide’ her race, which for me indicates confusion or misunderstanding as to the importance of race in the life of nonwhites. What I am trying to say, and perhaps saying badly, is that a white girl and a black girl (or a white girl and an Asian girl) can have similar experiences and do have emotional responses in common, but in this day and place cannot be one and the same person.

When the Horn Book interview confirmed that the source of my discomfort had been an actual authorial strategy I was deeply dismayed. It seemed to me not so much a granting of power to the reader as an unwillingness to confront the question. I can ‘salvage’ my response on this level only by seeing the strategy as an attempt to concentrate on the humanity we all share (as others have commented), and still I find it upsetting to completely ignore the question of race if LaVaughn is to be ‘read’ as black. There are many fine examples of books about nonwhites in which race is not the central issue, and these titles could certainly have that potential.

I have been very glad to read of the reactions of others to these books in this forum. While the books are flawed for me for the above reason, I understand that others may see the flaw as a strength, and I will forever admire the powerful use of language and the portrayal of much of LaVaughn’s interior life.

I think back to her comment often, whenever I am confronted with the notion of a “race neutral” character or “casual diversity.”  Thanks to Linda Sue Park, I have come to recognize this as one more idea I need to unpack from my invisible backpack of white privilege.