Let’s Discuss the Ongoing Societal and Cultural Issues of Whiteness in Literature

Have a seat.

Historical Whiteness in Literature, Inherent White Narration

I think we can all agree that 2017 was the year of many amazing and memorable books from great writers, both new and returning. Nearly every book I perused brought storytelling to another complex and stimulating level, however, I must admit that a majority of those books carry on literature’s longstanding problematic tradition: the societal and cultural quandary of assumed or inherent whiteness.

Is this whiteness more or less transparent in books now than in the past? I believe this is a problem we should all explore as young readers of such a drastic time of change; we must, for better or worse, learn to adjust our minds to break the boundaries in terms of whiteness.

The bulk of new books released last year that cared to address this subject come from those most associated with the history of their race within a story. As an Asian American, the problem seems to be even more conspicuous.

To make things clearer for those of you who may not understand the ongoing problem of whiteness in literature, this refers to a theory by English writer Richard Dyer. In his 1997 book, aptly titled White, Dyer highlights the impact of racial imagery of the modern world. The racial imagery of white people (since they are everywhere in everything that we see in terms of the media in western culture) has a long history of not being racially seen and named. Because they are not racially seen, white people are commonly assumed to be the human norm—the human race. And every other person who is non-white is categorized under a certain race and ethnicity. (This is not okay.)

To explore this notion further, let’s take a look at some popular novels of 2017 (many of which were my favorites). Min Jin Lee‘s Pachinko, Jameel McGee’s ConvictedAngie Thomas The Hate U Give, and David Grann‘s Killers of the Flower Moon are some of the books that expressed the race and background of their characters; this helps readers inform a cultural standpoint and society within and outside the book. Through that, these works all share one singular, common thread: the terrors of discrimination, racism, prejudice, sexism. Each book provides a detailed account of their characters’ social and cultural environments, who they live with, and what they look on a surface level — these details allow readers to have a better vision of who these characters are and how the outside world (or that of their own) might perceive them.

These details allow readers to understand the narrative being told, but the question, for me at least, is why are books that involve predominantly white characters conditioned the same way?

Historical Whiteness in Literature, Inherent White Narration

For instance, on the other end, in other successful novels such as Paula Hawkins Into the Water, Riley Sager‘s Final Girls, Lauren Groff‘s Fates and Furies, and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, race hardly tends to be a focus, and otherwise goes neglected. Therefore, by the rule of default narrative, we’re trained to assume that characters are naturally white, and nothing else. Because of this, the ambiguity of race in literature has always been in favor of white people, never a person of color.

Not anywhere in these books does environment, physical features, or cultural references discussed — characters are blatantly devoid of race. In lieu of any evidence of their ethnic background, we’re treated instead to myriad simple, often banal or easily-repairable problems associated with love, scandals, family, and friendships. How challenging it must be to centralize an array of characters whose plights reach further than a bad breakup, a rumor, or a death in the family. It goes without saying that, the absence of race, in long-form literature, is quite disappointing and borderlines on laziness.

Compounding minor details of a character’s race and their temporary problems as the focal point only supports Dyer’s theory that “whites are people” and that anything existing outside this domain is “something else, is endemic to white culture.” Stories have the power of reaching readers in a way that allows them to feel they are one with the characters in a book, that everyone, despite their plight, experiences similar problems. The issue with this, however, is that non-white characters are not afforded the same courtesy as their white equivalents, meaning, without the inclusion or mention of race, characters of color will be erased, and thus washed away from the narrative completely.

Having sifted through last year’s bestsellers list, I do not believe I’ve come across a single book where social and cultural issues were not realized in a story that involved non-white characters. Let’s hope that changes this year and that more best-selling books will finally upset this tradition and shed some light on the ongoing sway of whiteness in the modern world.

What do you think about whiteness in literature?

Does knowing or not knowing a character’s race impact your reading experience?
Share your thoughts and comments on the subject below!

Dulcie Yamanaka
the authorDulcie Yamanaka
Book Contributor (Intern)
Dulcie is originally from the beautiful island of Honolulu, Hawaii but currently lives in Los Angeles to achieve her Bachelor's Degree in Communication. She's a book enthusiast; she enjoys reading books during her free time and after indulging in some really great books- she had started her own blog mid-year of 2017. Favorite Books- Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, Sula by Toni Morrison, and Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward