One of the most important things that I try to accomplish with the Treadwell Academy series is to emphasize the importance of acceptance among teenage girls, and fighting the idea of judging peers based on appearances. From what I’ve observed and been told by my teen readers on Wattpad.com, today’s teens face a level of scrutiny from their peers that’s so much more intense than what I remember facing in middle school, junior high, and high school. It’s coming at them from all directions: their classmates, the media, even anonymous strangers on social media platforms. For so many girls, the message that they receive from every voice they hear is that their appearance (and every element of it) is the total sum of their worth, and all that matters about them.
What does this have to do with Trayvon Martin? Quite a lot. I’ve held back from posting my initial reaction to the verdict in the Zimmerman case because I do respect the due process in our country; being innocent until proven guilty is the cornerstone of our legal foundation and I have to trust that the jury did their job. However, I do feel that there were a great number of avoidable circumstances on the night that Trayvon was shot that could have—and should have – been avoided. The most significant of those circumstances is that Trayvon was judged from afar by his appearance: the color of his skin and his manner of dress.
It would be irresponsible for me to post this to my blog without being brutally honest: I’m a white lady and I live in a part of Brooklyn that was kind of rough until pretty recently. There are times, especially if I’m outside at night, when I feel a little glimmer of fear whenever I see a group of teenagers of *any* race out on the street. Teens do dumb things to impress their friends. They aren’t in complete control of their impulses yet, and can’t yet emotionally understand the full impact of actions. This is simple biology. When information surfaced about Trayvon posting about guns and weed on his social media profiles, I’ll admit it: I cringed. But what 17-year-old hasn’t been interested in really stupid things, and also done stupid things? 17 is the age when kids are only just starting to figure out what kind of people they want to become. Experimentation is part of that. What kids do at the age of 17 not a true indication of the direction their lives will take, only a reflection of the influences around them. The part of Trayvon’s story that makes my heart hurt is that Trayvon’s chance to make decisions about what kind of man he would grow up to be was robbed from him because someone made an assumption about him based on the way he looked.
As an author, I see a glaring lack of reading material for girls with protagonists who any race other than white. I will fess up to being part of the problem – so far all of the books in the Treadwell series are about wealthy white girls. And what I’m getting at here isn’t that black girls should read books for black girls, and that Asian girls should read books for Asian girls; the point is that if a book is great, the race of its main character(s) shouldn’t dissuade readers. I have an outline written for a story about a character named Ameerah whose father is a famous music producer, but I am intimidated to write it because I am afraid I wouldn’t be able to do a story told by a young, female black protagonist justice. I don’t have an authentic understanding of what it’s like to be a young black girl in this country, and I’m terrified of getting it wrong and offending readers. But I do understand what it’s like to be a young girl who wants things that her parents don’t want her to have, which is at the heart of the outline I wrote for Ameerah a long time ago. That story, I can write, and I have to ask myself just how important the color of Ameerah’s skin is to her character, and to the plot.
If you have thoughts about race in America, or race in YA fiction or fiction in general, I would really love to hear them. The last few weeks have revealed that there is still an enormous, gaping problem of racism in this country. We may have elected a black president, but as a country we are not doing enough to respect all cultures and view each other as equals. And this is painfully evident on the book shelves in the kids’ section of every book store I’ve ever visited in this country (not the book stores’ fault – where are the books, publishing industry?). We find our heroes in books, we understand our world through reading.