Discussing Race/Sexuality in Reviews
In the last year or so, Kirkus reviews changed their review policy to try and better identify diverse books for readers. In an article by Vicky Smith from last may, (https://www.kirkusreviews.com/features/unmaking-white-default/) she writes "But as the conversation surrounding diversity in children’s literature has heated up, I’ve felt more and more that naming race and identity is one of the duties of a reviewer." I understand her point. Covers and plot descriptions of novels are not necessarily indicators of race or sexuality, and for those who are seeking books with diverse characters, this makes discovery a challenge. On the other hand, I also think that there has to be a measure of how relevant or important those details are to the story, and whether or not it's necessary to call attention to it.
Recently I read a young adult novel that dealt with the suicide of the main character's sister, and the impact it has on her and her family. The reviewer, (likely in line with the magazine's policy) specifically mentioned that the protagonist's best friends were a gay white boy and a well-to-do girl with cocoa skin. The reviewer also pointed out that the grief counselor had olive skin, and that the boy she ends up romantically involved with is white.
Quite honestly I don't remember the author even offering many details about the protagonist's appearance. There might have been some indicators that she wasn't white, but as the story had nothing to do with race or sexuality, I likely didn't pay any attention to or care what colour skin supporting characters had. Oddly enough, the review also never stated what race the protagonist was, implying that she wasn't white by calling attention to the fact that the boy was.
Some of you might suggest that my being jarred by these descriptions is due to the fact that I'm white and the majority of books are about white protagonists. That's possibly true. I don't bring the experience of being a minority to my reading, but I still feel like making such a deliberate effort to point out that the main character is probably white isn't changing the narrative or calling attention to a need for diversity- it's simply making race an issue where it isn't. Does it really make such a tremendous difference to identify every minor character by race/sexuality? And for that matter, if the main character is white, or implied to be white, is that also a detail that needs to be pointed out? As a reviewer myself (though not for Kirkus admittedly) I've always focused on the big themes and ideas, and unless race/sexuality is important to the story, I've never pointed it out.
Reviewers definitely have a responsibility to their readers to fairly and appropriately evaluate the books they review. There is an obligation to point out the quality of the writing, the quality of the story, suitability for the intended age group, and whether or not it is perpetrating stereotypes.
Quite some time ago I read an editorial about how offensive it is to state that someone in a book "just happens to be...." but the author of the editorial also acknowledged that we still haven't come up with better language to identify these characters when we talk about books. As an industry, I think there is still work to be done in finding a way to identify diverse characters in literature without having to make such a deliberate and obvious effort to do so.