Do white parents have to like my books? On YA fiction and the white gaze.

Ryan Douglass
4 min readMay 1, 2023

Go browsing for a Black young adult book, and you’ll find several about a character who is one of the only Black kids at their school. Quite a few will feature interracial relationships, and almost all will teach you that Black people have an otherworldly strength that equips us to survive any racist trauma, and an endless well of forgiveness for our enemies.

Black writers querying agents are expected to show them how much time we’ve spent around white people, and how much money we had growing up, as a pre-requisite of entry. It’s interesting navigating an industry when so much of it boils down to defending that you are, in fact, a person.

The stories that de-center whiteness are left to shift the status quo from the margins, while white gaze narratives take center stage. White people are endlessly compelled by the challenge of seeing Black people as human. However, there is nothing about this challenge that can excite the Black imagination.

To defend that you are human, you have to first accept that the denial of your humanity is a reasonable opinion, one that should be met with critical thought. What’s the point of being visible if we’re only here to say, “Black people are people too?”

White gaze books also hold a mirror to the culture they’re coming out of — a culture that asks Black writers to prove why we’re a cut above the rest, why we’re one of the Best Blacks. It’s a manipulative game where all paths lead to cultural carnage. You can focus solely on identity politics, or you can insist on your capacity to do more, and face a taller uphill battle with the gatekeepers, and hostility from the authors who view selling out as inevitable.

I’m so bored of reducing my creative imagination to qualify my existence for people who see me as a commodity. I don’t care what people who lack tolerance think or if they read my stories. Changing the mindset of racists is not an aspiration that all Black writers should be expected to have. If you reject the language publishing wants to hear and prioritize your community, you’re protecting the Black tradition. It’s a journey that feels more self-recharging, more connected to heritage, and less held captive by racial capitalism.

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