Thursday, April 11, 2013

Diversity 101: The Sidekick Syndrome

Contributed to CBC Diversity by our very own Andrea Davis Pinkney 

My Personal Connection

My teenagers are some opinionated people! I love this about them. It means they have strong ideas and that they’re speaking up about what’s important to them. That’s why I was very eager to write this blog post about clichés and stereotypes. As the mom of two teens, my daughter and son waste no time telling me what needs to be fixed in the YA books they read. As an editor and author, my kids like to stick it to me, thinking I have some magical power to correct each and every societal stereotype that exists in books for young people. While I don’t have a magic wand, I do know there is one cliché that annoys the heck out of me and my teens. Hopefully this post will shine some light on it.

I’ll pose it in the way my kids put it to me ― in a question: “Why, in contemporary YA novels that feature groups of kids as friends, the black girl or boy is always a sidekick, secondary character, or nonentity?”

The way my daughter and son see it, this is the kid with no character development, no backstory, no emotional growth, no family, and dialogue one-liners that don’t amount to much. 

It’s a common cliché, and it’s very subtle. In our ever-increasing commitment to include diverse characters in novels, we’ve also, at the same time, increased a stereotype ― that black kids (when they’re among an “ensemble cast”) don’t have much going on and aren’t worthy of the spotlight.

In the old days they called this tokenism ― sticking a person of color into the mix for the sake of having a black face among the group. This has its disadvantages. Young readers want to know what’s in the hearts and souls that are behind those faces of color. But when we don’t give these characters the same depth as is allowed the other characters, we perpetuate the stereotype that black teens are lesser people.

What does this say to the black kid reading the same novel with his white friends?

Things I'd Like to See
Here are some possible solutions that my teens and I propose that could work toward a solution to ending what we call “the sidekick syndrome.”
  • Include more than one black character in a story that involves several kids
  • Give black kids a point of view ― let’s see them care deeply about something that affects the others characters and the story’s outcome.
  • Take us into the homes and lives of a story’s black characters. So often, we never meet these kids’ parents. We don’t see the lives they lead outside of school.
  • Insist that authors do more than just plunk a black teen in for the sake of multiculturalism. If a novel includes a black girl or boy, that person needs to carry equal weight.
  • Put black kids on the cover of the book with the other characters, and let them be featured just as prominently
  • In endorsement quotes about the novel, include those from black authors (this will also be an opportunity for a black author to read the story and offer possible feedback on how black characters are depicted).
  • Make characters of color accountable for their actions and attitudes in the same ways we expect of white characters in a book.
  • Review the dialogue of black characters, and ask, “Are the characters of color expressing themselves throughout the book.
  • Finally, we need to ask, “Does the one black character in this novel help move the story forward as effectively as all the other characters do?”

Suggested Reading
For Teen Readers:

Stir it Up by Ramin Ganeshram
The Clone Code series by Patricia C. McKissack, Fredrick McKissack, Pat McKissack and John Patrick McKissack
  • The Clone Code
  • Cyborg
  • The Visitors

For Younger Readers: 

The Cruisers series by Walter Dean Myers:
  • The Cruisers
  • Checkmate
  • A Star is Born
  • Oh, Snap!
The Sassy series by Sharon Draper
  • Little Sister in Not my Name
  • The Birthday Storm
  • The Silver Secret
  • The Dazzle Disaster Dinner Party

Andrea Davis Pinkney is the New York Times bestselling and award winning author of many books for children and young adults. She is also a children’s book editor at a major house. Andrea has been named among the “25 Most Influential Black Women in Business” by The Network Journal, and is the mom of two incredible teens who love to read.  


  1. What a great post. Such important points. Thank you.

  2. I love what Andrea is saying here. I tend to refer to this sort of thing as "Tonto" characters, but I suspect we're coming from the same place.

    As a writing teacher, though, I can almost hear some beginning writers saying that they don't feel like they have permission/insights to write minority protagonists and now they're feeling like they can't do secondary characters either. So to them, I'd reply, we're not talking protagonist or bust, zero representation whatsoever. (Or at least I'm not -- I don't want to presume to speak for ADP.)

    But there's a difference between a nuanced, story-affecting secondary character and a cardboard one stuck in place to make a self-congratulatory point.

    Write all of your characters (except walk-ons) as three-dimensional people, and you'll be on your way.

  3. Nice post. This happens way too much.

  4. Great post, Andrea! I know a lot of writers who want to write about characters who are of a different culture and ethnicity than themselves, but don't for fear they'll "get something wrong". These are some great guidelines for fleshing out all your characters, not just those who are different than you.


  5. I appreciate Ms. Pinkney for using the word tokenism; I call it U.N. Casting. It's not always realistic and while I know it's often well meant, it's ... not enough of what is needed.

  6. Thanks for this post, Andrea, especially for the possible solutions section which are great points to keep in mind while editing, writing, and reading.

  7. The interesting thing about this is it not only does the right thing by minority characters but it strengthens the story overall. the more complete the secondary characters, the richer, more textured the novel.

    Deb Taylor

  8. Excellent post. Great readings suggestions. Dialogue also is crucial. I can't tell you how many times I've seen the "sassy" African American friend who sounds like Oprah or is the only character who uses slang. Hello? Teens of all races use slang. Please don't make your ethnic characters the repository of slang.

  9. Great post. But as to putting a black kid on the cover of the book -- I couldn't even get my publisher to put a boy on the cover of "Spellbinder"! When I asked why, they said "Boys won't read it anyway." Sigh.

  10. Yes, Andrea, a very helpful post, absolutely, this is a big problem! I agree with others above that this kind of thin, false character is often the result of an author feeling intimidated, Fear of criticism can be paralyzing. The character can end up as nothing more than a sign of the author's good intention.

    "Oprah dialog"--so true.

    There's a lot to think about here, and study.