In 2nd grade, I fiddled, cross-legged, as I listened to my teacher mumble about the beauty of books.
“Reading is like giving vague instructions to your mind,” she whispered, “like a coloring book: you give your brain an outline and allow it to figure the rest out by itself.”
I couldn’t help but let her enthusiasm enter me- it was wonderful, what our brain would think, what it was taught to think, with no instruction.
Soon, the bookshelves in my room overflowed with stories I could never forget. At night, I would pray to be those characters, trapped in the confines of pages, fighting evil. I could almost envision my blue eyes twinkling in the sunlight as my blonde hair flew behind me. My long, pale legs would pump faster and faster, leaving the villain in the dust. Maybe this vision of myself was my first mistake.
My second mistake was quite similar: I always imagined myself as princess Ariel, caring and good-natured but just a tad rebellious. In elementary school, at the lunch table, my friends and I were talking about what princess we would be, and I, quite confidently, said that I was Ariel. The reaction, nervous laughter, was not what I expected.
Lyla, a girl with fair skin and dark hair, who we knew was Snow White, responded.
“No, you’re not Ariel. That doesn’t make any sense. She is.”
Lyla pointed a slim finger at a shy girl sitting on the corner of our table. She had fire for hair, light eyes and even lighter skin.
“Who am I then?”
Lyla paused for a little, and looked around at everyone else. “I don’t know, no one, I think. Not everyone has to be a princess. It’s okay.”
After lunch, I immediately approached the girl who was said to be Ariel. I let my mind wander about all the insane adventures we would go on together. I found out soon enough that she was timid, and deathly afraid of the sea and breaking rules. I was confused.
That night I took a good look at myself in the mirror, the conversation still echoing in my head. No one. Not everyone has to be a princess. I was upset, but mainly confused. I looked up to these fictional girls because I saw bits of what I was in them, and pieces of what I wanted to be. I thought that our personalities were very similar. But, everyone else seemed to be drawing comparisons on the basis of something as empty as appearance. It was then that I understood I would never be called Ariel because she was white, and I was not. There was something cynical in reading now; each marvelous heroine was just a character, a figment of my imagination, something I’d never be.
The more books I read, the more I see that authors often stick to simplicity when it comes to detail. For example, everyone has a nose and authors often do not include this detail in a character’s profile because they know that the reader will be able to imagine it. My teacher was right- we, as readers, are able to fill in aspects even when there is no specific instruction. The author only mentions a nose in extreme cases: when he or she believes that without a proper description the character cannot be complete or fully understood (think: Voldemort). Oddly enough, I have noticed that ethnicity in literature works the same way. The standard of race has become so embedded in our head that like an ordinary nose, explaining that a character is white is a waste of words that can instead be spent on painting a better picture of the character. If there are two characters, Sasha who is white, and William who is not, the character development for Sasha is always much more in depth. The reader learns small quirks about Sasha, like how she takes her coffee. William, however, is treated like a character with an extremely unique nose, and suddenly the reader knows nothing about his personality, but rather knows too much about the exact shade of his skin.
When we read about Sasha we allow our mind to think. We know Sasha likes coffee in the morning with no sugar because she is trying to lose weight for her brother’s wedding that’s in two weeks. This detail sparks a flame that allows readers to relate to her. We like her, because she’s like us. But when we read about William we think, “oh that’s the kid who is black,” because that’s the only description we have received. We don’t see William away from his race as we do Sasha. We have confined him.
Don’t get me wrong I believe that race is important in development of characters: fictional or realistic. However, race should help us grow, not stop us. When I was young, what I struggled with most about that lunch table conversation was realizing not that I wouldn’t be seen as Ariel, but that I wouldn’t be seen as anyone. My young mind failed to see me painted as a hero. For the longest time I thought that I was the problem. If no one wanted to write about someone who looked like me, or had parents that looked like me- isn’t that an issue?
Whether we want to believe it or not, there’s something in all of our brains forcing us to perceive some people differently than others due to small, and in hindsight meaningless, characteristics. These unfair stereotypes, which begin as whispers and progress into screams, build a wall that not only divides us but sometimes, in the worst cases, buries us alive.
I wonder how long it will take until we realize that maybe our instinct is not correct. Maybe, corrupt from the generations before us, our brain is begging for a change-to not only have coloring books but also to celebrate any color that appears. Maybe we need a rainbow of Ariels, and to equally accept those with tails and those with legs.
Sanya Bery lives in New Jersey and spends most of her time in the city, or the tree house she and her brother found in the woods behind a golf course (very cliché, she knows, but seriously: people underestimate the power of tree houses).
Her writing has won both a Silver and Gold key, and has been published in Creative Communication, Prisms Magazine, Teen Ink, and Canvas Literary Magazine.
Her creative writing teacher is the wonderful Ms. Tess James.