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The Great Race(ism)
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Yesterday I was tooling around the interwebs and--in the inexplicable way that these things happen--came across some reviews for a book the title of which I now can't remember. But the title isn't important. It's one of the reader reviews that caught my attention. I've been thinking about it since reading it, and still haven't quite decided what I think about it.

Basically the reviewer said (and I'm paraphrasing here, as I didn't copy the review and now can't find it): I really liked this novel. However, it bothers me that the author describes one character's Hawaiian heritage and points out that another one is black, but never describes the other characters as being white. It's just assumed that they are. I think this is a kind of racism.

All right, so I can't remember the title of the novel and I can't quote the review directly. Whatever. You get the idea. I promise I'm not making it up. You can ask my friend Jill, as I told her about it at dinner last night. And if you still don't believe me you can call the restaurant (Xiao Loong) and ask my friend Jeff, the owner, because we talked about it with him too.

This is something I struggle with myself. In general it is usually assumed--unless something in the book's description makes it otherwise apparent--that the author is writing about characters of her own ethnicity. I know this is a generalization, but it's true, so don't send me nasty e-mails. When someone picks up an Alice Walker novel, they can be reasonably sure that it's going to be a story about African-American characters, and Amy Tan's readers know that they're probably going to get a story about Chinese-Americans. (Oh, I have a great Amy Tan story. I'll tell you at the end of the blog.)

Similarly, when my readers pick up one of my novels, they assume they're going to be reading about white people, and usually about white gay men. Because that's what I am, and it's what I (mostly) write about. My novels are about what it's like to be a white gay man living in America at this particular time in history. It's my thing, as the kids say.

But I don't only write about white characters. Sometimes I have Latino characters, or Asian characters, or African-American characters. And this is where it gets tricky. I want the reader to know that this character looks a certain way or comes from a particular background. And so I am faced with a problem: How do I do this without it being awkward?

Sometimes using a name helps. Dr. Yan most likely creates a certain visual in a reader's mind, right? But what if Yan is her married name and her maiden one was McClatchy? Or what if Ben Goldberg has a Peruvian mother and a Jewish father and takes after Mom? Now we're back where we started.

"Just describe him," you say. Yes. Well. "Dr. Yan entered the room. Her black hair and tilted eyes caught Reginald's attention. She was stunning." No. And there are only so many times you can get away with "his mocha skin" and "her Cherokee cheekbones." As in precisely once. And if you think for one second that describing a character as having "a profile that suggested a Jewish heritage" is going to win anyone over, think again.

But that's sort of what we're left with. Yes, context usually makes it fairly easy to tell what's going on with a character. But not always. And sometimes you don't have 40 pages in which to establish a character. You have to do it now now now. This character needs to be Eskimo, if not for plot purposes then simply for the sake of accurately describing a world where not everyone is Latino, or white, or Incan. For instance, when earlier I mentioned my friend Jeff who owns the Chinese restaurant, what kind of mental picture did you get? Asian because he owns a Chinese restaurant? White because his name is Jeff? Does it bother you that I didn't give you any clues?

When my main character first appears I don't write, "Philip, a white gay man, stepped out of the Volvo and waved to his friend Brad, who was also white and gay." My readers just assume that Philip is probably white and gay, until something comes along that tells them otherwise. Is this racist, as the reviewer of that novel suggested? Or is it simply that we accept as a kind of shorthand that a book's characters will largely be of the same race as the author? (Assuming that we know the author's race or nationality.)

And what if at that first appearance Brad is standing on the porch with his lover Greg, who happens to be Japanese. Is my best option to open with, "Philip, a white gay man, stepped out of the Volvo and waved to his friends Brad, who was also white and gay, and Greg, who was wearing a kimono that he'd purchased on a trip to Kyoto to research his ancestral roots."? Ha ha! No.

Yes, I'm being the tiniest bit sarcastic. But it's a question worth discussing. How, as authors, do we make our books inclusive without making them feel like some kind of Up With People pamphlet? Is it racist to point out any character's race? And most important, just how do I describe Dr. Yan's Irish coloring, which my protagonist finds very interesting given her surname?


And now for the Amy Tan story. Okay, so years ago I was working with a publishing house that was attempting to get Tan to write a book for them. The publisher (a middle aged straight white man) was a lovely person, but not terribly socially adept. I was in the elevator one day when this man and Tan got in. As the elevator descended the publisher--clearly trying to find some common ground with this author he badly wanted on his list--turned to Tan and said, "You know, I've always liked Chinese food."

True story.

12 Comment count
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Michael, a fantastic story...

and a thought provoking blog.

Toni Morrison wrote a book titled Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination which touches on this, and I remember discussing it in writing workshops. I believe it was mentioned that it's good sometimes to mention skin color as a description, but don't start it off with "the white girl..." because then it's telling rather than showing.

Jennifer Gibbons, Red Room

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Michael, I think if you don't point it out, and it's not particularly relevant to the story, each reader will fill in the blanks on his or her own.

I hope you'll join the Red Room is SO Gay club. At the moment, we're talking about how, or even whether, being gay influences writing.

Huntington Sharp, Red Room

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Actually, I thought Jeff

Actually, I thought Jeff looked like Jeff of "Mutt and Jeff".

If a character's race is an important plot point, the information should be given up front (usually by another character). Otherwise, develop the character the same way as is done with any other.

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Thanks for a very

Thanks for a very interesting blog post. My two cents: I wonder whether the reviewer you're paraphrasing was finding "racism" where perhaps there was only description. (If the other characters are never described as white, why is the reviewer so sure they are? Was there some mention of blue eyes or a pink sunburn? Was the setting a Nova Scotia village? These *are* descriptors.) In life, if a person's race or specific facial characteristics are necessary to describe her, it's not racist to talk about them. ... If I were sending you to find a particular friend of mine in a room full of women, I could help you by saying, "She's about 5'5", African-American, and wearing Buddy Holly glasses" or "She's a very tall redhead." If I were recommending her for a job, I wouldn't need to mention that stuff -- I would talk only about her InDesign skills or her MBA.

The same is true, I think, when we write: if Dr. Yan's Irish coloring is germane to a story, then mentioning her startling freckles can't be wrong. If Dr. Yan makes just a brief appearance, and it's her distracted air and blood-stained lab coat that are affecting (not her looks), why not let readers imagine her face as they will? Same with Jeff: it doesn't matter what he looks like.

I like that you want to be inclusive, and it's important to be sensitive ... but hmmmmm. I think it's appropriate to let context (the author's and the characters') do its job, too. (In fact, when I read something about gay people in a modern city, I picture a pretty multicultural group, no matter what the writer looks like.)

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great post

I like the points you make, and I thought I might share how I handle racial signifiers in my work. I'm a white gay gay who just wrote a book about African-American characters, both straight and gay. Each chapter shows different characters from a first-person POV. None of them ever identify their own race. Some speak in a stereotypically "black" way, and some don't. I leave it up to the reader to figure it out through what my characters talk about and occasional references to "white people."

For me, this approach makes sense because it fits how people actually talk. We all think of our own group as just people. Obviously, that vantage point can lead to a lot of parochialism and racism, but it is also a perfectly convenient shorthand. My characters have their neighbors and classmates whose race they don't need to identify, and they also have this group called "white people" they try to keep at arm's length to keep from getting hurt.

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Tips on Writing Race

I appreciate your post, and hope you find these helpful.

Writing Race: A Checklist for Writers

 Ten Tips on Writing Race in Novels

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Thought Provoking Post.

 Very thought provoking post, I must say. It raises questions that are relevant to the craft of writing. If race prejudices of the writer crop up in writing, it would detract from the quality of work. I suppose a good writer should be able to describe the race or colour of her/his characters without offending anyone.

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Read your post. I believe building a character, to me unless it is relevant to the race of a character, then why mention it. There are so many different races in this world. I have Irish, German, black, Native heritage but I'm white as the driven snow. I've always detested even a news broad cast that highlighted race. The blog has now got me thinking, thanks for sharing such a mind twister for morning coffee. Love to here more, keeps my brain working.

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a great post--and

I also thought it was a very funny parody of expository writing.

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So who knows what race we are?

Deep in my website I have an anecdote about an angry young man I encountered on a NYC subway one night:

"Late twenties, light-skinned, head shaved but for a long topknot like a cartoon Iroquois, ragged jeans decorated with patches, an expensive backpack that kept him hunched forward in the seat, a bottle of spring water in one hand and in the other a notebook, the kind with a black-and-white speckled cover used for school lessons. He looked pretty normal, actually, except tense." Madman on the subway

At least some readers thought "light-skinned" meant he was "black"-- I meant just the opposite. He was light-skinned like me (I'm of NW European descent), worth mentioning because it was a little unusual on that subway line at that hour. More common are darker-skinned people. I didn't say "white" because I was trying to be realistic, and nobody (except maybe dead people) is really "white." And you can't say "Caucasian" because those are those swarthy people from Chechenya and environs.

Thee's no good, simple answer. We just have to suggest what we mean to convey but can't control our readers' imaginations. I'm glad you brought this up, because it's worth some thought.

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I've tried really hard to say it all without saying anything. I use dialog, but then again, I had a good friend shock my dad when she yelled, "Yo Sangay! where you at?" The snow white 30 year-old was a petite, paralegal, married to a lawyer. Would love an opinion as to race and gender preference on my punk noir thriller...http://www.authonomy.com/ReadBook.aspx?bookid=8080#chapter Sandra is probably most obvious. Bridget...less so.

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Race Trivia

Everyone in the world has descended from the same African Grandmother. (Dark-skinned due to the sun protecting melanin pigment.)

1 out of every 200 males in the world holds a genetic trace of Genghis Khan in their DNA. (Monogamy not being part of the 'conquer the world' plan in the time of the Mongol empire.)