Great post by Maureen Johnson over at Ask Daphne yesterday in response to this question:
“Recently I’ve read a few books where a character is introduced a few chapters into the story and the narrator/main character describes her as “black” or “Asian” or “Hispanic.” It always jolts me because the rest of the characters in the book are not described as “white,” but it is assumed as a reader I know they are. Now if by saying a character has blue eyes and red hair the author figures I’ll know the character is white, why can’t he/she just say something like “her eyes were as brown as her skin” to describe someone who is black? It just comes across that the author assumes his/her readers are white. Does this bother anyone else? Am I being overly sensitive? For the record, I’m white.”
There have been several posts recently about the issue of describing race in novels, with the general complaint being that if a character is described as “black” or “Asian” or etc. then why aren’t white characters described as white?
“Doing good descriptions is hard, because you have to choose which facts are relevant to mention. How people *interpret* these facts–well, that’s another matter entirely. But when you write something, you have to have SOME sense of what impact your words are going to mean. That is pretty much the job description. Those descriptions are code–they should tell you something about the character, something aside from what’s there, flat, on the page.”
And there’s a lot to be said on this subject, about how come white is always the “default”. Mitali Perkins actually had an excellent article about this in School Library Journal this spring:
“When the characters, plot, or setting requires an author to define race, how does he or she accomplish this? Is there a “Korean kid” or a “black girl”? The problem is that socially constructed race words like African American, black, Asian American, and Latina are typically used only for characters who aren’t of European descent. North American authors conventionally don’t use “European American” or “white” to describe characters because to label every character’s race makes reading tedious. Why use any such labels at all, then? The best answer is because it made sense for a particular character or a first-person narrator to label people with those terms.
“If labels aren’t used, but you know a character is nonwhite, ask yourself and your students how the author communicated that fact. Check for tired food-related clichés about “coffee-colored” skin or “almond-shaped” eyes versus fresh, bold attempts to delineate race and culture in a story.”
And this is pretty much how I’ve gone about it. I’m sure it says something about me as a reader that despite living in a very multicultural world, I’m going to assume a character is white unless told otherwise (by the cover, the character themselves, or a description). Of course, there are exceptions — for instance, if I’m reading a novel about a prince in medieval Japan, I’m going to assume his ethnicity is, you know, Japanese. And it changes, too. If I’d picked up a novel a few years ago about the daughter of the President of the USA, I’d picture someone who looked like one of the Bush girls. Now, I’d picture one of the Obama girls. And that’s because my head goes to the “president’s daughter” file in my brain and the first picture that pops up is the REAL president’s daughters.
Or maybe Zoe Bartlett.
In SSG, the characters’ races/ethnicities/minority status were very much part of the story, as sometimes they were selected for the society to fulfill certain token spots. Rose & Grave needed the gay black member, the male Asian-American member, the Muslim Middle-Eastern member, the Jewish member. The narrator Amy, who is white, is also more likely to think of someone’s race if it’s a race different from her own.
In Rampant, the characters’ nationalities actually took precedence over their races, but it also didn’t make sense to me, knowing as I did that Alexander the Great started out from the eastern edge of Europe and moved east across the Middle East and Asia, and then the three thousand years of history that followed, that all the characters would be white. Most readers (rightly) assumed that Grace Bo, from Singapore (and an Asian hunting line), was of Asian descent. Funny story about Grace: in college, I wrote a short story about a girl named Grace (no last name) who was in medical school, and EVERY SINGLE PERSON who read it assumed (wrongly) that the short story Grace was Asian-American, probably because most of the people we knew who had names like Grace and were studying to be doctors were in fact Asian American. So maybe that contributed to my thought process when naming Grace Bo Grace. Well, that and the fact that Grace under pressure is the big discovery that character makes in Rampant. Readers also probably picked up on the fact that Ilesha, from India, was Southeast Asian, and knowing that Valerija comes from eastern Europe is enough to get a picture of her appearance in your head.
But this isn’t always the case. Despite quite explicitly describing the French hunter Zelda as having dark black skin, there were readers who translated that as “dark black hair” and I sometimes wonder if I made a mistake not being specific in my descriptions of Giovanni. Yes, he’s half-Italian, half-American. But when you picture Giovanni, do you see this?
Because that’s what he looks like. And though Astrid describes him in detail, she never specifically says he’s black. And a lot of readers have taken her descriptions of dark skin and curly, close cropped hair as being indicative of white Italians. I know many white Italians who have, for white people, “dark” skin and dark curly or wavy hair. My brother, for instance, who is practically as Italian as Giovanni.
I did not get the dark skin and hair in the genetic lottery. I REALLY did not get the curly hair. But I digress.
Anyway, I don’t know what the right answer is, and it’s one I’m going to revisit in every book, because I’m going to continue to write characters of many different ethnicities. In my experience, I think the possible danger of throwing a reader out of the story by explicitly describing a character’s race like the question on Daphne’s blog is probably a fair price to pay for making sure that your readers know the race of the character. YMMV.
But again, it’s relatively easy in contemporary fiction, set in America for a primarily American audience, because they are using a racial language the reader is familiar with. Other cultures don’t necessarily mean “of African descent” when they say “black” and sometimes, that word can be incredibly charged.
Another challenge would be to describe the character’s race in a time when the words we use don’t mean anything. How would a character in, say, Carrie Ryan’s books describe people of different races? They don’t even believe in the ocean in that book. Do they believe in continents like Asia and Africa? You’re not Asian-American if there’s no America, if no one knows what happened to Asia.
But now I am curious. So I made a poll: