Skin Deep: Race in Writing

If any of you have ever spoken to me at length, you’ll know I have one key project weighing on my mind and my soul. We all have that one monster, don’t we? Mine is a project on which I was once collaborating with a friend. We have since experience a great falling out (girl+boy=byebyebestfriend), and after many months of initial fallout, my thoughts turned to our book(s). I’ll spare you the details, but in the end she told me to go ahead and run with it and agreed to sign legally binding documents when the time comes. Fine. So now it’s mine.

At first I was a little bitter. So, what? Now Cheyenne does all the work? It took me a period of adjustment to realize that having free reign meant I really could make the changes I’d tentatively suggested before. Now, I could really accept her blessing and do what I feel is necessary. She’d always said, “If you think it’s right, do it.” I never did because I didn’t want to step on her toes, but now…

About a bundle of things, I was dissatisfied. This is my legacy we’re talking about, you know? But it wasn’t so much the little things, in the end. What routinely bothered me, above names and back stories and unreasonable character traits, was race. Now, don’t reduce this immediately to White Guilt. What it came down to for me was not a question of appearing to be liberal; it was more a reasonable realization that the entire world is not, in fact, White. Somewhere along the way I looked at our main cast of characters (three men and four women) and realized they were all White,  and what’s worse, they were all the same KIND of White. One compromise was made on the behalf of a character who should likely have been Native American, but it still didn’t feel like enough for me. Additionally, whenever we discussed adding a cameo character or a background influence or a new enemy or ally, the default was ALWAYS WHITE.

Why do we think this is? Not just for White people (although if we weren’t the most common perpetrators, maybe there wouldn’t be lists like this?), for anyone. Is it merely because we are what we are, and so our brains default to that easiest option? Does seeing white, brown, black, red, tan, gold, copper, or cream in the mirror every day make it difficult to imagine something different from nothing without first dedicating some thought?

In the end, I acknowledged that I default to tall, fit, beautiful Irish people because I myself am tall and Irish and damn if I don’t wish I were those other things, too. Though I have seen many beautiful people in my life, my preset for beauty is what I wish I was. It might be safe to say we all see the world that way, but can we all say that, if denied of our defaults, that our runner up would be much different? If I couldn’t be tall and Irish, would my second choice be taller and Welsh? Or would my genuine next choice be tall and Indian? Or short and Black? Average and Korean?

I, as a White writer in a country where people assume all authors are White unless their names are racially or ethnically distinct, did not want to be another link in a long and W.A.S.P.y chain of authors who whitewash their main cast without even considering how boring or short sighted that might be. This exercise in artistic growth has also taught me about my other biases when creating characters as well, but we’ll tackle that another time.

*While writing this Chatter, I found some links relevant to the idea of expanding one’s library. The world is full of wonderful writers of color. Click here for Black authors of note, or here if you’ve never known where to look for Native American or Indigenous writers, or here and here for Asian and Middle Eastern authors, respectively.

For you, do your characters typically default to what you are, or what you consider most aesthetically pleasing? Do you apply effort to the diversity of your cast of characters, or does this rank low on your list of priorities when developing the cast? How important do you assert this idea to be?

Lost & Found came to a close in the wee hours of this morning — keep a sharp eye for this month’s reading list!

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About RicoChey

I'm just an unmarried, childless, thirty-something high school dropout with big ideas and a small attention span. Weave drunkenly behind me as I meander through my own life: a winding path of musings on life, relationships, food, the few politics I can stomach discussing, and probably really dumb stuff like the ratio of Sex and the City episodes wherein Carrie does and does not appear to be wearing extensions.
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19 Responses to Skin Deep: Race in Writing

  1. skyllairae says:

    I do this as well, when I write prose. I know some people follow the “write what you know” rule to the absolute letter and other people don’t. I try not to because I write paranormal/supernatural and post-apocalyptic dystopias. Since I can’t pull from my own experiences with those settings I can’t write what I know, only what I imagine. But in terms of characters I do default to my biology. All of my protagonists are european-white and female. Female because I have no idea how to write a male perspective from the first person, I have male supporting characters but maybe only two will ever get the same stage time as my leading lady. Yes, I’m biased towards writing from the perspective of female characters because I know the female perspective. There’s a female author who I occasionally follow and she is writing a novel with a male protagonist. She said it was difficult for her because she’s not a man and doesn’t have a good idea about how the male perspective works. So to get more information she asked her husband how he manages to walk up the stairs without hurting himself (aka the private parts). As writers we should strive to experiment with things we aren’t good at so we can become better writers. Incorporating racial/ethnicity diversity with my characters isn’t just about equality on the page but also about becoming a better writer. I need to learn how to write globally so that I can evolve.

    Liked by 2 people

    • RicoChey says:

      I recently had a fit over why they walk bow legged when naked. My boyfriend looked at me like I was a baffoon.

      It’s good that you mention gender as another preset for an author. I write easily from either perspective, probably because my mind and personality are so gender fluid to begin with. I’m glad that isn’t a hurdle for me, it would just give me something new to obsess about. In the end, it’s physical stuff that always takes an extra pause. Like the extra parts, for instance. 😉 “Okay. I’m a man. I’m riding a bike in this scene… do I… mention the obvious???”

      Like

  2. Shane Bell says:

    It really does have a lot to do with both your environment and who you are inside. I was raised in the melting pot that is south florida…so for me its tough to imagine a world where everyone is one color. Which also applies to my inner voices. You should maybe pick some fictional characters of other races that you identify with on any level and sort of follow them around until they become a part of you.

    Then you’ll find it easier to speak in their voice. Or in the voice of their friends and family.

    That being said you can say that a character is Asian or Hispanic or Indian or whatever…but being the hilarious jew that i am the challenge then becomes “how can i make this black lady not sound like a hilarious jew”?

    There is no easy answer to that question except that you shouldnt get hung up on race unless its integral to the story anyway.

    Write your story about what/who you want. If you feel its lacking diversity because it might actually be…then you can always change it later….however…
    if you don’t feel like you need to chamge it…then try not to get too fixated on meeting a minority quota and just tell your story.

    Liked by 3 people

    • skyllairae says:

      That’s great advice 🙂

      Like

    • t.s.wright says:

      Maybe it’s funnier if she does sound like an hilarious Jew. Kinda like those Allstate commercials where the people sound like the actor with the super deep voice. Your lady’s walking around coughing and try to clear her throat, but every time she speaks it’s your voice not hers coming out.

      Like

    • RicoChey says:

      I always wanted the cast to be more diverse, but I was often shot down. I’m definitely pleased to be able to stretch my writing limbs and walk in some different shoes. Eventually I intend to introduce foreign characters, at which point I will definitely be doing interview research before just assuming I know how to write from inside the mind of a West African medicine man.

      Also, as good as the line about being a hilarious Jew was, I FEEL THAT PAIN GENUINELY. Maybe my next chatter will be about the absolute anguish of trying not to let one’s own inner voice become literally EVERYONE’S inner voice.

      Liked by 1 person

      • t.s.wright says:

        I once tried writing a script for a TV show idea I had. Both primary characters were male and after I’d been writing for a while I realized they both sounded like me.
        SCRAP!
        I had a similar problem in my Norse novel, but I got myself out of it by assigning the voice of people I knew to each character. Then I just had conversations with them [the characters] or got them to tell a story and I focused on how my friend/family member would say it.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. t.s.wright says:

    Great article RicoChey. I will reply at home (’cause you know I have Opinions). The PC where I am won’t let me login as eadarD00dles and I can’t do this in the centimeter tall typing box on my phone.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. t.s.wright says:

    Reblogged this on Eadar Doodles + Cheese and commented:
    We need a weigh in. Let’s have a productive conversation.

    Like

  5. Great article, RicoChey!

    My characters have always told me who they are, so I haven’t really wrestled with any deep questions over diversity of race being present in my writing — I don’t see any reason to waver from what they’ve revealed to me, so I go with it. With that said, I’ve only ever written at length for three protagonists in my entire life.

    As for my own aesthetics … I’m much more into personality than anything else. Maybe that’s why my protags and their small casts of friends come with HUGE personalities. *shrugs* I do appreciate characters deeply connected with their heritage, but as we all know, the heritage a person identifies with isn’t always immediately apparent via skin color.

    As for the LIST … I’ll have to “unpack” a while to figure out exactly how I feel about such a thing. I’m a writer. I read a lot. Reading the same old thing would be boring, so I (and probably most voracious readers) seek out varied reading material. I’ve seen a lot of websites churn out these sorts of lists lately, and I’ve got to say that I never once jotted down suggestions made within. I don’t write because I’m white. I don’t read specific things because I’m white, and yeah… I may just be feeling the early stages of offense on behalf of all the readers (regardless of their race) out there being told by a slew of websites what they should read. It seems to me that these lists and the demands to read from them are created due to an assumption that ALL WHITE people are narrow-minded readers deliberately cherry picking authors and titles. I refuse to believe such an assumption has merit.

    Liked by 2 people

    • skyllairae says:

      Love the points you make, very well said.

      Liked by 1 person

    • RicoChey says:

      You think I don’t get a little fired up when White people are painted like ignorant jugheads? It definitely hurts my fragile ego!

      I, personally, have always loved the diversity of people in general and have always wanted to write about as many kinds of people as it might be possible to write about. In this case, a co-author was holding me back from doing that with a project that has SO much room for character diversity. That was a real drag. Not anymore!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. t.s.wright says:

    I have two answers. First as a reader –
    I love folklore, so it is impossible for me to read only white, only female, only American. Particularly the American part because folklore comes from the origins of a people and most of America originated elsewhere. Aside from indigenous tales that are pre-American, in this country we can really only boast of Old West tall tales and some Deep South charm. That’s never been enough for me. I’ve read all the Grimm and HCA as well as Aesops Fables and some others to come out of Greece and Rome. Irish folklore is some of my favorites because they believed that every bump in the night was a Something. In the last year, I’ve been reading more African and Caribbean folklore and I’ve found writers within the subset who convey the lyrical tone, especially of the Carribean, so well I stopped caring whether they were origin stories or brand new with the folklore feel. But I’m not reading them to diversify, I’m reading them because I’m interested in Anansi, the Boku, Voodoo, and any fantastical story that is told really well. I also just picked up a book of Jewish folktales that I was super excited about, and I’m not even Jewish. There is some rich historical folklore there that you don’t hear much about except in Supernatural and The X-Files.

    Like Shane said, it’s a melting pot down here (which explains the freaking heat). I did not grow up in a white world and I wouldn’t want to create one in fiction. While my characters Dallas and Inna are white girls, they’ve always been based on me and my cousin Debbie. I also have a main male character in the larger story who is an alien from a race of humanoid, sentient frogs and there are other humans in the story you haven’t met yet that are not white. The thing is, in Adrift specifically, it is so far in the future geography has changed. Few people live on the ground anymore and your geographic origin is based on who you work for. As Steve put it, the world in Adrift is already colored in darker tones because the gene pool has blended more. All of the lines are redrawn.
    I definitely agree that writers are inclined to write mirror image characters on an almost instinctual level. For me, most of my primary characters are a little bit of me in personality – Mabry is my love of robots and science, Inna is a writer with a strong sense of family, Arden is a conservationist and lover of nature – so it stands to reason that in my head they kind of look like me too (although Arden is a frog).

    I know that your question is more about race/nationality than anything else, but this is my thing – a character in a book is black ink on off-white paper. It’s who you pour inside them that makes them noteworthy. It’s their personality and voice that get them breathing off the page. Unless there is a reason to create a diverse backdrop of people (like I’m saving the human race from extinction), I don’t focus on the census boxes. I just surround my characters with people they love, who love them. People who make them laugh, or think, or push on and I let the creepy aliens be the bad guys, or a faceless government, or strange cults, or bad Fey.

    Consider this, when you are writing about Werewolves…how crucial is the fur color to the story?,

    Liked by 1 person

    • RicoChey says:

      1. Recommend some books of lore to me.

      2. I’m going to jump to the end and answer your question about fur color. Werewolves, as I see them, are as diverse and culturally rich a people as human beings have been and, with the exception of most of the dips in popular culture, still are. Evolution and geographical distribution have affected them as much as it has our own species. So, you don’t ask the right question. To them, fur color is like hair. It’s a roll of the dice. The differences they notice and take pride in are the same ones we do — the physical intricacies influenced by descent. So, it is important for my story that werewolf culture be represented as the same melting pot to which the human world is entitled. 🙂

      Like

      • t.s.wright says:

        My favorite, recently read, is Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord. The book is one full tale based on the folklore brought to the Carribean from Africa. I love the way the story is layered to show the growth of the main character and a learning/growth experience of one of the demigods. It also does something you don’t see in firsthand folklore, it delves into the motivations, feelings and politics that go on within the castes of the supernatural beings themselves.

        I have a book of Irish Folklore on the bedside table that is a collection of oral accounts of encounters with the various supernatural beings native to the area. It’s part of a series meant to preserve the stories from the oral tradition. I can describe the cover to you, but I can’t recall the editor or the Press company that put out the series. That’s all the way upstairs.

        There’s Elijah’s Violin & Other Jewish Fairy Tales selected and retold by Howard Schwartz. I’ve only had it a month, but I’ve read a handful of them and they are a huge improvement over the recently uncovered Grimm style tales collected in The Turnip Princess. I think the stories from the latter were based on notes in German and translated into English with no love for the craft of storytelling. It’s like they ran them through Babel Fish and moved on to the next thing in their inbox.

        That’s all for now. Gotta feed the dogs.

        Liked by 1 person

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