Writing Race

You may or may not know this, but on my website there is a page called “IAQs,” which stands for Intelligently Asked Questions.

My readers are, by and large, a very smart bunch, and sometimes they ask me really interesting things that I (in my hubris) think others might be interested in, too. Guys, I LOVE answering your smart questions. It makes me feel like I’m not alone in a career that’s mostly solitary. If you’ve got a question about the Old World or my books or my characters, I encourage you to leave them in the comments on that page. If it grabs me, I’ll add it to the list.

Recently, I got such a good question for the IAQs that I decided it deserved its own blog entry (I figured this out after I’d written about 300 words that just scratched the surface). The question was about race in my books, and I’m going to try to answer it as honestly and completely as possible. Here’s the original question:

I really appreciate that you include characters of multi-racial and minority race background but at the same time treat them like normal human beings rather than making their ethnicity some sort of novelty. What’s the possibility of someone like Simon or Tracy leading a full-length novel as a protagonist? Would I be on the right track to assume that something like this would be met with a certain level of resistance from publishers? 

First of all, the wording of this question made me extremely happy, because including persons of color without making them tokens is one of my major goals as a writer. To hear that anything coming off the way I intended is always an enormous relief.

Second, I’ve been meaning to do a blog about writing race for ages, and this question gave me the push I needed. I’ve always had two goals when it comes to writing minorities: include everyone, and make sure it’s no big deal. This applies to LGBT characters, too. For example, Lex’s cousin Elise is a lesbian, but her homosexuality is just one aspect of that character’s identity. Lily is visibly mixed race (as opposed to Simon, who could “pass” for white), and there are times when that will naturally come up in conversation, but I try to never portray it as her defining quality.

I’m going to let you guys in on a secret: I am white. Yes, it’s true. I would never suggest that white writers have it harder than minority writers – of course we don’t. But I will say that writing about race is always very complicated, and if you’re a white writer, you have to walk a fine line. If we write only white characters, we are (rightfully) criticized for whitewashing. If we write in a handful of minorities, especially in that “cover of the college brochure” way, where you have one member of each race get one line per book, we can be criticized for tokenism. I don’t want to do that. But if we write a main character who is a person of color, we can be accused of appropriation.

Appropriation is a word and a concept that scares the crap out of me, because I was raised in the Midwest, where people would rather leap in front of a bus than offend someone else. I have walked in enough academic and social interest circles to know that some people of color are very offended by white writers who write minority protagonists. Their argument is that publishers aren’t going to publish too many books with minority protagonists, and if us white writers take up all those “slots,” we will be edging out minority writers who want to write about people who look like them.

I don’t know if I agree with the “there are only so many spaces for books with minority protagonists” concept, but I also recognize that that may be very naive of me. So when I create characters, there’s always a little voice in the back of my head reminding me that I am a white person, so watch it. I don’t want to be accused of “stealing” someone else’s experience.

At the same time, though, I think the publishing industry would be boring if all writers only wrote about people who are just like them. And I believe that there are some white* writers who handle a minority character really well. The two that come to mind are Patricia Briggs, whose Mercy Thompson is Native American, and Ben Aaronovitch, who writes a mixed-race junior wizard. I think they do a great job, but I also know they’ve both received criticism for being white and writing non-white.

I’m not saying I’d never write a person of color as my main character–in fact, my short novel Bloodsick has a main character who is half Indian– I’m just saying, man, it is complicated. And, like most writers in the age of ebooks and social media, I’m also terrified of making a mistake. One early review for Bloodsick criticized how I handled Sashi’s heritage. The reviewer was absolutely right; I had used the incorrect term to describe a person from India. Because this is the age of ebooks and social media, I was able to fix that error. But I am always reminded that I can’t really speak to the experience of being mixed-race, or gay. All I can do is research everything I can and do my best to create characters that are in line with reality.**

 

As to the question of how a publisher would react to a novel whose lead character is a minority race (you thought I was just gonna gloss over it, didn’t you?), I will say that I have never received any pushback about my minority or LBGT characters in any way. No one has ever suggested I dial it back, or make Elise straight, or anything like that. Of course, my two main female protagonists are white, so I wasn’t exactly pushing any editors out of their comfort zone here. But I trust the people I work with, and know them well enough to be pretty sure a character’s race is not something they’d ever try to change.

As far as publishers in general…if I’m being totally honest here, I could see a publisher saying, “But does she have to be black?” if they felt like the character’s race didn’t impact the plot or the author’s artistic vision. This is very bad of Hypothetical Publisher, but it isn’t entirely their fault, either. Because, you see, most –not all– writers consider white the “default” race for all characters.

For example, if a detective encounters three suspects of different races, he might describe them as a tall guy, an Asian guy, and a Latino guy. As you read that sentence, you automatically assumed that the tall guy was white, didn’t you? I would, too. That’s how readers and writers have been trained for hundreds of years. Probably it started out innocently enough, maybe even as a numbers game (the majority of English speakers are white, ergo that’s the default), but it doesn’t make much sense in the modern world. What ends up happening is that we internally classify all racially unidentified characters as white, which means that white becomes normal. And if white is normal, then by definition, anything else is abnormal. So I can imagine a publisher saying, “Can your main character just be white,” and what they really mean is, “Can your main character just be normal?”

And that’s how we end up with so few minority protagonists in literature. Which is bad.

I believe that what writers (especially white writers) need to do is “normalize” minority characters, which brings me back to my originally stated goal: include other races, and make it no big deal. That might sound daunting, but there is one small, simple way to do it. This is actually something I picked up from Aaronovitch, who writes the Peter Grant series. Like my books, Aaronovitch writes in first-person perspective, meaning we are inside Peter’s head. And when Peter, who has one white parent and one African*** parent, meets new people, he always describes their race– even if their race is white.

Describe the white people. That’s the big secret. Ever since I put this together, I always make a point to describe people who are white as being, you know, white. As an example, here’s the first description of Hazel Pellar in Boundary Lines:

She was a Caucasian woman in her mid-fifties, dressed in simple black slacks and a bronze-colored sweater that set off the silver in her long braid.

It’s such a small, stupidly obvious thing to do that I was really annoyed with myself for not thinking of it before. But that’s part of how this subtle cycle of racism works–I don’t think of myself as racist, but before I began to describe white people I was subconsciously participating in a practice that subtly classifies minority races as other.

At the end of the day –and the end of this very long post — my goal is authenticity. I want to write authentic characters who feel like they could be real people. I want every one of my supporting characters to feel so complete and three-dimensional that any one of them could have their own short story, if not full novel. Am I always successful? Probably not. But I’m doing the best I can with the knowledge and understanding that I have.

 

*as far as I know, judging from author photos.
**Boulder, Colorado is also 88% white. If I’m really trying for authenticity…this is so complicated.
***This is not a typo. Peter’s mother is actually an immigrant from Africa. The books are also set in London, so I don’t think I could describe her as African-American anyway.

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2 Comments

  1. Big fan of your books and I really appreciate the way in which you write race. I’m also a fan of Aaronovitch and the Peter Grant series, just the fact that it’s one of few speculative fiction series with a non-white main character, esp. of black heritage. Since we are talking about writing race it would be best to identify Peter’s mother as being a Black Sierra Leonean and not just African, since Africa is a vast continent with many countries and ethnic groups in it. I’ve personally never heard of someone from Africa, not identify their home country.

    Also, I think you can authentically make a book diverse even in a city/state with a low diverse population because it doesn’t mean that diversity doesn’t touch your characters. This is in regards to your footnote that Boulder is 88% white. I live in a city where the population is 81% white, yet the people I interact with are very diverse because that just happens to be my circle of friends. My friends are Latino, Native American, African-American, Nigerian, Caucasian, and Indian, so it is possible for someone to live in a less ethnically/racially diverse place and still have a diverse circle of friends. Those who argue that it’s not are usually taking their own experiences as “the norm” and using the city’s demographics as the reason for having a less diverse circle of friends/acquaintances and not their own hesitancy or reluctance to step out of their comfort zone.

    Now that I’ve “talked” your ear off, just wanted to add I can’t wait for your next novel.

  2. I applaud your thinking on this subject! All “colors” just need to be “normal”. In the end this will mean that abnormal as regards race no longer exists. Any publisher who considers tale based upon its colors rather than its merits as a tale is a waste of time and should be avoided. Likewise, an author who feels another author is usurping their “place in line” via color should be questioning their own insecurities (or their true attitude toward color). If a publisher is truly considering the works they publish based on their merit as tales-to-be-told then the best will be published regardless of the palette used.

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