I attended a writers group meeting this week where I was asked to critique a writer’s work. On the second page the writer, a retired white man, had described his protagonist getting into a cab driven by “a black driver.” I asked why he had described the driver as “black”. Was the protagonist a white character in Harlem or some setting where there was a reason to describe the cab driver’s ethnicity or color? He told me there wasn’t. On the next page, the protagonist passed “a brown-skinned woman”. I asked how her skin color was important to the story. He replied it wasn’t, as we never saw this character again. Two paragraphs later, his protagonist encountered “a woman”.
Since she had no adjective preceding her, I had to ask him, “Would I be correct to infer she’s a white woman?” The writer said yes, she was. “But you didn’t put “white woman,” I said. “You simply wrote ‘woman’ because she was a normal person?” He nodded. “And the other characters weren’t normal,” I continued. I could hear the penny drop, the tiny light bulb turning on behind his eyes, as he realized where I was going with this.
“As a white writer, you don’t feel the need to tell your readers your characters are white because you’re assuming your readers are white, and white is the normal skin tone for all characters unless you want to add some ‘color’ to your story. But what you’re saying is white is the default, normal skin tone and race, and anyone else differs from the norm. Imagine how you would feel if you were not a white reader reading the story. You wouldn’t be able to put yourself in the mind of the protagonist because he views you, the reader, and every nonwhite person he encounters throughout the story as ‘other’, ‘not normal’, or ‘different’. Instead of writing something that’s inclusive for your reader, you’ve made it exclusive.”
He asked if I thought anyone would be offended. “I was,” I replied. “And I’m white. This isn’t the 1950s. We live in a multicultural society, and thanks to the Internet as authors our work is read worldwide. The more successful we are, the more our work will be read by people of all races, colors, and cultures.” I explained it’s not just the current population of potential readers, but those who will be reading our books in the decades to follow. About 50 percent of American children under age 10 are nonwhite. Think about that. Half of the potential readership for the young adult book you’re working on today is not white. By the time it’s eventually published, you’ll have excluded half your audience.
Our readership has become more ethnically diverse. In America alone, our society encompasses Hispanics, Asians, and African-Americans of varying skin color. Not only should a Caucasian writer not assume the reader is white, he should not want to give that inference. Unless there’s a good reason to do otherwise, the protagonist should be a chameleon who can take on the characteristics of the reader.
That’s not to say race or color should never play a role in character description. For example, in my Halos & Horns fantasy series I have a character named Asabi whom I have made clear is black. Asabi is an emere: a mythological being who is able to travel between Heaven and Earth. Emeres come from the legends of the Yoruba People in Africa. It’s important that Asabi be black because his origins stem from ancient African legends. It would be insulting in my opinion (or to use the god-awful politically correct term ‘cultural appropriation’) to cast Asabi as anything other than black.
When Asabi had his first romantic relationship, with Cassiopeia, it was important to the plot that I describe her as a white woman. But most of my other characters, unless required by the plot, were never described by the color of their skin. Readers may have assumed the two main characters, Gabriel and Lucifer, were white, but they could just as easily have been black. I left that to the imagination of the reader, and perhaps white and black readers imagined them differently.
The truth is, we’re all prejudiced to some degree simply because of the insular environments in which we were raised. We’ve been brought up to think of the world as pockets of “us” (defined as those who share similarities with us) and “them” (defined by those who differ from us). I know the writer I met this week is not racist; yet he let the vestigial prejudices we all have slip into his writing. For those of us who are writers we must take extra care to make sure our words are not unintentionally exclusive.