I was sitting around most of the day today in the hospital with the husband with nothing much to do except read Twitter. Now I have thoughts.
Most of my bookish timeline was taken up with discussions on diversity. A lot of the discussion was about white writers not explicitly pointing out that characters are a certain race. Another line of discussion was about People of Color wanting to have their race acknowledged in discussion. Seeing those two discussions side by side made me realize what part of the problem may be.
White people are taught to never, ever describe anyone by their race.
For example, if you are trying to point out a person across a room to someone else, a white person will go through all kinds of verbal gymnastics. “The lady with the hat and the red shirt. Over there. Next to the man with the green tie.” If that fails and there is no other recourse, the white person will then whisper, “The Korean woman.”
Here’s why. It isn’t because we don’t see race. It isn’t because we are trying to dismiss the person’s race from their life experience. It is because we have been taught that simplifying a person to a description of their race is what racists do. Nice people don’t do what racists do.
I don’t know who made up this rule for white people. I don’t know if any People of Color were consulted about how they feel about that. But I promise you, if you started the above scenario by telling another liberal white person, “See the Korean woman over there?” you are going to get hissed at. “You can’t say that!”
Now, take a person with that life training. Have them write a description of a crowd. Even if the crowd they visualize is multiracial, they are not going to write that down unless the race of characters is an essential part of the plot. I tried that exercise myself one day. I looked over a food court in a mall and imagined how I would describe what I see in a book. I would have to talk about the Chinese couple holding hands on a bench and the Indian woman riffling through her shopping bags. I felt a little bit icky as I thought that. There is that remnant of Never Describe a Person Just By Their Race making me feel like putting in the detail of their races makes me a racist. I’m not saying that’s right. I’m saying I bet it is how a lot of white writers think. (I’m not talking about main characters. Obviously they have other characteristics that need to be discussed. I’m talking about background characters only right now. Characters that will never be seen again and have no influence on the story.)
Contrast that to how some other writers handle that type of a scene. This is the first paragraph of Central Station by Lavie Tidhar.
Daniel Jose Older is wonderful at this. He can set scenes in urban areas that describe the people unapologetically.
After listening to what many people are saying, I see that not acknowledging race in this manner is not what most people want. I think more white people are going to have to hear that message before they feel comfortable talking and writing openly and honestly about multiracial communities.
Or maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about and all these white writers aren’t imagining multiracial groups and they are all just racist. I don’t know. Thoughts?