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Maybe the Problem is White Thinking

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.

IMG_0660 2

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?

4 Comments

  • Wendy @ Falconer's Library

    Super interesting. My 10 year old was trying to describe a kid who has been bugging her on the bus, and wasn’t sure if she could say he was black. The fact that she was complaining about him made her especially worried about it. “I’m not saying black kids are bullies, Mom; I’m just saying this kid is,” she told me. So yeah, “it’s racist to use race in describing someone” gets ingrained pretty early.

    I think “errant musings” above is also on to something. Part of white privilege is assuming that the default setting is white. I’ve read that some kids have read Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover and assumed the characters were white. Or all the people who were weirded out that Prue in The Hunger Games movie is black, even though she’s described as such in the books too. Which implies that the author has to actively state the character is a person of color before the reader will realize this.

  • Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

    You bring up a really good point. I’m generally fine about this in everyday life, but I remember when I first adopted my son having a conversation about the diversity in our school district with an acquaintance and feeling all awkward about whether to call the students black or African American. Yeah—most people just prefer black, but in that sort of weird conversation where I felt like I was defending my choices, I got all formal and flustered. LOL!

    My mother-in-law is really funny about this. She will often whisper “black” or even “gay” and I’ve nonchalantly reminded her that neither of those are bad words and we can say them out loud. 🙂

  • errant musings

    I agree that’s part of it. I think another issue is that many white people have mostly white social networks, and often their writing subconsciously mirrors that. Also, I don’t think some of them understand that their characters are coded as white unless explicitly stated otherwise, because of the demographic majority in the US (and most Western countries in general) and because of how racism functions. Things like JK Rowling saying that Hermione could be black because of the vague physical description just…don’t work that way.

  • Wendy Klik

    As a former police officer I was taught you always start the description with race and gender then you go on to height, weight, hair and eye color, build, clothing, identifying marks or characteristics. You need to give a full description so that the person reading your report could see the subject in their mind’s eye and identify them using nothing more than your words. It had really nothing to do with racism or bias…it is just the clearest definition of someone’s image.

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