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Two McMillion
06-02-2014, 07:23 AM
Hey folks. I was hoping to get some insight on on a problem related to how people by default visualize the race of a character in a book related to the book I'm currently writing.

Background: My story takes place approximately 100 years after an apocalyptic event, in a city built as a place of shelter for the survivors. White people are a minority in this city.

My first-person narrator has grown up here; therefore, to him, the "default" race of a person will not be white (he himself is a shapeshifter and can be any color he wants). Obviously, this is not something most readers will share.

The difficulty then becomes how to communicate that this is how the setting is in a way that balances diversity and character concerns. I see a few options:

- The narrator only notes a character's race when the character is white (there are a few). Pros: This seems the most natural way for him to think. Cons: I'm not sure most readers will understand what's happening or why the narrator does this; many readers will probably miss the point entirely.

- The narrator notes practically everyone's race. Pros: Makes it clear what most people in the setting look like. Cons: Probably not a natural way for the character to think, also can easily come off as "trying too hard" to my mind.

- The narrator notes nobody's race. Pros: Can avoid some possible pitfalls of the other methods. Cons: Does nothing to illuminate this aspect of the setting; leaves default reader imaginations unchallenged.

At the moment I lean slightly towards the first option, mostly because the objections are largely meta and it feels the most natural way for the MC to think. Still, this is a topic I would appreciate advice on, and any insights others have would be valuable.

Thanks! :)

kuwisdelu
06-02-2014, 08:00 AM
I would think option 2 (note most people's race) would be more natural.

The problem with option 1 is — if the default is not white — then what is the default? Black? Latino? Asian?

A combination of option 1 and 2 would make more sense. What race is the narrator? Wouldn't he note all people of a different race, which would include more than just white people?

Roxxsmom
06-02-2014, 08:12 AM
I'd probably have him notice when someone is white or otherwise differ from what the norm is in this society, but have him notice other things about people too, though in a less "exoticizing" way.

Maybe this is the place to note that a white person is mushroom pale, the color of milk, or pink like a ham (revenge for all those food descriptions PoC usually get), while simply noting that a person who is closer to the norm for the current social order has light, medium or dark brown skin. At some point, maybe he can think about or mention his heritage?

Two McMillion
06-02-2014, 08:16 AM
I would think option 2 (note most people's race) would be more natural.

The problem with option 1 is if the default is not white then what is the default? Black? Latino? Asian?

A combination of option 1 and 2 would make more sense. What race is the narrator? Wouldn't he note all people of a different race, which would include more than just white people?

My understanding is that "Latino" is a ethnic group rather than a race (unless I'm mistaken), but most people I know would call the default that, I suppose. I will make a note about noting all people of a different race, not just white. Thanks for pointing that out.

The narrator is half-white, one quarter asian and one-quarter fae (long story). He identifies more strongly with the non-human part of his ancestry then any human race, but, shapeshifting aside, would probably be called asian if he walked down the street.

Two McMillion
06-02-2014, 08:18 AM
Maybe this is the place to note that a white person is mushroom pale, the color of milk, or pink like a ham (revenge for all those food descriptions PoC usually get), while simply noting that a person who is closer to the norm for the current social order has light, medium or dark brown skin.

HAHAHAHAHA. This is a great idea. I'm totally doing this. :D

kuwisdelu
06-02-2014, 08:30 AM
My understanding is that "Latino" is a ethnic group rather than a race (unless I'm mistaken)

Technically yes, but the difference is academic and not really worth splitting hairs over, unless you're a biologist or an anthropologist, and even then it's a pretty iffy, blurry line.

MynaOphelia
06-02-2014, 03:44 PM
In my current project I'm mostly just doing option two since most of the main cast is not white, including the main character. But MC notes when someone is white as well. I don't spend over a sentence on anyone's description though, just because I don't like super long drawn out descriptions.

Unfortunately, white is considered the default for many readers, so if you don't point out if someone isn't white they usually won't picture it that way.

EvolvingK
09-06-2014, 06:12 PM
Unfortunately, white is considered the default for many readers, so if you don't point out if someone isn't white they usually won't picture it that way.

Apologies for zombiefying this post, but I ran into this myself reading John Scalzi's most recent book. It wasn't until the character described his father as a "big black man with a shotgun" about 75% of the way through the book that I realized I'd been misethnicizing (is that a word? Can we make it word, like misgendering?) the MC throughout the book. Of course, the MC spent 99.9% of his time inside a robot, but still.

It was an awesome, jarring moment for me, and as a reader I was surprised to find that I'd missed all the other contextual clues as to the character's skin color. As a writer, I was surprised and pleased on multiple levels.

So I think that sometimes, if it's done well, creating that sort of cognitive dissonance might be good. Make people challenge their expectations of what they're reading.

Or the flip side, I suppose, is the hoopla nightmare of Rue's casting in Hunger Games.

Ravioli
01-07-2015, 04:03 AM
Hey.

I'm on page 137 of my project which takes place in what is basically a ghetto - the "high walls and gunmen" kind of ghetto. The main character is Arab, his wife the only black person in the Arab village. Guarding the wall, is white supremacy.
I handle it similarly to your first option, by only really getting into racial or ethnic descriptions when the character is of a minority. There are only few white people whenever my "hero" leaves the ghetto, and those get pointed out unless they're in a group that can be expected to be either predominantly white, or of little racial relevance. Other than that, I try to present Arabs as the default ethnicity because most of the action takes place in an Arab village/ghetto.
Now, I do realize that Arabs aren't a race and are genetically caucasoid ("white") but obviously, real life doesn't handle things that way and Arabs who look like Arabs, are regarded as "not white".

So anyway. I think the issue here is that everyone is most likely to picture their own kind as the "default" race as this is what they have grown up around and seen in the mirror. So if you don't point out peoples' race, ethnicity, etc. you might have your reader imagining them all in a way to blend in with that reader's entourage. Being white-looking myself (there are dark-skinned Arabs in my pedigree not far back), I obviously imagine characters spontaneously as white. I add features as I please, I even tend to make the skin a bit darker. But to imagine them in a completely different racial or ethnic appearance, takes pointing out or geographical/cultural context - by the author.

As for readers understanding that the default race is non-white, the thing I've learned in writing classes is as simple as this: don't mollycoddle your reader, don't assume him stupid. Give the information you feel is crucial, point it out in a non-infodumping way, and move on. Trust your reader to get it. I sure didn't see Nicole Kidman or need a description while reading "The Alchemist" and that girl in the desert oasis made her first appearance. Just needed to fine-tune her skin tone between olive and ebony and consider the degree of curling in her hair as per the most likely population for the location. It's a bit of work but you'll be done by the time you turn the page.
Leave it to your reader. Don't insult their intelligence. Let them handle it. If they can't, that's not your fault. I work at a pet shop. People mistake hamsters for mice and guinea pigs for rabbits every day. You'll learn to laugh about it.

Concerning first person perspective, I wouldn't worry. Think of it as if your character is you, and you're talking to someone about your experiences. Wouldn't you give a quick description of the relevant people or entourage? I think that describing people, including their racial features, is perfectly natural. First person may need to be a bit more concise to sound natural, but just like "Bob, a stocky, snub-nosed man with huge pores and a receding hairline", a first-person narration can read "Colin, a tall man of dark-brown skin with black, kinky hair and large, smoldering eyes". It may be a bit beyond a natural description - unless you're crushing on the person - but it's still within reason. Don't retrace their ancestry.

Hope that helps.

kuwisdelu
01-07-2015, 04:14 AM
So anyway. I think the issue here is that everyone is most likely to picture their own kind as the "default" race as this is what they have grown up around and seen in the mirror.

That's often not true. People of color will also often assume white characters unless told otherwise.

EMaree
01-07-2015, 03:39 PM
Super late reply because I didn't realise this was a neco thread. I'd go with Option 2. Option 1 is clever in concept, but in practice the "white default" still takes over -- the most notable example of this, to my memory, is Anansi Boys. Neil Gaiman still has to quite often remind people that all the cast are black, and whenever he does it seems to kick off a round of well-meaning surprise and less-well-meaning outrage from readers who didn't realise.

Option 3 is a definite nope, the default assumptions would just end up whitewashing your story.


That's often not true. People of color will also often assume white characters unless told otherwise.

+1 to this. Kids of all ethnicities are exposed to the societal and pop culture stereotypes of bad black guys and good white guys from an early age (plus TV news and paper headline bias (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/14/media-black-victims_n_5673291.html)) with some really unfortunate consequences (http://quietlyexhale.tumblr.com/post/106024103467/kashmirgirl1976-quietlyexhale).

Ravioli
01-07-2015, 04:17 PM
That's often not true. People of color will also often assume white characters unless told otherwise.

I was going to add that, but decided against it because as a white person I'm a bit wary about making assumptions from or about a person of color's point of view. It is true though that many people of color, especially in a predominantly white, or white-run society, get more whiteness shoved down their throats than they get to delve into their own culture.

Polenth
01-08-2015, 10:39 AM
It isn't about whether a person is connected to their culture or not. It's that in Western media, the majority of main characters are white. The majority of characters with unstated races are intended to be white. So if you have to make a guess on a character with no description, you will probably be right if you guess they're white.

I like to give the author the benefit of the doubt when a character isn't described, but they usually turn out to be white. And if the author does have a history of diverse casts, it still wouldn't work to assume they look like me... as they could be any race.

Roxxsmom
01-10-2015, 08:39 AM
Yep--necro thread.

To reiterate my earlier answer, I'd probably go with #2 also, at least at first in the story. Even if the default is to be a person of color, there are different ethnicities. Plus, there's an endless variety of skin colors, hair textures, hair styles etc. And if someone is unusually pale, then that can be noted too.

Think about the things white people still notice about other people of European descent--skin tone, hair color, eye color, and so on. The secret is to do it in a way that seems organic to the character but also provides hints how he or she looks. We often compare ourselves to others when we describe them--taller than me, or darker/lighter complexion and so on.

HeavilyMedicated
02-08-2015, 05:10 AM
Unfortunately, white is considered the default for many readers, so if you don't point out if someone isn't white they usually won't picture it that way.

Honestly one could write something like "They resembled Wesley Snipes" and a lot of people would still manage to imagine them as white.