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avoiding racism in character description

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lexxi

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I am white, as is my narrator and most of the main characters in the novel I'm working on.

Some of the secondary and background characters are black.

I don't give a lot of physical description for the white characters, but when I do it tends to involve hair or eye color as well as body type.

Usually just one or two details here or there, especially for the secondary characters. I'd like to do the same for the black characters. I'd like to avoid mentioning race explicitly while still suggesting it to astute readers. I also want to avoid any food metaphors in describing skin color.

Would you cringe at or appreciate something like this?
We all wore dark clothes backstage to avoid being seen. Leo was designated to hand off the props to the actors from behind the curtain; with his dark skin tone even in short sleeves he'd be most likely to blend in.

(needs work on the phrasing)

Any other pointers?
 

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lexxi,

The description would matter in the context of the scene. So, is the description vital to what's happening in the ecosystem at that moment? Or isn't it? Is portrayal of race part of the storyline or isn;t it?

I get that you have to establish the character and give the reader some visual. However, if it's not mission essential to the story, then, there are ways of signifying that through the language your characters use, mannerisms, habits and other ways that wouldn't grate on stereotypes.

For example: if one of the characters is about to have sex with one of the African-American characters, then getting all the senses involved would be important and describing his/her physical makeup crucial. Might be true of there were some sort of race relations issue going on. Something tactile and tangible like that. Otherwise, its description for the sake of description.

If you're telling us that you have black characters, then there's probably a reason why they are there. When you nneed to start revealing those reasons is when you need to enhance the descriptives.

Have fun writing!
 

Kitty Pryde

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that's something i struggle with in my writing too! the default for nearly all western (white) writers is that all characters are presumed white until proven otherwise, which makes my head explode. i hate to do it. on the other hand, saying he was a peachy-pinkish, and she was tannish-olivey, and he looked as pale as a cave fish, and she was all pasty and freckly, to announce the caucasianosity of your characters sticks out because it's not often done. i don't like to announce anyone's color straight-up, unless it's very striking (very very very pale or very very very dark, or dark skin and blue eyes, or the good old pale white skin and black haired hot babe.

i like what you did above, but i might leave out 'tone' and just say 'with his dark skin, even in short sleeves...' IMO it's a quick and easy way to slip it in. there are other ways to indicate a non-white character if you get creative. i have my MC's best friend, woken up in the middle of the night and rushed across town to get her in an emergency, wearing jammy pants, flip-flops, and a faded old t-shirt that says 'black is beautiful'. it gets the point across. and says a little bit about the character's personality as well.
 

Kitty Pryde

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lexxi,

The description would matter in the context of the scene. So, is the description vital to what's happening in the ecosystem at that moment? Or isn't it? Is portrayal of race part of the storyline or isn;t it?

I get that you have to establish the character and give the reader some visual. However, if it's not mission essential to the story, then, there are ways of signifying that through the language your characters use, mannerisms, habits and other ways that wouldn't grate on stereotypes.

For example: if one of the characters is about to have sex with one of the African-American characters, then getting all the senses involved would be important and describing his/her physical makeup crucial. Might be true of there were some sort of race relations issue going on. Something tactile and tangible like that. Otherwise, its description for the sake of description.

If you're telling us that you have black characters, then there's probably a reason why they are there. When you nneed to start revealing those reasons is when you need to enhance the descriptives.

Have fun writing!


I have to strongly disagree that there has to be a 'reason' why a character is black. Her scene sounds like kids putting on a high school play. The average American high school has kids of every different shade attending. Is there a reason that a white character shows up? Characters are who they are--skin color and cultural background and everything are a part of that. lexxi's point (i think) is that she wants to populate her story with a realistic mix of different folks without saying HE'S NOT WHITE!!!
 

Polenth

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It would read more real if the character was dressed up in black long sleeves and gloves, and the viewpoint character couldn't see the point because they were dark already.

'Black' skin will show up against a black curtain. It's the wrong shade to blend in and it's shiny. Though your viewpoint character may not know this, I'd imagine someone involved in the play would know (even if just from noticing on the dress rehearsal).

As for saying someone is dark skinned... there's nothing racist about noting a physical attribute of a character. The racism comes if they act like cardboard stereotypes instead of people.
 

Teleute

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My $.02:

Usually just one or two details here or there, especially for the secondary characters. I'd like to do the same for the black characters. I'd like to avoid mentioning race explicitly while still suggesting it to astute readers.

There's nothing racist, IMO, in outright stating the race of a character if the "default setting" for that work = white, any more than it would be if the "default setting" for that work = black. I wouldn't get the racism heebie-jeebies if Zora Neale Hurston referred to an "old white lady." Or whatever.

You can do it in a slightly less in-your-face way than that (i.e. with no explicit stating but enough info to make it obvious), but not too much IMO because it ironically makes race MORE significant than it should be if only "astute readers" can pick up on the race of a character. Because they spend more time thinking about the race of a character than they should. By trying to relegate it to the background, you shove it in the foreground.

Neil Gaiman's The Anansi Boys tries to be coy about this. Now, I knew from the get-go that the main character was black because (1) Anansi is an African god and (2) I had read American Gods, the prequel where the MC's dad shows up. But I spend zero time thinking about the race or hair color or whathaveyou of the characters I'm reading about; the way I picture characters while reading are the ways in which their appearance affects the story. In this case, the MC is a doughy, dorky-looking fellow, and his doughiness and dorkiness affects his narrative. His race doesn't. So Gaiman never mentions the MC's and antagonist's race until he drops a bomb about 2/3 of the way through the book, and then he does it for all the other black characters, which is almost everyone. All of a sudden, I was forced to think of the characters in terms of race rather than their attributes that actually mattered in the context of the story.

If Gaiman had just mentioned the race of the MC early on to establish the default setting - OR described the irritating boss the MC has as an old white guy - then I would've just been like, "oh, ok, doughy dorky guy who is also black." And then I wouldn't have gotten distracted; it'd barely be noticeable. I wouldn't have to think about it.

That show versus tell debate? Telling is for background info, and should be used for background info. If you don't want race in your foreground, then don't "show" it. (That is, unless race informs the conflict of your story.)

I also want to avoid any food metaphors in describing skin color.

Hear, hear. I am especially tired of beverages being used to describe skin color - "tea with milk in it," "mocha," "cafe au lait."

As for saying someone is dark skinned... there's nothing racist about noting a physical attribute of a character. The racism comes if they act like cardboard stereotypes instead of people.

Word. Using black characters strictly as helpers for white protagonists (i.e. "magical negroes") is racist; having black characters and daring to say so is not.

ETA:

i have my MC's best friend, woken up in the middle of the night and rushed across town to get her in an emergency, wearing jammy pants, flip-flops, and a faded old t-shirt that says 'black is beautiful'. it gets the point across. and says a little bit about the character's personality as well.

That's really awesome.
 
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Kitty Pryde

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My $.02:



There's nothing racist, IMO, in outright stating the race of a character if the "default setting" for that work = white, any more than it would be if the "default setting" for that work = black. I wouldn't get the racism heebie-jeebies if Zora Neale Hurston referred to an "old white lady." Or whatever.
tually mattered in the context of the story.

The thing is, in 1800s England, the default setting is white. In, say, a midwestern town of hardscrabble settlers in pioneer days, the default setting is white. In like pretty much every book written more than 50 years ago, the social/legal/economic/cultural status of different colors of people made it really obvious who was black/white/brown/whatever, so it wasn't necessary to dwell on it. That's not the case anymore. For a story set in modern-day US (or UK), white ISN'T the default setting (with maybe a very few exceptions). The assumption that it IS, is racist, IMO.
 

Teleute

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The thing is, in 1800s England, the default setting is white. In, say, a midwestern town of hardscrabble settlers in pioneer days, the default setting is white. In like pretty much every book written more than 50 years ago, the social/legal/economic/cultural status of different colors of people made it really obvious who was black/white/brown/whatever, so it wasn't necessary to dwell on it. That's not the case anymore. For a story set in modern-day US (or UK), white ISN'T the default setting (with maybe a very few exceptions). The assumption that it IS, is racist, IMO.

I don't think that all (modern day) books have a "white default setting," many have others. The writer/story determines what the "default setting" is. Amy Tan novels, for example, clearly have an Asian-American "default setting," and if a character is NOT of Asian descent, she expressly mentions it. She doesn't have to mention every character being Chinese-American, because that's the default.

And yeah, if I picked up a new Amy Tan novel and didn't discover until halfway through that the MC was a corn-fed blue-eyed Midwestern girl whose hippie parents had moved to San Fransisco, I'd be taken out of the narrative a bit just because it messed with my expectations for Tan's fictional world.
 
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Jerry B. Flory

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I didn't notice any racial slurs in there, lexxi.
If you aren't trying to be prejudice then don't sweat it.

If you want a practice exercise try writing something about illegal Mexicans and the kind of people who hire them and how they are directly affecting the lifestyle of a white MC.
You have to do it without open prejudice. You don't hate them because of what they are, you resent what they do. You resent the people who hire them as a slave labor force and pay off the local officials to look the other way.
All of these elements are overshadowed by the fact that they are Mexican. Is it really a racial issue?
Project your resentment toward this group of people without racism.
By the time your done, your sentence about a black man's skin blending in with shadows will seem pretty tame.
 

Kitty Pryde

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I don't think that all (modern day) books have a "white default setting," many have others. The writer/story determines what the "default setting" is. Amy Tan novels, for example, clearly have an Asian-American "default setting," and if a character is NOT of Asian descent, she expressly mentions it. She doesn't have to mention every character being Chinese-American, because that's the default.

And yeah, if I picked up a new Amy Tan novel and didn't discover until halfway through that the MC was a corn-fed blue-eyed Midwestern girl whose hippie parents had moved to San Fransisco, I'd be taken out of the narrative a bit just because it messed with my expectations for Tan's fictional world.

No, they definitely don't all have a white default setting! Speaking of which, can I direct you all over to this AWESOME post on Toby Buckell's blog? The short version is he has an interesting perspective on race and writing (he's half white british and half black caribbean, but he 'looks white'). I forgot how good it is.
 

Zoombie

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My black character, who is the main character, doesn't have his skin color even MENTIONED till...page...

161.

Course, my novel takes place in the future, where mankind doesn't care that one character is black his GF is white.


No they care far more than she's a cyborg and he's a purestrain human.
 

Red-Green

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It's an interesting dilemma, but one that's totally worth tackling. Don't be afraid to try multiple attempts at how you present characters of different races.

I found that ideas of "racial defaults" can even provide interesting ways to define peripheral characters around your MC. For example, in the novel I'm currently querying, one of the few hints that you get of the narrator's race in the first 100 pages is that he often identifies people as "white" or "Korean" or "Mexican." It's essentially a process of elimination game, and one that means zip to the narrator, because he sees himself primarily as an Okie.
 

Don Allen

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Just a general comment, Racism exists, but describing race isn't racist. If you shy away from describing a mans blackness for example, you're being somewhat dishonest in your description. just a thought for you....
 

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Would you cringe at or appreciate something like this?
We all wore dark clothes backstage to avoid being seen. Leo was designated to hand off the props to the actors from behind the curtain; with his dark skin tone even in short sleeves he'd be most likely to blend in.
All depends how it's delivered. That snippet of on-the-nose wooden block narration perhaps isn't as effective as characters pointing out the same thing -- and Leo either protesting, if that's how the story goes, or maybe even volunteering for the job for that reason, making a joke out of it. Let your characters help you get past the problem.

/opinion

-Derek
 

Wayne K

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Unless you're writing hateful racist rants I wouldn't let the word police get in my head if I were you. In my first book I drop the N-Bomb by chapter three, and hatefully too. The thing is that it's not racist, it's the perception of the racist I saw.

Sometimes there's only one way to say something.
 

tehuti88

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If I saw a description like "dark skin," I'd just assume it's a dark-skinned white person, or perhaps, at most, a Latino or Indian or something. I have to confess that if I have a black character in my writing I'll just say they're black, same as if I have a Japanese character I'll say they're Japanese, or if they're from North Dakota I'll say they're North Dakotan.

In another writing forum somebody got miffed when I referred to black people as "blacks" because to them it seemed horribly racist and overgeneralizing, but, well, what else would I say? I say "whites" when I mean white people like myself, too. Granted, if I were to generalize and say "all blacks this" or "all blacks that" then I would understand, but I was just referring to a particular race, and that's the term I've always used. If I knew more specifics about a character's background I would say something like "Kenyan" or whatever, but until then, I can only refer to somebody based on their race. (And of course, if they're American born and bred, I can only call them black anyway.)

I live in a place that's like 99% white and Christian so of course this influences the racial makeup of my stories and perhaps influences how I view things, but I really see nothing wrong with just mentioning somebody's race, as long as it's pertinent to the work. If it's not important that we know a particular character's race, and/or if the story otherwise makes it clear throughout the work that there's a varied racial makeup as opposed to a bunch of white people or whatever, then it doesn't seem necessary to dwell on the particulars.

But that's just me and apparently I'm racist! :eek:
 

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I have noticed even very major writers giving non-white characters 'coffee' descriptions that almost fetishize skin color.

My rule of thumb is to mention skin color in non-white characters when I would mention it in white ones, which is rarely. If someone's ethnicity (which is rather more/other than color) is relevant it will tend to come up very quickly via the reactions of the other characters (whether white or not).

But if the writer is not hung up on race the narrative voice shouldn't be either.
 

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I had to describe characters of all races in The Pacific Between. Sometimes the race was obvious so I didn't have to emphasize the skin colors or whatever. Instead, I only described relevant details like the way they dressed or stood, etc. There were a couple of times when the race wasn't apparent, so the narrator glossed over the racial details. Some people may argue that if race is not important, then why mention it? To me, it's all about verisimilitude -- I was trying to set up a "real world" but race is no more than another attribute. Like Veinglory said, it's no big deal and the narrative voice reflects that. There's nothing inherently racist if you say the character is black or white or Asian. It's a matter of how you present that information and in what context.
 
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CaroGirl

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I describe a character in my MG novel as having a "dark face." I think of him as black but I don't really say it explicitly. My 1st-person MC simply doesn't care if her friend is black, white, or purple, which says something about her, I think.
 

MetalDog

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I'm firmly in the 'if it matters that a character is X, say they're X' camp.

All the pussy-footing around seems far more race-conscious than just writing a race tag.
 

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I have noticed even very major writers giving non-white characters 'coffee' descriptions that almost fetishize skin color.

My rule of thumb is to mention skin color in non-white characters when I would mention it in white ones, which is rarely. If someone's ethnicity (which is rather more/other than color) is relevant it will tend to come up very quickly via the reactions of the other characters (whether white or not).

But if the writer is not hung up on race the narrative voice shouldn't be either.

I am black woman and I just wanted to comment on 'food/coffee' descriptors being used in books. One of the major reasons you see this is because it so prevalent in black culture. Whether you know it or not (or like it or not) it rings true to the way that black people talk amongst themselves. Black people come in many different shades so it's easy to describe if you say someone is toffee, caramel, mocha or milk chocolate. Also, it's a matter of pride in some cases. We can differ so drastically even if we share the exact same genes! A person who is black might not actually have dark skin so IMO describing a character as having dark skin hits the nail on the head.

I don't think the original sentence is racist at all, but I can't lie that when I read the bit about blending into the curtain, I sort of shuddered. It's not racist, that depends on the intent, I think, but it's definitely something that made me, a minority, feel like that character was singled out for being different. I'm sure that if I read the entire story, I might feel differently. Maybe they're all friends and race is spoken about without tension or issue. Race is slowly becoming less of an issue and isn't so taboo these days with more young people around who have never experienced the fights of the civil rights era. This goes for both sides of the divide.

The thing is, up until this point, white is the default in everything our society does. It's definitely the default in books too.


I'm firmly in the 'if it matters that a character is X, say they're X' camp.

All the pussy-footing around seems far more race-conscious than just writing a race tag.

I think that descriptors are very useful and can be a way to differentiate skin tone. As I said, all black people aren't the same shade. My sister is black, but she has the color of Beyonce, while my shade is closer to that of Denzel Washington.

Also, depending on the work, it can be plain to just say "because he was black, he blended into the scenery." Beyonce is black too, but I doubt she'd blend in well to a dark curtain.
 

MetalDog

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If it matters what shade they are, I agree, refine it down. I've knocked out a few purple and red faces where appropriate describing 'white' characters. Mostly, though, I'll opt for the simple description - I like to just sketch character descriptions, even for my MCs, if I was more into massive visual detail, I might feel differently.
 

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I agree with the things Inspired007 had to say.
As long as it's done in a flattering light I can't see what the problem is for any race. I have a black character that I describe having skin as chocolate velvet. The same way I'd look at someone pale and call them milky. Taking away the food thing - I just go to a thesaurus ans search that way.
My way of describing characters is searching online for hours and picking out a photo of someone that would fit the bill. The guy I chose had skin that was deep dark brown and satiny smooth. I do that for a writing exercise of showing not telling.
 

Juliette Wade

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One thing I haven't seen mentioned in the posts so far is the question of point of view and character voice. The way that you execute your descriptions can reflect on the identity of the character making the observations. I'd say this is probably preferable to having it reflect on the identity of the author. Who is observing this backstage situation? How does he or she think about skin color? To go as far as saying someone blends into darkness is giving the idea more words that may draw a reader's attention. Is this something that the main character has an opinion about? Is it a critical observation in the scene? In that case we should probably be told how the main character feels about the observation: is this blending he/she notices considered good? bad? what? If you don't want attention given to the person in question, but need him in the background and BTW he's black, just giving him an African-American sounding name could be enough. I think this idea of the amount of words drawing attention to the description itself may be what Jason was referring to in his early post. Giving something extra words means it gets more time in the reader's mind, and thus it's more likely to be perceived as something that might matter to the plot.
 
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