I got a stack of old issues of Writer magazine from a friend today, and while paging through saw an article about race in books .Specifically, how white writers are prone to comment on the skin colors of the minority characters but not white characters (if you would like to read the article, you can find it here).
Now before I start in on what is a spectacularly unpopular opinion, let me set a few things straight. I am female. I am part of an age group marginalized by most of “responsible” society. I count among my close friends people who are Indian, Chinese, gay, African-American, biracial, bisexual, and mentally disabled. But articles like this make me want to punch someone.
Simply put, the author is working off the premise that just mentioning the race of a character while describing them is in of itself racist. Give me a break.
I’ll admit if you describe a main character as being “the Asian woman” obviously there’s a problem. But when describing a crowd, there’s nothing wrong with saying “in the corner of the train station, an Asian woman and a tall Hispanic man talked quietly.” This is what’s known as a generalization. Being offended by this is like me being offended by every male writer who puts “the female detective” in a crime novel with no extra description.
So what if this detective could be fat, skinny, tall, stout, or polka-dot. No one cares. The fact that the detective is a woman gives the reader a mental picture of the character without the writer having to spend a paragraph on description because god forbid that he write about a general female.
Also there’s the demographics. Odds are, in America, that 72.4% of the books readership is white. Hell, odds are that the main character is white. If your story is set in small-town Ohio, or even Cinncinati, there will be fewer minority characters than white characters. This is just a fact of life. You describe what makes someone different from the majority. A character in a wheelchair is described as being in a wheelchair, and an African-American person in Upper Peninsula Michigan will probably stand out too.
Thirdly, it is just as racist to assume that because a person’s race is not mentioned they are automatically white. I find that that sort of attitude feeds into the sudden spat of stories with “Surprise! They’re black!” endings. These are of course meant to make people consider racism, yada yada yada, but in the end I find they feel cheap and insincere. You can write a story because you want to talk about an issue, but you can’t write a story about an issue, and frankly no one likes a plot driven by overinvolved self-righteousness. You are not Toni Morrison. Sorry.
In the end, I think this is one of those issues that makes waaayyy too much of itself. To say that any small omission in a story is racism is overblown and frankly false outrage. Go fight for Rwanda and Tibet, people.