A wonderful, and I do mean wonderful, beta reader of mine found out my main character was black in the later half of my first chapter. When she did, she strongly suggested that I make my MC’s race clearer from the beginning (to “show her skin color” and “describe her neighborhood”)—because this beta had pictured someone who looked like her. In other words, she had assumed my MC was white like her.
This brought up a respectable but strange conversation, because while I didn’t mind that this beta felt a strong enough connection with my MC to picture herself—I did question why this beta would think my MC lived in a certain kind of neighborhood or spoke a certain way because of the color of her skin. I wanted to share my thoughts and pick at your brains.
I don’t know about you, but I find thinking while writing to be as interesting as it is daunting. Let’s use the topic of privilege as an example. Privilege is “a special advantage or right that a person is born into or acquires during their lifetime.” To maintain focus in this post, let’s pick out white privilege. Peggy McIntosh (1988/1990) mentioned that as a white individual:
I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented; [. . .] I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking; [. . .] I can think over many options, social, political, imaginative or professional, without asking whether a person of my race would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do [. . .]
After reading McIntosh’s article a long time ago, I reevaluated the white standard in fiction.
Characters, unless explicitly indicated otherwise, are presumed to be white; sometimes, even if they’re described as “dark-skinned,” they’re still assumed to be tanned, white individuals. Rue, from the Hunger Games series, still shocks me as an example of this. I could get into light-skinned black characters and the issue of providing clear descriptions of their physical features, but I hope you get the point.
Typically, non-white characters are the best friends, criminals / villains, comic relief, selfless accomplices, or foreigners (or a combination, like Fez from That ’70s Show). Unfortunately, they’re usually heavily stereotyped. Black characters are don’t-mess-with-me’s with religious families, Latinos/Hispanics/Spanish are sassy with loud families, and Asians are geniuses with strict families—but they should be happy that they aren’t forgotten like the other races, right?
As we all may have learned, stereotypes are oversimplified assumptions about individuals based on their socially-constructed categorizations. Stereotyping comes easy because—to be blunt—most human beings don’t like to put too much effort into thinking all the time. But! As an aspiring author who is black, I don’t necessarily have the privilege of choosing whether or not I want to avoid thinking critically about stereotypes.
While stereotyping, in itself, isn’t an issue, making assumptions can easily lead to prejudice and discrimination—and that’s an issue. Generalizations can narrow people’s perspectives of other human beings or keep them away from meeting/loving individuals who could add depth to their lives. Unfortunately, stereotypes aren’t going anywhere. One way to combat against them is to talk about how they influence the way we think and interact with others; this is one of the things that I believe I’m striving to accomplish through my writing.
Aside from reading about non-white characters, I run into more problems writing them. Generally speaking, white writers creating white protagonists are privileged, because they can put their characters through numerous situations without having to consider if those issues will cause too much controversy. They can write about domestic violence, sexuality, and failing classes without those circumstances being tied to their characters’ race.
They can write about racism and discrimination “without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking” (McIntosh, 1988/1990). They don’t have to question whether they’ll be criticized because their non-white characters don’t speak with accents, love to dance/eat, or have an interest in picking up “the cause” for “their people.” And let me not forget to mention the privilege of NOT being congratulated for just having a non-white character on your book cover.
Moving further than that, there are plenty of times when I wonder if others will be offended because they think that I’m making one of my non-white characters “white on the inside.” I, myself, was ridiculed in school for speaking too properly, putting my hair in braids, not knowing enough black classics, and not being obsessed with rap music — does that not sound racist to you?
Yes, it was “cool” to be “black,” but since I didn’t fit the promoted image, I wasn’t “black” or “African-American” enough for anyone (btw, I’m Haitian-American or black, not African-American). I wouldn’t be surprised if I became published and had to go through the same thing again because I’m not displaying the “truth” of being “black” in the “right” way. All in all, my experiences have opened my eyes to the many webs of needing more diversity in fiction (even diversity within the diversity).
So, yes, I’m still figuring all of this out and educating myself.
What do you think about this?