Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Think Pink!

Mitali Perkins Facebooked and Twittered a question to her friends: "should an author describe the race of a character or leave it to the reader's imagination?"

Good question, and she got some good answers. (Thanks, Gail, for the tip.)

It's a question we also face in reviewing--when do we mention the ethnicity or skin color of a character and when do we not? Sometimes, relaying details of the story will make things clear enough, but it's tougher when reviewing everyday-life-type stories, especially picture books, where the characters happen to be one color or another in a way that has no particular effect on the story or theme. And, as Justina Chen Headley points out in Mitali's post, we tend to mention skin color only when that color is not white. Awwwwwkward. I remember when Ms. magazine made a go of using "European American" wherever white people showed up in a story but it didn't last.

(And, really, there should be some kind of prize for the awkward ways in which well-meaning children's writers signal skin color: "Kathy's cocoa-brown-with-a-hint-of-whipped-cream face glowed warmly as she reveled in the attention of her more boringly-tinted friends." Yeah, I made that up but you know what I mean.)

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Oh for the good old days when you could tell sex and color by a character's name! As a young editor, I once had a terrible time with a new writer whose heroine - a white girl - was named Jaime. (Pronounced Jaymee by author, Hymie by me. Utter chaos!)

Lisa Yee said...

If race is not a core issue of the book, but can be cited without bashing someone over the head with it, then by all means have at it. It is, after all, a distinguishing characteristic.

That said, the reader will interpret away whatever the author writes. For example, in my novel MILLICENT MIN, GIRL GENIUS the protagonist and her family are Chinese Americans. This is fairly obvious. However, my husband and I were discussing the book a couple years after it came out and he was SHOCKED that Millicent's father was Chinese. "I thought he was white," he told me. (My husband is white, or rather "European American.")

Anonymous said...

Even tougher than everyday stories and picture books, what do you do with Science Fiction? Do they care about skin color out there in the future or on Space Opera-World? If they don't, why would you make a point of mentioning it? If you don't mention it, won't most readers default to an all-white cast for your story?

Mitali Perkins said...

Some people, arguably most in North America, might default as you describe, but when a sci fi or fantasy author doesn't define race, readers are given a chance to let the imagination control the casting, and therefore the latter kind of book crosses borders differently than a book where the author defines the race.

I read Tolkien's trilogy for the first time as a teenager on a trip to Calcutta, and my dream Aragorn was a swarthy hero, nothing like Viggo Mortenson. My dream Hobbits had skin like leather or bark, not translucent like Elijah Wood's. What a shock to see the screen version!

Anonymous said...

even kids read the flap copy and a deft copywriter can establish race on the front flap

Roger Sutton said...

But I think Mitali's point is that you might not always want them to--sometimes you can leave it up to the reader to imagine whatever ethnicity the reader needs the characters to be.

Anonymous said...

Mitali,

I am not sure. This question has been the subject of some heated debate in the blogs of several Science Fiction writers including John Scalzi. I was surprised myself by the argument that the white-default is ingrained by pop-culture, even in people who are non-white, and that it is so omnipresent. But the arguments were made by people whose work I respect, and I find it hard to dismiss them.


Anon 6:10

Anonymous said...

Roger, the question is, do you leave it up to the reader's imagination when you think they are pre-conditioned to get it wrong?

I think, I would, even knowing the risks, because I think it's squicky when the author says to the reader "let me do your thinking for you."

On the other hand . . .
If I write my space opera and I know that most people will think of the characters as white, am I not writing a lily white future for the human race and participating in an icky cultural construction?

I hope you can see, I'm uncomfortable with all the choices here, in the abstract. I do better when I stick to my story and let it determine what needs to be said, specifically in the interest of the story.

6:10

Mitali Perkins said...

Instead of leaving all my thoughts in a trail of blog comments, I summed them up here:

Ten Tips on Writing Race

Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I think we can also extend this to a discussion about movies and plays based on books. Sometimes I wish the authors or screenwriters would get more creative and demand that the screen version include characters of color, whether or not they described them as such in the book. For instance, I love Lois Lowry's Gossamer. They recently did a play and when I saw the flyer I was a bit disappointed. Aren't there enough movies, plays and even books with blond blue-eyed main characters? I'm hoping that the Percy Jackson movies will think of diversity.

Misrule said...

I've just read Gaiman's marvellous (i)The Graveyard Book(/i). In Scarlett's second appearance, there's a narrative comment that another character has even darker skin than Scarlett. I thought this was deftly done, and it also served to set me back on my heels and think, wow—I just assumed she was white, because I wasn't given any other information to the contrary. Nicely done, Mr Gaiman!

Kathe Koja said...

Sometimes I deliberately call the white people white, because the other way, um, pisses me off. "In line were a firefighter, a skater boi, a black stockbroker, and a mom with a teeny little toddler."

Mitali Perkins said...

Try reading the crime log in your local paper, and notice if they only use race descriptors when it comes to somebody who is not white. My town, Newton, changed a few years ago to describing everybody's race when it comes to crime, but it's always the number one descriptor after gender. Why?