Nonwhite Characters, White Author

A friend of mine shared this blog post today, called “Dear White Writers, Please Stop Doing These Things.”

This is a topic that’s hugely interesting to me, and these points are all things I’ve been trying to think a lot about. Instead of writing a thousand words as a comment on her blog, I’m gonna work that out here.

A lot of the characters in my books are non-white, or otherwise non-caucasian. This really happens for three main reasons:

  • A lot of characters in my books are based at least loosely on people I’ve known over the years, friends and loved ones mostly. I couldn’t dream of whitewashing them.
  • I write what I know. I mostly grew up in Southern California, in largely non-white neighborhoods. During a lot of my upbringing, I was the only white person in my social context. I was often the only white kid in class, for example.
  • I’m tired of the same white-bread stories. I want more representation and diversity in media, and this is the best way I feel I can contribute to that happening.

Dylan, the protagonist of Blood Flow, is a light-skinned Chicano. Lana, the protagonist of iHunt, comes from family who are mostly Brazilian and Japanese.

So let me break down the points in that blog a little bit, and unpack some thoughts on each.

1. Using “nude” or “flesh-colored” to describe an object.

Oh my god, people do this? I mean, of course they do. But holy shit, I have a hard time imagining it. How can you even use those two terms to describe things? Even white people are so wildly different in skin tones, you’re actually not saying anything meaningful.

2. Mentioning the skin color only of non-white people.

This is a rough one. I can see how it can totally get fucked up by otherwise well-meaning people. Authors trying to include more non-white characters want to make this explicitly clear. I applaud authors trying to be unambiguous in the days of J.K. Rowling retroactively deciding her characters are actually diverse, without actually having to take the risks or bear the burdens necessary to do so for real.

I’ve been trying to focus on expressing these things in a couple of specific ways:

  • Focusing on other signifiers. Usually a person’s skin color isn’t the only way to make that clear. And honestly, focusing on those other signifiers makes for a better, more interesting narrative. In iHunt, Lana has a brief internal monologue where she talks about the things her family would have faced in the past, and that gives a bit more specificity about her.
  • Noting these things through contextual, in-character cues. For example, in Blood Flow, Dylan calls out three characters as white, black, and Chicana, as he’s describing their appearances. He’s taken by surprise, and is just giving a quick, surface-level description as he commits them to memory. It’s just how he’d notice the three characters in that case.

3. Assuming an ethnicity when there’s clearly no basis for it.

Again, I could see this one as being pretty easy to mess up. This is one of those places where biases creep in. I live and work in Japan. I’m used to being around Japanese people, so I’m pretty good at picking a Japanese person out of a crowd. But it’s not because of their skin color. It’s about certain details, mannerism, and language. So if I’m writing about a Japanese person, it’s simply better writing to settle on those things, and give cues as to why they’re such strong signifiers for me. If I was writing about myself as a character, for example, that’d give me a great opportunity to explain my background and why I’m able to identify those things. So, not only does the reader get a more interesting world, but I’m being more specific and using less vague, meaningless writing. So, it’s a win-win.

4. Suggesting that white people have no ethnicity.

The example here is referring to things like Mexican or Thai restaurants as “ethnic.” Which of course is a problem. If you’re calling those things “ethnic,” but not white establishments, then that’s of course a problem.

America’s a weird place. Part of American whiteness, at least as far as I can tell, is about erasing and homogenizing ethnic groups that get to fit into the “white” umbrella. I think that’s where you get a lot of the complications around the discussion of whether Jews are “white”. They are often perceived as maintaining ethnic or cultural identity beyond “whiteness,” which puts them outside that umbrella in some ways.

5. Making ethnicity (or sexuality, or disability, or any other minority status) the most interesting thing about a character.

I hate this one. Hate it, hate it, hate it. As a bisexual, I’ve often found it downright grating when a character’s bisexuality or gayness becomes their sole or at least most important defining trait. It feels shallow and diminishing. To me, LGBT people are everywhere, in all walks of life, and should be treated as such.

For me, I tend to look at my characters, and ask myself if there’s a reason they can’t be non-white. I get the argument against “tokenism,” but I think that’s more a matter of “checking boxes” or “filling quotas.” I don’t think it’s an issue with my approach, because I’m never just adding a non-white character so the story has… one non-white character.

I do see a little difficulty though sometimes in, “Why bring it up?” I knew a lot of people growing up whose non-white identities weren’t particularly important in their lives. They lived generically “American” lives, and really, if you erased their skin color, their lives would be indistinguishable from any of their white neighbors. If I’m not describing skin color, there’s not much opportunity to bring it up. But I don’t want to erase those types of people, either.

This extends into LGBT space, too (yay, intersectionality). If a bisexual character is in a committed opposite-sex relationship, why bring up their bisexuality, if not just to signify that they’re bisexual and thus included? That’s a hard question. If a character is trans, unless the story is about their trans experience, there’s a good chance there’s not really space to bring that up easily without making it feel forced. I don’t know if there’s a right answer, but I’m interested in hearing your thoughts.

Anyway, here’s 1,000 words on the topic. What are your thoughts?

5 thoughts on “Nonwhite Characters, White Author

Add yours

  1. So…. reading this, I feel like I did mostly okay with my non-white characters. Though I kind of want youer opinion on that

    Like, my Burt-Gagnon family is a mix of white, black and Cherokee, but rather just saying it, I have another character bring it up in the context of thanksgiving and black Friday coming up, and said character thinks it is a bit odd for a family with first nations blood to celebrate that holiday (even if it is mostly for the benefit of their white mother), and the black part is implied by a conversation where one of the family’s member talks about what is like being brought up in a culture (roogarou culture) that is itself a mix of European, first nations and African cultures, when we already know that they are part white and first nations , and by the fact that one of the brothers shows up to thanksgiving dinner with his hair in long dreadlocks and nobody thinks it is odd (which it would be for a white guy to do that IMHO)

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    1. I don’t know all the specifics. That’s a vacuum. But, with what you’ve said I guess it seems fine? Although I’d be a little weird about such a specific cultural idea (the roogarou) being extended out into a “culture.” I feel like there’s a lot of room for mishaps there. But again, I don’t know. That’s always hard to judge without the full material.

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      1. I understand the room for mishaps, which is why I do a lot of research to be sure before I write anything about their culture. But the basic idea is that roogarou werewolf culture is a combination of the werewolf versions of the various IRL cultures that contributed to the idea, as a result of werewolves from those cultures interbreeding and mixing their cultures.

        besides, Roogarou culture doesn’t come up much in the first book I just finished writing.

        My plans for book two involve a roogarou holiday festival, so I will run that by the right groups before I publish it .

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