The Issue of Race in Writing

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I haven’t thought much about race in my writing. They say to write what you know and, well, what I know best is being white. I am a white American. My ancestry is your typical soup pot amalgamation of European immigrants with a little bit of Native American mixed in for good measure that, with luck and genetics, happened to create me. My characters remain mostly white, likely because that is what is safe and what I understand; though it is also likely due to my fear of offending someone or getting something wrong about their perspective. But recently, it has come to be that I must face the issue of race in my writing.

Sometimes, characters just choose you. They tell you who they are and that’s that. To argue with him or her would make me a bad writer. To make them into something they are not is plain cowardly. The character who has turned my writing world upside down has informed me that she is biracial.

I’ve started a new project recently (it’s a Dystopian Fantasy story), so we’ve left 1890s Baltimore for a futuristic potential world. It became obvious very quickly that one of my characters was not white. The fact that she exists in a future world does not matter. She is quite clearly in my head what we would deem African-American, though concepts of Africa, African-American and the United States do not really exist in the story world she occupies.

She has beautiful dark skin and a head of dark curls that she wears quite long and big around her face and she has streaks of blonde highlights. One of her fellow characters admires her curls and says that she reminds him of the sun. She is a strong character. Proud. Though she is also filled with a sadness due to the things that her Dystopian world lack and she has a drug problem. She uses this drug called Pop which allows her a glimpse of color (they live in a world where all dyes have been outlawed so everyone wears a naturally colored fabric made of hemp). It’s a common drug in this world and it becomes even more significant as the story plays out. I don’t believe that her race has anything to do with her pride or with who she is as I’ve imagined her so far. But to envision her in any other form would change her and thus change the story in my head.

Her race does not affect much in the story except to make her unique. But the fact that she is different is very important. She is not the main character in the story, but she appears in both pieces of the narrative and plays a paramount role in both sections. She has her own narrative voice throughout the first section of the story and has many chapters dedicated to her perspective. So really, she is pretty important to the tale.

Regardless of her position in the story, race in literature matters just as much as race on television or in film. People of all races read and seek out entertainment (duh) and thus they deserve to be exposed to characters who remind them of themselves and of their own experiences. This was not my goal in creating her. She created herself. Fair-skinned people dominate the big and small screens, and books as well. You rarely catch a non-white person in a leading role. According to a 2013 article from EW, “A survey of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013—out of a total of 5,000—found that only 67 were by African-American authors, and only 93 titles centered on black characters.”

Similarly, few significant characters of current popular fiction are anything other than white. But a couple of important ones come to mind as I write this. One such story world that comes to mind is James Bond. Over the years, there have been a number of different races of Bond Girls portrayed on film. The only African-American Bond girl within my lifetime was Halle Berry and if I remember correctly, it was a pretty big deal when she took the role because there hadn’t been an African-American Bond Girl since the ’70s (I think).

Some people thought Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series was black. That thought never crossed my mind as I read the books. But, that is likely due to my own experiences and I envisioned myself in her. I like to think that J. K. Rowling did a good job because so many different people (of a multitude of races) could identify with the character of Hermione and were able to imagine her to be like them. Though, now that I think about the whole “mudblood” thing, I can understand how others saw her as something other than white.

So now that I know that one of my characters is biracial, how do I approach her? Of course you can always do research, but research just can’t replace experience and I am unlikely to experience being African-American in this lifetime. A brief scan of the interwebs reveals a few things: This article about how to avoid token minority characters, this article about writers of color, and many more I’m sure.

From the few articles I’ve read, it seems that people WANT to see stories featuring characters of various races and I think a lot of a writer’s concerns are of their own making. I’ve also read an interesting novel recently that takes on the issue of race in an interesting way. Every character seems prejudiced to different races or even people from various countries. The Burgess Boys is full of dialogue where people talk negatively about people from different countries. I haven’t quite figured out the purpose of it all yet since I haven’t finished the book.

Really, all you can do is write it. And if you have concerns about your writing, go to your friends and trusted readers and see what THEY think of what you have crafted. But don’t avoid writing about a character simply because he or she is not the same race as you.