The Challenge of Diversity, part 1 of 5
Anyone who’s heard a sound bite about the last U.S. census results knows that the makeup of the United States is changing. It kind of goes without saying that that extends to fiction readership in the US as well, and yet we don’t always think about that when we’re in the middle of writing an exciting story. It’s awkward to talk about–most or all of us like to think of ourselves as writing without any kind of bias–but the truth is, people tend to assume that everybody else is “just like me” at a very fundamental level. We’re programmed that way as a species.
The question is how to appeal to a diverse readership . . . and do it without inserting foot into mouth. *g* With that in mind, I’d like to talk about both some of the things I notice and point out when I’m editing, and some points to remember when you’re designing a story and its characters in the first place.
This blog post ended up being much longer than anyone wants to read in one sitting, so I’ll be posting it one section at a time over the next couple of weeks.
Race is one of the touchier subjects to tangle with–even the word is daunting and makes some of us feel like we’re doing something wrong. But as someone who scans as white, I’ve been assured by both writers and readers who don’t that it’s the right word and it needs addressing. Here are a number of points to remember for dealing with race in your writing. Some of them look obvious or easy and some of them really don’t, but I ask you to stop and consider each one and whether it applies to what you write. The most difficult part of addressing race in fiction isn’t what you’ve put into a story–it’s what you haven’t put into it.
- Does the cast of your story consist entirely of white people? If you’re writing about a small town in the middle of North Dakota, this might be perfectly reasonable, because that’s what you’re likely to find in a small town in the middle of North Dakota. Think about your setting, and if you wouldn’t expect the population there to consist entirely of white people, double check your characters–both major and minor–to make sure you’ve included the people of color you’d expect to find in your setting.
- Watch out for blue eyes. By which I really mean watch out for stereotypes of beauty, in all their varied forms. Once upon a time, the Stepford Wife stereotype of beauty was white, with blond hair and blue eyes. Lately, I’ve seen a rash of white with black hair and blue eyes or brown hair and blue eyes. White with red hair and green eyes is also popular.
Your hero and heroine don’t have to have blue eyes, and they don’t have to be white. As a matter of fact, the one thing I consistently heard from publishers and acquiring editors of both erotic romance and general fiction at EPICon last year was a cry for more non-white protagonists.
- Avoid the token/magical character of color. In particular, stereotypes you want to avoid are the hero’s/heroine’s tag-along best friend, the single non-white character sacrificing himself for the white main characters, and the folksy person of color stepping into your protagonists’ lives with wisdom and/or magic to make them better people.
- Don’t describe people as food. I’ve complained to fellow writers that this is a lose-lose situation, and no one has disagreed, but it’s something we have to pay attention to anyway. In the US, we have this baseline assumption that if a person (fictional or not) does not have their skin color described, that person is white. In an attempt to avoid this, writers are tempted say “he was black”/”she was Asian.” Not only does that clunk, when you think about it, it’s rude. We don’t read a whole lot of character descriptions in fiction beginning “she was white.”
In an effort to avoid this, you want to actually describe skin colors, hair colors, or other features that tell us about the character without specifically using a “race word.” And here’s where the food comes in. It can be very offensive to describe a character in terms of food: chocolate-brown skin, skin the color of a pumpkin latte, almond-shaped eyes, coffee-colored hair . . . you get the idea. I’ve heard a lot of different explanations as to why, and I don’t want to make this post any longer than it’s already shaping up to be. To give you something quick to remember, just consider that reducing a human being to a snack is patronizing.
But wait, you may be thinking, how can I describe a skin tone, then? My skin is kind of peach, her skin is the color of new cream. Most skin shades found in the human race are some kind of brown tone, and most of the browns in the Crayola box are named after some kind of food. Heck, most of the colors in the Crayola box are named after either food or flowers.
Yeah, that’s why I described it as a lose-lose situation. You end up using a lot of “pale, ruddy, pallor dusted with freckles, light brown, medium brown, dark brown” descriptions. A friend of mine complains that she has no word to describe the shape of her own eyes, because historically Americans have referred to them as “almond-shaped,” but they really don’t look anything like almonds at all.
The best you can do on this one is try. Your editor will try to help you out if you missed a spot. It’s not perfect, but we have to start somewhere.
To be continued . . .