The Problem of Racial Description in Writing

There was a provocative piece on racial description in fiction in the Oct. 2010 issue of The Writer. The piece is entitled “The Importance of Inclusionary Writing,” and suggests that all too often in fiction the race of minority characters becomes their chief characteristic. As Lynn Capehart, the author of this piece, says,

Many white writers, for instance, will be surprised to learn that they may be inadvertently supporting inequality by how they use race in describing people of color, as compared to white characters.

These writers, you see, will not mention race unless the character they are writing about isn’t white. Then, they usually use race alone to delineate the character, as if he or she were a generic stand-in for the entire race, and not an individual with a unique set of talents and tics.

Alas, this is so true as to be a common thing. I can think of dozens of examples of books that have done this very thing. But the solution presents its own set of problems, problems that Capehart leaves entirely unanswered and unaddressed. She writes,

The benefits of writing more inclusively when constructing characters are many, but most important is that this approach will make us all better writers: It takes more creative energy and imagination, dare I say talent, to actually de-scribe the “black man,” “Asian woman,” “Mexican man” or “white woman,” and not use race as, essentially, a crutch.

Agreed 100%. This is good stuff. Unfortunately, I fear few writers will even dare to venture into such arenas due to the hyper-sensitive racial issues still flowing beneath the surface of our nation. Describing a black character as a “black man” might seem like a cop-out, allowing the reader to fill the character in with all manner of stereotypes, would it really be better for such stereotyping to be broadcast by the author?

Considering that any description or label may be turned against the speaker on the slightest whim, I think few authors will dare the risk of trying to describe a minority character beyond the color of their skin. “Black,” after all, is a “safe” description that is unlikely to cause consternation on anyone’s part. I get flop sweats just thinking about the descriptions of some well-meaning novelist trying not to seem racist by making color the chief characteristic of his minority characters, and going on to paint us pictures of the worst stereotyped physical descriptions of his characters.

I fear for images of black men like unto black-faced posters from the Jim Crow era and 1900s newspaper cartoons depicting African-Americans with despicable caricatures, their appearance distorted beyond reality. I shudder to think of some poor novelist caught in an unintentional controversy over describing Ensign Sulu as having “slanted eyes.” Political correctness is among us, and I worry that some will fall into this trap.

There must be a safe passage through this narrow channel, though I’m not sure what it might be. One effective way I have discovered is to actually read minority literature, in which minority characters are in the majority and thus must be described beyond skin color.

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