Writing Race: A Checklist For Writers

We've been talking a lot about this on the Fire Escape, but I thought it might be helpful to sum up ten questions we writers can ask ourselves once we've completed a story (these were presented during my workshop at the NESCBWI conference last weekend):
  1. How and why did or didn't I define race? Did I use labels like "Black" or "white"? If so, which ones and why?

  2. Did my setting, plot, and characters determine the cultural casting?

  3. Am I aware and in charge of any non-verbals that are race-specific (i.e. "grew pale")?

  4. Who are my story's change agents culturally and why?

  5. Are my characters of other races more than just foils for my protagonist?

  6. Is my narrative voice specific when describing foreign places or people (i.e."Igbo" vs. "Africa")?

  7. Have I relied on a certain jargon, diction, or accent to characterize, and inadvertently tapped into cultural stereotypes?

  8. How did I define beauty ("big eyes" = "not Asian")?

  9. Could my characters be imagined as different ethnicities? Do I want that?

  10. Should I hand more casting power to my reader and cut back on some physical descriptions?

Photo Credit: Mahidoodi via Creative Commons


susan said…
I admire and respect what you do here. I'm featuring you in our COLA spotlight and I want to invite, request that you participate in our C.O.R.A Diversity Roll Call Meme. Hope you'll join us.
Carleen Brice said…
Excellent post!
tanita davis said…
A big old "YES!" to the last two.
Summer said…
Great questions. So what should we do with the answers?
Mitali Perkins said…
Thank you all for your comments. Summer, I hope we use them for ourselves and our stories, to revise, strengthen, and clarify.
Greer said…
My problem with 10, insofar as abdicating "casting" responsibility is concerned, is that whiteness is extremely normalized. So that often, if the writer chooses not to describe the character (and doesn't provide other racial/cultural markers), the audience will interpret the character as white just because that's the default. Not to say that allowing the audience a blank slate to do their own casting is a bad thing, but it's something to keep in mind-- Just because we as writers aren't describing the character doesn't mean the Default Character isn't already a social creation within the audience's mind.
Mitali Perkins said…
Greer, I did talk about white default in my presentation, and it's important to acknowledge, but I think #10 is worth asking for three reasons:

(a) If an author clearly defines/labels a secondary character as nonwhite, it means that the rest of her characters, including the protagonist, MUST be white. Does that mean we define the race of ALL characters, which gets tedious? As a brown reader, I could be traveling merrily along casting the characters as I wish, when suddenly I get jarred by such a label, especially in fantasy. Sometimes by not defining race, you give a reader who is not operating in white default mode the chance to claim the story.

(2) Teens/tweens, judging by the pop culture that shapes their world, are much less likely to normalize whiteness. Check out Hua Hsu's recent article in The Atlantic -- The End of White America? for more on this. If we as authors from another generation usurp their power to cast, we could be much more heavyhanded with race than we need to be.

(3) While a normalized whiteness is definitely worth bringing into the forefront of our writing minds, the primary reason to write race is not to "better" our readers and jar them out of white default with our story. That makes our story the servant of our well-meaning agenda. Such a purpose is perhaps better served with biography, memoir, and non-fiction.
Greer said…
I'm not saying it's not worth thinking about or a useful method for subverting default whiteness, just that I think the lack of racial descriptors should be problematized. If the choice is a story where the characters are explicitly white, and a story where racial characteristics are never mentioned, that's one thing-- but it's better to have those PLUS stories where characters' races are mentioned and they aren't white.

It's not so much for me about "bettering" the reader, as it is keeping in mind how often readers explicitly get to read about more than just white people. Subversion is a great tool, it's just one that I think has some built-in limitations.
Mitali Perkins said…
You're right, Greer.

The more great stories the better -- some where race is defined well and explicitly, others where race is never mentioned, stories where most people aren't white (and yes, we definitely need more of those), and some where it's just a casual thing, an easy extra characteristic ...

The goal of this checklist is to help us as writers bring our hidden agendas into the light -- not so much worry about how our readers receive our stories. We don't ever have much control over that anyway.

Thanks for your thoughtful comment.
Kara said…

I really enjoyed this thoughtful blog post about writing race in YA. You've given me a lot to think about.