Tips on Writing Race from a Teen Writer

I received a couple of great comments on my blog from a young writer named Micala, and I wanted to share them with you. In response to a post entitled, "Hey, We Need Latino Books ... And More," she had some interesting thoughts about the statistics on multicultural books:
I find the comment about a lack of color in sci-fi and fantasy interesting. I read a lot of sci-fi, and often write it too, and always felt sci-fi writers either A) don't specify race as much, so it's your own fault if you don't catch that, and B) often include mixes of races, sometimes alien ones as well, and often set in multiple countries/planets.

However, so glad you posted this! It's a really good point, and very startling. I never realized there was such a difference. I'm African American and the reason I've started looking into race in books is because once someone asked why I write all "white" (hate that word for people) books when I'm not "white." I replied, "I don't. When did I say even half of these people are of a tan, peachy, or buttery complexion?" They were like, "Well, you didn't say they weren't either..." I don't know, it just weirded me out.  I'm sixteen, so maybe I'm just oblivious, and my parents were always good about having me read everything and anything. I'm glad I got the comment, but am disappointed that in so much of literature it is assumed everyone is American or of European decent. It's so silly.

I also wonder if this chart takes into account those people who's race is left unidentified. Are those books lumped into the "white/European" category? Left out?
In a post where I call for fresh descriptions of skin color, inviting writers to moving away from food clichés, Micala responds with a burst of  creativity:
Mmm, you bring up interesting points, and I've been reading several discussions on the issue lately. I have to say, I honestly don't understand the problem with food descriptions. Yes, they CAN get boring or be cliché, especially for African-Americans like me, but if you have a reason, I think add it. Like if the girl is young, really sweet, has a smooth skin complexion, has really fine, silky arm hair and is a teenager that the protagonist boy has been dreaming about, then maybe, just maybe, she really is "peachy" in his mind. Classy, sweet, and fresh.

Another point is this: I would avoid race. Unless you've got a reason, avoid race. Just describe your characters! Saying they were half Scottish half Irish is lazy. Saying they were a tall, lanky boy with tan skin, an ivory undertone, strawberry blonde hair and green eyes and giving them a strong accent is much more effective, and much more imaginative. Here are some words I've found for skin, by the way:

  • Rosy
  • Tan
  • Sun-kissed
  • Teak
  • Ebony
  • Rich Earth
  • Smoke
  • Rosy
  • Maple
  • Walnut
  • Oak
  • Coffee - more description required
  • Clay - add to this with more description
  • (Ornamental, Antique) Bronze
  • Caramel
  • Falu Red
  • (Chiffon) Lemon
  • Pear
  • Rose (Misty, French)
  • Papaya
  • Orchid - specify
  • Persimmon
  • Platinum
  • Puce
  • Saffron
  • Salmon
  • Xanthic
Blush Colors:
  • French Rose
  • Crimson
  • Maroon
  • Orchid - really qualify the word with extra description
  • Persimmon
  • Puce
  • Salmon
  • Sangria
  • Plum
  • Firebrick
  • Smooth
  • Silky
  • Rough
  • Moist
  • Sticky
  • Lissome
  • Satin
  • Velvety
  • Ruddy
  • Wrinkled
  • (Un)Wholesome
  • Dingy
  • Sickly
  • Pale
  • Oily
  • Ashy
  • Lush
  • Rich

That's a very small selection of words compared to how many I have saved on the Word Doc I've made for imaginative terms for skin, but there are a few. I just got tired of clichés. Some of the ones I didn't mention are words refering to minerals such as bronze or gold, trees such as oak or maple, or other abiotic factors such as clay or rich soil. Even using flower colors, really study the flower. Does it sparkle in the light? Is it multi-toned because of its specs? Sand can be used to describe someone with ivory and bronze mixed skin, with freckles of a seppia color mixed in.
Race is almost always going to offend someone. Just describe your characters and let their interests and dialect "speak" for itself. Also, in a more racially diverse world, it's really hard to tell races from one another. Rather than try, just let your character be. Unless their lineage or social standing is affected by it, and important enough to be mentioned, why qualify it? 
Now that's creative. Micala's comments lifted my spirits after several recent sessions with adults  where the issue of writing race was discussed with some tension in the room. After reading her thoughtful comments and suggestions, I'm bullish on the next generation of writers, aren't you?


Very impressive from such a young mind. She does an excellent job of illustrating why "showing" and not "telling" is even more important in these areas.
Debbie Rigaud said…
Excellent insight, Micala! Thank you & thanks, Mitali for posting this. :-)
tanita davis said…
Wow - she's very much exercising her creativity. I admit that I have a list such as this that I've made to help me widen my vocabulary in terms of colors and descriptions as well.
stacer said…
These are great! I love how many different words she's got here too.

The thing about race in SFF, though, is that so often despite so many planets being involved, and it being "multicultural" in terms of species/fantasy race (elves, dwarves, ogres), we still have a problem of the humans being mostly, overwhelmingly, monoracial. And that's why I started Tu--to address that. SFF has this culture of feeling like we're "past all that"--"that" being racial problems and misogyny in particular--and the problem is that we really aren't just yet. We can work on it a little harder, I think.
Julie said…
Excellent post, and great to hear these thoughts from a teen writer and reader. I have a hissyfit every time I hear a character's complexion compared to chocolate. As if maybe the observer is imagining licking them like frosting. Coffee's not too far away from that in my mind, either. I realize people have deep affection for chocolate and coffee, but still. I guess I find the whole food thing oddly dehumanizing -- even though we have positive feelings about food. Then again, when describing my skin, I call myself a big glass of skim milk, so go figure. I hope my melanin-envy is apparent in the analogy.
Melinda said…
I guess technically I'd be soy milk!

Awesome insights from this gal. So tempted to swipe her list ... but maybe I should stop being a lazybutt and make my own!
Debbie Reese said…
Guessing that most of you saw the news about the shift in demographics wherein the majority of people in the US under the age of 5 is no longer white? (Also gotta add that Fox News commenter urging white people to make more babies is disgusting.)

I wonder what the children's book industry will look like when they become the majority of book-buyers? Will it be a future where we do not assume that the default racial identity is White?

I also wonder that the idea of not specifying race/nation/religion moves us all to a place where identity doesn't matter... that it suggests we will arrive at a place where we're more or less color blind... It suggests a valuing of difference that erases that difference... I don't think I like that future. If my identity as a Pueblo Indian woman doesn't matter, what DOES matter?
I've been meaning to get over here and read this post since it went live.

Thank you, Micala for your thoughtful comments and thank you for sharing them in one post, Mitali.
Micala said…
Ahhh! Thanks guys! Sorry I haven't visited this site in so long, or commented, but I'm glad I came back! Thank you for using my comments, and I hope they can help people. If anyone would like I can share my whole list with them, which has continued to expand! I'll try to check back on here, or when I get home I can post it as, again, another long comment :)