How should writers from a middle-class, white background (like me) handle creating characters of different ethnic and cultural origins? How can we free ourselves from the "white as default" mindset? One of the lists I subscribe to recently discussed the problems of writing about characters of different races, especially with regard to color descriptions. What methods can we use to indicate the race of a character without resorting to food and drink analogies (e.g., cafe-au-lait skin), which have become cliches and are objectionable to many people? Here's a very informative website that was mentioned on the list:Writing with Color
I admit I've used the "cafe-au-lait" terminology myself. Right away, a page on this site saved me from the embarrassment of asking why that's bad when it's also common to attribute "peaches and cream complexion" or "cherry lips" to a Caucasian heroine.
"Writing with Color" covers, among many other issues, how to handle races in imaginary societies, as in fantasy realms or alien worlds. How can we make it clear that the characters don't all look like northern Europeans, without slipping into "white as default" territory?
A fascinating fantasy novel I recently read, THE FIFTH SEASON by N. K. Jemisin, does a wonderful job of portraying a multi-ethnic world by gracefully working the details of the society into the narrative. Here's part of the mini-review I included in my June newsletter:
"This novel takes place on a world racked by violent seismic events and climate catastrophes. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and their aftereffects such as epidemics and fungal blooms plague the inhabited continent, ironically named Stillness. Fifth Seasons, which happen at irregular intervals, are worldwide climatic disasters that can last months, years, or even decades. We get this information from an omniscient voice in the prologue. At the end of the book, a pair of glossaries in an appendix offers help for readers who have trouble keeping everything straight. The story proper is narrated from the viewpoints of three female characters in completely separate time periods and storylines....Orogenes, people with innate talent for control of earthshaking events, provide the only hope of a community’s coming through such an event relatively unscathed. All people have an extra sense that enables them to 'sess' the movements of the planet, but only orogenes can manipulate those energies. Thus, they are recognized as essential. Yet orogenes are also feared and loathed, because their powers, if not properly channeled, can wreak devastation. Those not trained by and under the direction of the Fulcrum, their headquarters in the capital city, are subject to shunning and even lynching. In this world, disciplines such as geology are highly valued, while astronomy (for instance) is disdained as a pseudoscience. Besides the human inhabitants, Stillness harbors a nearly legendary species called stone eaters, essentially made of animated rock. The three protagonists are: Essun, an orogene who keeps her true nature secret while living in a small village, until her husband discovers the truth, kills their son, and disappears with their daughter; in the midst of a disaster that may herald a coming Fifth Season, she journeys in search of her missing child. Damaya, a prepubescent girl whose family sells her to a Guardian—a member of the caste charged with keeping orogenes under control—to be taken to Fulcrum for training. Syenite, a fairly advanced orogene sent on a mission with an irascible fellow-orogene of superior rank whom she can hardly stand but with whom she’s expected to produce a child."
THE FIFTH SEASON is well worth reading even though it's a little difficult to follow because of the three different viewpoints and the fact that the chapters don't follow each other in a straightforward chronology. The author deals with gender and sexual orientation differences as matter-of-factly as with racial differences.
Another excellent example is AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER (the animated series, not the travesty of a live-action film derived from it). The four dominant ethnic groups in this world are based on different Earth cultures, none of which is European. Fans objected to the shortage of Asian actors in the live-action movie, just as Ursula Le Guin and many of her readers expressed outrage at the whitewashing of characters in the TV adaptation of her Earthsea trilogy.
Years ago, a member of an online critique group I belonged to submitted a long, complex piece of work set in the deep South. The reaction I remember having was, "Where are all the black people?" Nary a sign of any in the story. Having grown up in Virginia in the 1950s and 1960s, I knew that even in the era of segregation, "colored people" (the polite term in that period) were highly visible. I'm trying to make a conscious effort not to make all the characters in my fiction look like me. Personally, I don't feel qualified to write individuals of other races as protagonists, but when including them as secondary characters, naturally I want to do it right.
Margaret L. CarterCarter's Crypt