On foot of my last blog post, in which (among other things) I discussed how difficult it is to preserve within a reader’s mind a solid visual image of your character and how this can sometimes lead to shocking reactions when that reader is suddenly confronted with what is, for them, the horrible truth. (in other words – ‘OMG, that guy is black???‘)
During the post I mentioned some difficulties I had had when describing characters who were also POC, as opposed to characters who were not POC. (Long story short – I had, to my horror, discovered that at some stage in the editing process without my having been consulted, an editor had removed 99% of any reference to my character al-Sayyid Razi ibn-Jon Malik al-fadl’s dark skin, dark eyes and curly hair.) A reader contacted me last night and in a private discussion of this problem, we explored the reasons why a reasonable, intelligent professional person would be so bothered by the descriptions of a POC that they would edit them from a manuscript, while leaving all similar details re the white characters in place. (again – let’s note: this is not a discussion as to whether characters should or should not be described physically. I know that many readers/editors/writers have a problem with physical description or the over use of such. Let’s lay that aside as a different matter entirely)
The reason I was given for the wholesale removal of Razi’s physical characteristics from the Moorehawke manuscripts was very vague (quoting from memory from editorial notes at the time: ‘if his race is not being made an issue of – we shouldn’t be mentioning it’) I doubt that it was my editor’s intention to imply that race is nothing but a problem and therefore only worth describing if we are mentioning it as an issue ( if that were the case then all descriptions of heroes and heroines who are also POC would be relegated to books whose sole purpose was to discuss their race and the issues surrounding it) But rather, I would say the intention was that my character be seen as a character ‘just like any other’ divorced from his colour. Very commendable. Except that when a character who is also a POC is surrounded by white characters who are constantly referred to by their skin, hair and eye colour (again- lets not go there with the love/hate physical descriptions thing. OK?) and he/she is the only character to whom we are given only a token physical reference (usually at the beginning of the book) Then we are – in effect – whitewashing that character in a way that is so subtle that it’s scary in its effectiveness. Especially when the folks doing it are sitting back and commending themselves for being racially sensitive.
Please note: I am not talking about an isolated incident which happen to me alone as the consequence of one well intentioned but heavy handed moment in the editorial process. I have since found out that this happens regularly, and it is done by folks who are utterly convinced that they are doing the right thing to authors who are often a little unsure themselves as to what the right thing is. It happens quietly, in the background often without the author’s knowledge until the last minute, and I suspect it has gone on for a long time without ever being properly discussed. Certainly I would have continued to think it had been an isolated personal experience had I not mentioned it obliquely during the de-gay YA debate (the best summery of which can be found here) and later in a private forum, only to be surprised by a fairly timidly whispered chorus of private ‘me to’s from the shadows.
It is motivated (as I touched on earlier) by the best of intentions – by the desire not to define a character by race and race alone. You know what I mean by this, right?
I exaggerate – but that is indeed the kind of thing we should be striving to avoid like the proverbial plague. But when ‘my friend Grace’ has been written as more than a colour, and has been given all the depth of character that Fiona has, then she has the right – the bloody RIGHT – to be described with as much loving detail as anyone else. Most especially when Fiona’s ‘freckled face’ and ‘silky blonde hair’ and ‘delicate pale hands’ are described, oh, every thirty pages or so. Because without the physical descriptions Grace may as well be white because, believe me, that is how most readers will see her in their head.
And the outcome of that is, Grace may well be a character that your readers will love, she may well be a character that they root for, but only until they see her – and then they’ll be angry because HEY no one told them she was black.