Tripping ourselves up with the best of intentions

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?

My friend Fiona is strong and stocky and full of life. My friend Grace is brown with curly hair.
My friend Fiona wants to please her father a little too much, and is secretly addicted to knitting. My friend Grace is brown and has dark eyes.
Fiona laughs warmly and when she hugs me her love is so fierce I feel adored and wounded at once. Grace’s teeth are bright in her brown face and she hugs me brownly, she’s so brown.

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.  

Edited 6th May 2012: Unfortunately the fears I expressed HERE are rather exacerbated by yet another case of cover whitewashing, as highlighted by this recent post over on the booksmugglers
PLEASE NOTE: I am a genre writer. Fantasy and YA fantasy at that. Most of the writers I have discussed this with also fall into that category. As a group we tend to be the most vocal on the net. But it would be interesting to hear from writers from other areas of the lit world on this. If you know of any links which might ad to the conversation feel free to add them.
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9 Responses to Tripping ourselves up with the best of intentions

  1. melissamyworldinwordsandpages says:

    Wow. Thanks for sharing more on this. I still think we need diversity in out reads, just like in the world we live in. Or there wouldn’t be anything stimulating in our books.

    But still a shame. I understand the editor thinking they are “helping” but, yeah, so much more can be brought into that. *sigh*

  2. moloneyking says:

    Awful, just so awful and backward thinking. This is a multi-cultural country and world, it’s what helps us grow.

    • It’s a very strange thing to try and combat to be honest. I think because the folks involved genuinely do feel that they are acting in a racial sensitive manner. I was recently frustrated all over again by this comment over on thebooksmugglers which laid the blame for wishywashy racial descriptions (and therefore the white washing of covers!!!) at the author’s feet – when I know for certain that what I’ve been describing in my post here is happening over and over again behind the scenes.

      • moloneyking says:

        im truly disgusted by the whole thing, a bit of description is needed in oops and POC shouldn’t be white-washed.

        More writers need to discuss this issue pulicialy, we need more like you.

        Dream big and walk tall.

  3. moloneyking says:

    I just don’t understand it, we all know POC, so what can’t we read about them in the books we read.

    In teaching college we were warned….we were mainly middle class girls and they told us that we should not impose all of our values onto our pupils. Some children won’twant to go to college and that’s ok!

    Itis the same in writing, it is mainly middle class white females (espicially in Ireland), think we need to shake that up too…

    • It is as if the POC in the text are walking around with a great big red sign over them for some editors and it reads I AM NOT A REAL CHARACTER. I AM A PROBLEM YOU MUST DEAL WITH. The white characters are permitted to saunter about with their physical descriptions hanging out all over the place, but best not make mention of dark skin or woolly/curly hair or dark eyes (Unless, of course, that character is white. None of my white-skinned dark-eyed characters had any problem being described as such. And I’m pretty sure that Sól’s curly hair never gave anyone a single pause for thought.) As I said, I understand the desire not to define a POC simply by their physical attributes, and I understand cutting physical descriptions if no other character is described physically – but pussyfooting about in this manner with POC is doing nothing but white wash the characters themselves. It’s already much too hard to get readers to latch onto the fact that some characters may not be caucasian, why must we dance about their physical description as if it were some kind of shameful dirty little secret. You know what it reminds me of? It reminds me of the way homosexuality used to only ever be hinted at in texts. It was up to the reader to ‘read between the lines’ or ‘its there if you look for it’ and all that total bullshit which used to be the norm.

  4. offshore bank account says:

    I’ve always appreciated writing that introduces the character’s description so subtly you almost don’t notice it, yet still cumulatively conveys a complete image quickly. At its best, it is subliminal magic, and how I can realize 50 pages in that I appear to have always had the exact image of the character in my head almost from the beginning without ever seeing any obvious list of characteristics. It can be done with first-person POV too. Examples would be “she glanced quickly at herself in the mirror, panicking momentarily at the sight of a single gray hair among the usual cinnamon-colored strands” or “he ignored the detective completely and scratched idly on his forearm, sending pale flakes of skin wafting down to the dark oak table.”For race, I really can’t stand when actual *race* is described, but do appreciate the simple and subtle physical descriptions (like above) that happen to also convey a particular skin tone, or hair texture, or other characteristics. These are neutral depictions of race, and tend not to convey any particular connotations other than what the story requires.

  5. In the DaVinci Code, Browne writes something like: “he wore a corduroy jacket with patches on the elbows and had a face not unlike Harrison Ford.” Fine writing.
    How disappointed the fans must have been on seeing the movie. “Nooo… it’s Tom Hanks. He doesn’t look anything like what I imagined in my mind.”

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