Being a Better Writer: On Writing About Race

Oh boy.

Yep, this post had to come at some point or another. Given the charged climate of “PC” these days (that’s “political correctness,” not “Personal Computer,” sadly) days, this topic is one that’s come up again and again in writing. Online, offline … just about everywhere.

It’s also charged enough that simply based on the title of the post alone, I can already expect that there are angry comments being written to tell me how “wrong” I am … despite the title being the only thing those commentators will read.

Yeah, there’s a reason I’ve been okay with putting off this post for so long. It’s a charged topic, one that incites a lot of anger and rage from a lot of people.

That in mind though … it’s something that needs to be talked about if you’re going to write. In part because we can’t ignore it. That old adage about there being some readers who will never be happy? The concept of race is one area where there are definitely going to be people who are going to live up to that creed. No matter what you do, you’re going to do something wrong. Well, not really (though there are things you can do wrong). More like, … some readers are going to choose to see something wrong no matter what you do. They’re not interested in logic and reason. And they’re out there. They will make what you write “wrong” no matter what you do, because they can.

So what can you do in that case? Sure, you can’t please them … but you can make sure that what you’ve written is well-written enough that others will look at those complaints with a little bit of logic and go “No, I don’t see it.”

Right. So it’s a bit like writing anything else then. There are always going to be people that are unhappy. You can’t control that. What you can do,  however, is make sure that for the readers left, you’ve written something good. And now … we’re going to talk about that in the context of one of the most (in America) politically charged topics there is: race in stories and writing.

Here we go.

Why?
Okay, let’s tackle the most prominent question first: Why? As in “Why talk about this at all?” After all, some reason that the best way to make the issue no longer an issue is to stop talking about it (Morgan Freeman’s famous video comes to mind), so maybe that’s what we should do, right?

Well, yes and no. We’re writers, and that means we’re going to be writing out a lot of different characters, right? And characters can come from all walks of life and all parts of the world. Which means that, if we want to be accurate in both representing and in making use of those different parts of the world for our stories … we’re going to end up writing about places, people, and customs. And at some point, that means you’re going to have to introduce a character who may have a different cultural background or skin color than our own. And that’s where we’re going to need to have great care, or we’ll wind up taking something innocuous and making it offensive.

And it’s easy to do. I once saw an internet flame-war erupt over a story in which the author had introduced a very diverse cast of characters from around the world … but had done so in a manner that made quite a few people jump to negative associations. We’ll talk more about this one in a bit, but know for now that the author didn’t intend in the slightest for this to be the case … but rather made a single error in how he presented the characters that made a lot of people angry. It was a small thing, and in another time and place, probably wouldn’t have been a problem. But again, in the charged climate some societies face today … they found themselves at the center of a lot of controversy. And all because of one, small way they’d presented their characters.

So yes, this is an issue worth talking about, and looking into. After all, we want our stories to be the best we can write, right? And at some point, every author will run into a situation where you’re going to be writing about “race,” and when that happens … you may want to avoid making some mistakes.

So, with the “Why?” hopefully answered, let’s dig further into this.

What is “Race?”
But first, before we talk about the writing, we need to address the elephant in the room: The definition problem. I can hear angry comments already starting, bear with me a second.

Part of the problem that we face (we mostly meaning the United States of America, where this problem seems to have the most root), is that we use the same word for two very different things. There’s race (and let me declare right now, I’ve always found this word to be a bit of a misnomer) … and then there’s culture. And these are both two different things … but for the most part, the same word is used to describe them.

Uh-oh.

Yes, this is part of the reason that the topic has become such a potential firestorm. A lot of people say “race” when they mean “culture” and vice-versa. Which leads to no end of problems. How?

Well, let’s look at what each entails. Race, to put it in simple terms, is the misnomer given to identify genetic heritage. Boom. That’s it. What part of the world did your parents, grandparents, and so on and so forth come from? What genetic markers did they give you for eye color, hair color, skin tone, nose shape, etc? That’s “race.” That’s all it is.

The other meaning people use race for is to describe someone’s cultural heritage. As in traditions, history, language, etc. A nationality, for example, can be a go-to cultural heritage for many. Or a religion. But it’s something that you learn based on your location an upbringing.

Now, can you see the issue here with using the same word for both? Because while they can go hand in hand, there is by no means a requirement that they do. And yet, in English (and specifically in the US), the same word, “race,” is often used to mean both simultaneously, even though neither is a requirement for the other. Genetic heritage? It’s genetic. You’re born with it, a unique set of genetic markers that make you physically you, and determine all sorts of things from hair color to whether or not you have wisdom teeth. Cultural heritage, on the other hand, is not genetic. It’s something you choose to acquire or learn about.

Real-life example: There was a very real (and funny) reddit story a few years ago from a subreddit where people go to post their mistakes and screw-ups. In this case, it was a father. He and his wife had adopted, and when they had, had become the parents of a wonderful little baby girl from China. Wanting to be responsible parents, they made sure that as the girl grew up, she learned about China, the history of the country she’d come from, the traditions, religions … all that stuff. So, she was from China (genetic heritage), so they made sure she was exposed to China (cultural heritage), and she took to it. Which was all fine and dandy until around her 18th birthday, when the dad was checking some old stuff with the papers they’d signed, and discovered that the agent they’d spoken with had been wrong. His little girl wasn’t from China … but from Korea! Whoops!

But even so … she thought of herself as coming from the heritage of China. Because cultural heritage is not genetic, even though in the United States, we foolishly often use the same word to refer to both topics (or lump them together as one). In some other languages, different words are used to distinguish between someone’s genetic heritage, and someone’s cultural heritage (a practice I’d like to encourage the US to adopt, as it would lead to far fewer issues).

All right, all right, why am I bringing this up? Because you need to realize that for many readers, these two things are going to be interlinked in their mind. For many, cultural and genetic heritage, as a result of using the same word to identify both, go hand in hand … despite the fact that they really don’t. Which means that as a writer, you need to be very careful in how you approach your writing about either, because many readers will equate one with the other and suddenly BAM, you’ve made someone angry.

At the same time, you need to make sure that, as the writer, you aren’t committing the same sin and equating one for the other. As pointed out above, they are not forcefully linked … and so as writers we should not be presenting them as such, or using one as an excuse to link the other. Crud, we need to make sure we aren’t accidentally implying that one is the other. Which again, happens. If we’re going to write a character whose genetic heritage is from—random globe-pick time—India, that doesn’t mean that we need to dig up cultural heritage of India for them to follow … unless they actually came from that heritage. Give them the cultural heritage of where they are from, not where their genes are from. Again, one does not imply (nor require) the other. Talking with a western-Canadian accent is, jokes aside, not genetic. It’s learned. Our character whose genetic heritage is from India may have grown up in South Africa … which would give them a cultural heritage from there, not India.

So … Actually Writing Things
All right, now we come to the actual crux of everything. With the above in mind, how do we write characters of different genetic and cultural heritages. Better yet, how do we do so without setting off a firestorm of controversy in our own works?

Well, first off, it helps if we remember to write it a bit like gender. If you’ve not read my piece on that, here’s the summary: You’d have to search few and far between to find someone who wakes up each morning, looks in the mirror, and thinks “Yeah! I am a [insert sex here]!” People don’t go around thinking “I’m eating breakfast … like a man/woman! I’m taking a shower … like a man/woman!” That’s not how people act.

Likewise, genetic and cultural heritage are similar. I don’t look up in the morning and think to myself “I’m having breakfast … like someone with mixed-but-mostly-Germanic heritage!” That’s not sane. I get up and think: “I’m having breakfast.”

This is one of the first, and most common mistakes, I think, that writers make when introducing a character’s cultural or genetic heritage. They make it incredibly overt and straightforward, as if it’s all that matters to that character, or is the most important thing.

Now, I’m not saying the our genetic and cultural heritages aren’t important. After all, they make up part of who we are. But they do so subtly, not in grand, massive gestures. My cultural heritage considering my religious background, for example, means that I don’t drink alcohol or coffee (though I don’t like the scent/taste of either anyway). But I don’t wake up each morning thinking “I don’t drink coffee!” Instead, I wake up and get a glass of water.

This is the mistake, I feel, that many writers make that draws such ire from readers: They paint in broad strokes that feel out of place, rather than giving the reader subtle clues. And in painting with such broad strokes (and combining genetic and cultural heritage), they overwhelm the character’s personality and—however unintentionally—place a massive focus of attention on the genetic and cultural background of the character (on the “race”). A focus that then shifts away from the elements that are actually more vital to the character’s personality and behavior.

Let me give you two examples; one where this happened, and one where it did not. The first is the example I mentioned earlier, where a young author unwittingly invited a firestorm upon themselves through the manner in which they presented the cast.

It wasn’t that they were attempting to be racially charged, or even insinuate anything to that regard. In fact, they were trying to be varied, with a main cast that stretched worldwide. The problem, however, was in the presentation of each of the characters. They were introduced, given a name … and then, before any other description, given a genetic heritage description. Only after the color of their skin had been addressed did the author talk about anything else.

Oh boy. Yeah. The fire rose after that.

The problem was in the presentation. Each of these characters was actually fairly well-rounded, and, infodumping aside, there was a lot of variety between them in mannerisms, personality, etc. But the author let all of that come after he’d given the genetic heritage, and thereby he inferred. however unintentionally, that the color of their skin and the characters genetic heritage was the most important thing to consider. It came first, right after the character’s names, and then all the rest of the descriptions came. It was a big mistake.

I legitimately felt bad for them, because in reading their reaction to the resulting firestorm, they’d had no idea what they’d unwittingly done until it was too late. But they’d made it appear to many readers that the most important distinguishing fact they should remember about the characters was not their personality or even something like the style of their hair or their clothing … it was the color of their skin.

I’m not saying that genetic heritage isn’t something of importance. After all, if I woke up tomorrow morning blue, I’m sure I’d be a little surprised and alarmed. But what this author unfortunately did was make it the very first thing that anyone was told about these characters … and in doing so, invited people to react to that focus (and it should be noted than many of those involved in the result were, themselves, committing the sin of interlinking genetic and cultural heritage and letting one determine the other, so it’s not as though these readers were innocent). Had they not made that the very first thing anyone read, I doubt the fallout would have been what it was.

Now, let’s look at the second example, a case where this situation was avoided, in one of my own stories, SUPER MODEL. For the purposes of the example, I’m going to have to outright state something that isn’t so outright in the story: The main character, Samantha? Her genetic heritage is Jamaican, and along with some of her culture. But there was no firestorm. There was no outcry from readers. Why? Because the story doesn’t make the color of her skin or her looks a massive priority. Samantha—as the story is told in her perspective—let those details trickle out over the course of the work. If you pay attention to what she says about herself, her parents, and you catch the details she gives about her home life—such as some of the favorite foods her mother cooks—and are aware of what those details add up to, than it’s easy enough to put it together. But never does she sit down, look at the reader and just directly tell the reader “By the way, my skin is this color, my eyes are this color, etc.”

Now, you still get that information over the course of the story if you pay attention … but because the story doesn’t present that information as the most important thing, it becomes what it is to the character: An aspect of her, but by no means a total definition. By the time the reader has likely realized what the color of her skin is, they’ve already been presented with a number of other aspects of her character that carry more narrative weight and ultimately, matter a lot more.

Now, does that mean that the elements of her heritage are invisible or not apparent? No, not at all. Samantha still carries her cultural heritage high, something presented in the story quite often. But it’s given in a manner that makes it ordinary and everyday … because to her it is, and the story reflects that.

The method and order in which you present things when it comes to cultural and genetic heritage matters. Again, much like gender, how you present it, as well as when, matters to how readers are going to perceive it. As I said near the very beginning of this post, you can’t simply ignore it, nor should you. You’re a writer, and your job is to present a character so that the reader can visualize them in their mind. But the method and order with which you present something plays a heavy part in how that character is perceived.

Does this sound like a tricky path to walk? Well, yes, it is. As I’ve repeated throughout this post, there’s a lot of charged-up people when it comes to this issue, and it’s true that you’re probably guaranteed to have someone who isn’t satisfied, gets angry, or something similar.

But you can work to mitigate that and present a material which presents everything in a balanced, fair manner that keeps the priorities in the right place and presents material in a way that keeps everything neutral. Again, speaking of SUPER MODEL, at no point does Samantha claim that she is representative of Jamaican culture. In fact, if questioned, she’d likely say the opposite, since she wasn’t raised there. She simply lets that heritage be part of her life, the way she wants it to be.

Okay, so that’s brought up another point that should be clarified. Part of the difference between those two examples? The first, however unintentionally, encouraged the readers to paint with broad strokes. In being declarative, it also tied itself to whatever the reader saw as “X culture and genetic heritage.” The second, however, makes no such claims (accidental as the first’s were). Instead, Samantha just gives the reader a glimpse into her life and how her heritage (in both areas) has affected that. It’s not that she is Jamaican culture—far from it! It’s that her heritage comes from Jamaica, and aspects of her life are thereby from that. She’s still herself.

See the difference? One approaches both types of heritages as aspects of the character, while the other paints them as the core or sum of the character.

Perspectives
Now, there’s also perspective to consider. Again, we come back to these two examples given above. In the first (which led to the firestorm), the author used a omniscient third-person narrative to discuss things, and this was in part what caused the audience to react. See, by adopting an omniscient narration, the way the information presented didn’t just cause the readers to see the genetic heritage as the most important thing … but also infered to the readers that this was the position the author was taking.

Uh oh.

Yeah, see, perspective matters. Now again, you can’t make everyone happy. There’s always going to be that segment of readers that can’t tell the difference between a character’s beliefs and morals and an author’sAt the same time, you can work to make sure that in your writing, you make it clear that a character’s opinions may not be your own, nor even correct.

For example, I invite you to read Senator Bilbo by Andy Duncan. And not just because it’s an amusing, fun, what if, but because I recall it being a story that’s clearly about a very speciest character—the Shire senator (yes, that Shire) Bilbo—presenting a point of view that is easily offensive and terrible, but the work itself makes it clear that this is Senator Bilbo’s view, not the view of the other characters nor the author.

If you’re going to write a story with a character that is going to wrongly link cultural and genetic heritage, or be judgmental of someone based on those aspects, you’ll need to take care to make sure that they are presented in such a way that the reader knows that this is the opinion of the character, not the author. This can be tricky. You may have to work at it (this is also what Alpha Readers and feedback are great for). But you definitely want to make sure this is clear. Granted, it’s true for most things that you need to have that distinction, that a character’s opinions may not be your own, but in the current PC-charged climate, race is a topic wherein you can find yourself hamstrung even though you gave it just as much clarity as the rest of a character’s beliefs.

Knowledge
Right, I think I’m running out of steam here, but there’s one more thing I want to bring up: Knowledge. As in, know what you’re writing about. Do some research so you don’t make an embarrassing mistake.

Again, as stated above, your characters may not be “this is how it is” representations of their culture, depending on who and where they are. But at the same time, if you want to write, for example, about a character who grew up in Northern England, learn a little bit about Northern England. Learn about what the people there are like and what their culture is. Do your research! Thankfully, it’s a lot easier these days due to the internet. You can load up blogs from people all around the world and read about their experiences growing up, or living day to day life, and use that in your work. Crud, in some cases you can even go to those places and experience what they’re like (remember, there’s always a “tourist side” to that coin if you do) if it’s not too much trouble, or find others who have been there and ask after their experiences.

The world’s a big place, filled with all kinds of habits, hobbies, and fun little idiosyncrasies. Learn about them! Give your readers a solid experience! Cultural heritage is a big part of our lives, no matter where we’re from. Represent that, with it’s pros and cons (and don’t forget the perspective of those pros and cons), and use it to bring your story to life.

Conclusion
Right, I’m running out of steam here. So, let’s go over the highlights. First, genetic heritage and cultural heritage are two separate things that stand independent of one another. One is the way we look: The shape of our head, our chins, our bone density … all those little things that are determined by who our parents and our parent’s parents (etc) were. And all this affects is our looks. The second is our culture, beliefs and practices of where we come from and how we are raised. It can be how we talk, what we value, how we treat others, what we do for holidays, and it is learned behavior. They are not the same.

That said, everyone has both, and so will your characters. Which is why it’s important that we learn how to present both in a manner that doesn’t draw undue focus. Yes, both are parts of who we are, but they are not all we are, nor are they all of who our characters are. We need to take care when writing our characters that we don’t draw undue or exaggerated attention to their heritage, but rather balance that part of who they are with the rest of them (the content of their character, in other words, matters, not just what they look like or where they come from).

Also, we need to take care concerning what perspectives we use, both in the telling of our story and with respect to the presentation of our character’s, so that we don’t throw off the balance mentioned above, or in the case where it’s supposed to be thrown off, make clear to the reader that yes, it is off, and both the author and the reader are aware of that fact.

Last but not least, we need to make sure that if we’re going to portray a culture, we get it right. That we show that it is the character acting on it, not the culture as some force driving all there is about the character, but that we’re also getting that character’s actions correct.

Like I said, it’s a tough topic. This is a minefield of spectacular proportions these days (in part because so many seem vested in burying the mines and watching people step on them rather than trying to do away with them). But … you’re going to have to face it at some point or another. We live in an interconnected world like never before. Your books can be read by readers everywhere. You have a global audience. Which means you also have global options when it comes to writing characters and stories, which can then not only thrill those who come from that area of the globe, but enlighten and entertain readers from other parts of the world.

Ultimately, that means more responsibility for you, the author. And, combined with that minefield, it means you’re going to need to take care with what you write and how you present things.

But once that care is given … the end result speaks for itself. Characters that live and breath on their own, their personalities not determined by skin color or by what country they come from, but who they are. Keep the focus on the right things.

And maybe, just maybe, that’ll do a little bit to get that minefield dug up.

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