The importance of inclusionary writing
Are you unwittingly saying more than you mean to in your treatment of characters of other races?
Published: September 13, 2010
"Out of many, we are one.” Before he became president, Barack Obama uttered these words in 2008 in an insightful speech on race, referring to America’s hunger for a “message of unity.” His campaign sparked a sometimes emotional national conversation on race, unlike any since the 1960s.
Photo by Brian Goodloe
As fiction writers, we can show support for racial equality—or inequality—by the way we describe our characters, or, as is too often the case, the way we don’t describe them. Many white writers, for instance, will be surprised to learn that they may be inadvertently supporting inequality by how they use race in describing people of color, as compared to white characters.
These writers, you see, will not mention race unless the character they are writing about isn’t white. Then, they usually use race alone to delineate the character, as if he or she were a generic stand-in for the entire race, and not an individual with a unique set of talents and tics.
Worse, far worse, is that by letting a racial category create most of the description, if not all of it, a white writer adds the historically degrading, underlying message that “they all look alike.”
When more description is provided for people of color, and race is still mentioned, it makes the reader of color (like me) think: You just described your white characters with no mention of race. Why are you now telling me the race of the only character who is not white? If a writer does a professional job constructing a character, readers will know the race without being told directly.
Whether characters are constructed with more or less detail should be a function of their worth and weight on the page, not race. All characters of equal weight in a scene should be created equally, meaning that when a writer is describing characters, all of them should be described.
While the failure to use a racially inclusive approach to character construction may suggest racism, it does not mean writers who are guilty of this are racist, just that they have probably never really thought about it. It appears that in the unconscious mind-set of many white writers, there is only one race on this planet; they seem to believe they don’t have to mention the race of white characters because it’s a given. But when they write about a person of color, anyone not white, they give short shrift to him or her by labeling the person, with little or no other substantive description provided. A racial label tells the reader little about the individual.
The benefits of writing more inclusively when constructing characters are many, but most important is that this approach will make us all better writers: It takes more creative energy and imagination, dare I say talent, to actually de-scribe the “black man,” “Asian woman,” “Mexican man” or “white woman,” and not use race as, essentially, a crutch.
There are white writers who let the reader figure out a character’s race from subtle descriptive clues. Others don’t bother with clues but still manage to convey the information. And from time to time, any writer will find it convenient, even constructive to the story, to simply mention a character’s race up front. No one is asking any writer to give up artistic freedom. But as a rule, it would be nice if either everyone’s race gets mentioned, or no one’s does.
Copping out with a label
Here is a good example of what I’m talking about:
Detective Winn applied the match to his pipe and watched the suspects enter the room. Through a haze of smoke he sized up each man. The leader, Riley, was first through the door, tall as timber, bald head marked with the scars of a fight he almost lost, dangerous eyes searching every corner of the room. Behind him was his stooge, Tram. Squat and round and hard like a boulder, his small glasses sat awry on his mean face. Bringing up the rear was Solomon, a tall black man.
The writer does not mention the race of Detective Winn, Riley and Tram because the writer is white and these characters are white. The description for Solomon is summed up by a racial label.
There is a way to actually describe Solomon, to let the reader know he is African-American, without mentioning his race. For example, is his skin the color of weak coffee, dried clay, milk chocolate, a moonless night, dark as the devil’s heart, or the same color as Denzel Washington’s skin? Maybe the skin was ashy. Maybe he was wearing a bright dashiki that contrasted with his dark skin, or maybe he used an identifying phrase as he entered the room. Et cetera.
Ask yourself: If you were in a room with several tall black men, how would you pick out Solomon? The answer is that you couldn’t, because the writer has not given you any real description of Solomon, the individual, who happens to be black. Another example:
The train station was quiet at that time of day. Waiting on one bench seat were two elderly women with blue-tinted hair, holding hands. Beside them was their male nurse, who looked like he could be a model and knew it. On the other side of the waiting room sat an Asian woman, and two Mexican men.
Again, the white writer implies that the elderly women and their nurse are white by not mentioning race in their descriptions, but expends no creative effort to describe the other characters, who are people of color, except to give their race and gender. They are merely generic stand-ins for Asian women and Mexican men. If, however, a writer decides to use race as a construct, it can be applied equally to describe all the characters and thereby give them equal weight in the scene. Something like this:
The train station was quiet at that time of day. Waiting on one bench seat were two elderly white women with blue-tinted hair, holding hands. Beside them was their white nurse, who looked like he could be a model and knew it. On the other side of the waiting room sat a young Asian woman with dyed red hair, chain smoking in a no-smoking area, and two middle-aged Hispanic men dressed in white suits, speaking Spanish quietly.
Unfortunately, the kind of exclusionary character constructs I’m criticizing seems to be nearly ubiquitous. The top literary journals, the very finest commercial magazines that also publish fiction, are routinely guilty of the problem. Recently, I read a story in a respected 2008 “best of” compilation that originally ran in The New Yorker. In the story, when two police officers enter a house, the white one is described without resorting to race, while the other is labeled “a Puerto Rican cop.”
Exclusionary character construction is even being “taught” as correct: A writ-er friend of mine submitted to the Pacific Northwest Writers Association a story that had been published in a literary magazine, seeking a critique the magazine had not provided. One person scored her 99 out of 100. The second gave her a 62 with comments that the story was confusing. The story was about an African-American family. The writer revealed their race with clues as the story progressed. This critiquer questioned a phrase used in the story—“acting white”—stating that until then she “had thought they were white.” The critiquer, who most likely is white, scolded the writer for not labeling the family as black at the start!
The benefits of inclusionary writing
Writers are supposed to look at the world and blend their observations into their prose. To do that well, white writers have to start really “looking at” their characters of color. If the creator can’t see the person, how can she describe that character to the reader?
This enlightened writing style will make readers of color feel respected as individuals, and thereby broaden a writer’s base. It will support equality because it treats all races alike. Best of all, this style of character construction results in inclusion, which is what the majority of Americans of all colors say we want.
At minimum, putting something on the page that will jolt a reader and momentarily disrupt the flow of information into the mind is what all writers try to avoid. But as a person of color, and after talking to other readers and writers of color, I can tell you that that is exactly what happens when we encounter the kind of writing I’m talking about.
If you’re a reader of color, the inequity of this practice zaps you each time you encounter it, because it is a historical extension, albeit unconscious, of white society’s inability to really “see” the black, brown, red or yellow citizen as a fully developed human being—an equal, and not an “other.” Exclusionary writing diminishes any character who is not white. It adds to the negative array of inequitable patterns and practices that make it easier for society in general to discount the value and contributions of its citizens of color.
Writers of color, for their part, must also be careful to avoid supporting in-equality by describing characters of col-or but only labeling whites, as in “the white woman at the bar,” even when they are in the same scene and have the same relevance as non-white characters.
By making subtle changes in their prose to become inclusionary, writers can contribute to America’s dream of unity. Who knows, out of many, maybe we truly can be one.
Lynn Capehart, a legal writer in Los Angeles, is at work on the second book of The Darsey Rainbow Trilogy. Book 1, Both Times in Blood, is available at Lulu.com. Her wellness book, Vitamin Remedies That Really Work!, is available at Amazon.com. Web: www.lynncapehart.com.|
NOTE: You may send questions and comments directly to Lynn at email@example.com or you may comment below.
For more comments about this article, including a response from the writer, Lynn Capehart, read the letters to the editor in the December 2010 issue.