My stance on writing race and ethnicity has always been the same. If cultural elements and racial identity are important to the story you’re telling and the character at the heart of your piece, you should make those things apparent in your work. However, if you’re not writing a story specifically about a Black/Hispanic/Asian/White/Arab/Indian/etc. individual and how s/he experiences life, and instead you’re writing a story about family/love/friendship/loss or whatever with a protagonist that just happens to be of a certain race, I don’t think that such information needs to be heavily focused on in the text.
It’s true that if it’s not spelled out for the reader, most people will assume that a narrator is white, because that’s what we’ve been conditioned to see as the norm. And it’s true that some distinguishing characteristics about a character’s appearance should be included for readers so that they can have a fuller picture of who that character is. Naturally, readers bring their own preconceived notions taken from their personal experiences and apply them to whatever text they’re reading, helping them to relate to a character or situation. But with that said, what pushes me to keep reading a novel is not a character’s race necessarily, but his or her voice, motivation, personality, point of view, and most importantly, his or her personal journey or struggle. In my opinion, if those are clear and specific in a narrative, the appearance of a character is almost irrelevant with regard to level of importance.
Now, this belief of mine has garnered some criticism during workshops because I don’t always describe a character’s appearance in the first chapter. I may say brown hair or brown eyes, but I don’t make it glaringly obvious that it’s a person of color until the third paragraph in chapter two. Sometimes I wonder why this is an issue. When I read a book about a white protagonist there doesn’t always seem to be a need to discuss cultural or racial particularities. If my story is mainly about a girl struggling with her parents’ divorce, does it matter what race she is necessarily? So much so that it must be clarified on the first page? But then I think about when I was a teenager and I wanted to read about someone who looked like me going through the same ‘normal’ things that other teens in YA novels went through. That reminds me that the distinction does matter, and always will, to an extent.
Many of my favorite books, like Danzy Senna’s Caucasia, are written by black or mixed authors about black protagonists, and I do admit that I seek out such works so that I can try to find a character who understands some aspect of my experience. Many people do this, I feel, especially since a character’s identity is often important to a story. Yet, a fair amount of my favorite books are also written by authors of other races about white protagonists or protagonists of other ethnic origins, like with Jenny Han’s novel, The Summer I Turned Pretty. Do I relate any less to those characters? Not really. Their experiences and viewpoints, spelled out richly on the page, cause me to yearn to know what will happen to them on their journeys as well.
Still, regardless of what race a protagonist is, sometimes when reading I don’t relate at all to an emotion or feeling or incident that the character experiences. For instance, I can read a book about a black girl and not be able to fully relate to that character because of our different backgrounds and struggles. Every person, no matter what ethnicity or race, is unique in experience and thought. A character’s differing decisions and outlooks and a reader’s ability to understand and/or be intrigued by them account for a novel’s strength in some regard.
Overall, I believe that writing race is difficult. Will what you write affect people’s perception of your people as a whole? Or is it just a part of that particular character’s experience? Will people read your work as widely if you focus on a character considered to be an ‘other’ in society? Will you be pigeon-holed into only writing about a certain type of person? These are all questions that a writer might consider before beginning a story. But a better question is perhaps this: what is necessary for you to include in order for you to tell the story you want to tell in the best way possible? It’s a question that only you can answer. For YA readers in particular, finding a character that speaks to them and their personal struggle is crucial. But the way such characters are written depends on authors and their conscious and deliberate decisions about how to best tell the stories they were meant to tell.
Image Courtesy of Penguin Group, Inc.