Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Writing for Whitey

I have to approach this question carefully.

I’m white as sour cream. So are my kids. So if I say things like “My kids don’t ask about/thinking about/worry about what ethnicity the characters in the books they read are” I can have the “they don’t have to think about it; they’re white” thrown right back in my face.
So this infographic, and the associated report from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center are fraught with risk for me.

That’s probably true – my kids don’t have to think about race as they read. As humans – and this is innate, I believe, no matter a person’s ethnic origin – we tend to think of the people we read about resembling ourselves, or people we’re familiar with, as our brain works to process the story we read and to build ideas of the characters based on what we already know and what the author is telling us. Unless an author explicity tells the reader – and reminds them constantly – of a character’s race, the readers are going to create an image of the character along familiar lines.
As are authors – who I believe should only indicate the race or ethnicity of a character if that attribute adds to the story. If it’s there for window-dressing or political correctness, I have to wonder if it’s valuable. You may want to write, for example, about a professional wrestlter whose persona is that of literary genius James Joyce. But it’s gonna go right over most people’s heads.
But again, I’m sour-creamy white. It’s assumed books are written with Whitey in mind.
Or are they? At least by the hand-wringing I’m reading, the PC default seems to be yes.

Do I consciously set out to write books, as a white author, with white characters, or do I sent out to write books, as an author, with interesting characters who can carry the story where I want it to go and who can engage the reader, whether they bear a recognizable ethnicity or race with them or not?
I don’t know. I just know as a reader, I tend to imagine the characters along familiar lines unless the author gives me repeated, explicit instruction to do otherwise. Does that make me a bad person? Or the author a bad person? I’d like to say no.
A few things I have noticed on my own:
I read Virginia Hamilton’s “The House of Dies Drear” after I saw a PBS version of the story. Perhaps that order made it easier for me to imagine her characters as African American as I read the story. Here, race is central to the story. But is central the right word? It's an important factor, yes.
I read John Christopher’s Tripod series both before and after I lived in France for two years. After my experiences in France, the character of Beanpole (Jean-Paul) and Eloise took on different appearances in my mind – but again, this was a story I first “saw” in comic book form in Boys’ Life magazine, so I had a more elaborate mental construct to go with as I read the stories without the aid of drawings or other imagery.
My daughter especially reads books about animals, where for the most part race doesn’t appear to be a factor (unless George Lucas is involved).
Thanks to Rankin-Bass, Hobbits will always be round. Roundy, roundy round. Even the young and skinny ones have a roundness about them. And Aragorn, thanks to Ralph Bakshi (and maybe due to the rotoscoping) will always resemble an American Indian to me, despite what Viggo Mortensen brought to the silver screen.
I’m not saying authors shouldn’t identify their characters by race, or that more books featuring characters other than Whitey shouldn’t be written. But I also think that people who do studies and create infographics like this should also consider that race isn’t the be-all and end-all of storytelling. It’s character and story. It’s character with fitting attributes that often transcend race.

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