Feminism · Reading · Writing

Writing Non-White Characters

I am a writer. There are plenty of aspects of my identity that make it into my writing: bisexuality, a sense of adventure, being a woman…the list goes on. I try to bring inclusiveness to my writing, not to check off a box, but because representation matters. Female representation matters. Bisexual representation matters. Situational representation matters. In my writing, I also incorporate characters of non-white races into my writing, because race representation matters. White heteronormativity needs to stop being the default character setting, which is why inclusion and representation are so important.

But when the topic of race isn’t handled properly in a written work, the results can be disastrous. Last year, I experienced secondhand embarrassment for P.C. Cast, the (white) author of Marked, the first book in the House of Night series (see my whole review of the book on Goodreads). This emotion was mixed with anger as I continued reading the passage where a black character is introduced (page 83):

She was the color of cappuccino (the kind you get from real coffee shops and not the nasty, too-sweet stuff you get from Quick Trip) and all curvy with pouty lips and high cheekbones that made her look like an African princess. She also had some seriously good hair. It was thick and fell in dark, glossy waves around her shoulders. Her eyes were so black they looked like they didn’t have any pupils.”

Pouty lips? High cheekbones? Sounds like a caricature often found in old, racist cartoons. Not to mention that an African princess would be the sovereign of an entire continent. The last sentence is creepy, seemingly comparing the character to a demon.

Because I am white, I have had to acknowledge my white privilege and the ignorance that comes with it. As a writer, there is no excuse not to understand the many aspects of humanity, including race. This mess of a quote begins with the comparison of cappuccino, which has some serious contextual messages that relate to the racism in the slave trade from centuries ago (other words like “cinnamon” or “chocolate” fall under this category as well – I generally stay away from adjectives that derive from food).

If you are a white writer, do not be afraid to include non-white characters in your writing. Respect your characters just like you would respect an actual human being. I found this great tool on the blog of Josh Roby that shows many respectful adjectives for a wide range of skin tones. I refer to this often as I develop my characters. This tool includes the following adjectives:

  • Alabaster
  • Bronze
  • Copper
  • Ebony
  • Ochre
  • Olive (While this may refer to the olive as a food, it can also refer to the olive branch and its specific shade)
  • Peach (This word does not carry racist connotations)
  • Sepia

Great characters help make a story great; characters that are written with respect reflect a story that was written with respect. This, in turn, will gain respect from your audience. And maybe this cycle of respect can help make the world a tiny bit better.

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