Saturday, April 9, 2011

Racial Ambiguity: The Hunger Games, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker

I intend for this to be a short post, so I won't ramble off like I usually do.

Ever since the casting decision for The Hunger Games was released, fans of the series have been questioning the racial identity of Katniss Everdeen.

Some say she's bi-racial, others say she's Caucasian, and some just don't care.

Does it matter? Yes, I think it does. Race is important. America wouldn't exist as it does today if race wasn't important. People that brush the casting decision off as being no big deal get on my nerves.

And I'm rambling so I'll get back to the point.

Race is a delicate issue. How people write characters of other races is very important. Unless specified, most readers will assume that your characters are white.

Just a few days ago, a beta reader read over my story and assumed that a character was white up until the point that I said they were black. They told me to mention my character's race earlier in the novel. Did this bother me? No. I know that people make assumptions. But see, they're just that: assumptions. 

(Actually the character in question is half black, half white but that's neither here nor there. Is mulatto an offensive term to use? Can someone please tell me?)

I never focus on eye color or skin color because I hate writing character descriptions. However, I don't want my readers to assume that all of my characters are the "default" race because I don't say otherwise. You can say that it isn't important, but to me, it's very important.

I could go off on a tangent and describe my childhood reading experiences as a black kid reading mostly about white kids but that would bore you. So instead, I'll leave it at this.

Don't write about race in a heavy handed way. Don't beat me over the head that a character is black or Hispanic or Asian because they talk a certain way. In fact, Hispanic isn't even a race, but that's for another time.

Just write a character. And if you can, tell me that they aren't white. Let me believe that characters of other races exist outside of the stereotypes presented in House of Night and Glee. It isn't that hard to write a non-white character.

I discussed Toni Morrision and Alice Walker a few days ago with someone on GoodReads. We both agreed that Toni Morrision is the superior writer. I'll show you why.

Read this story. Now read this story.

Toni Morrison writes a story that revolves around race without ever mentioning the characters' races. Pretty brilliant right? Alice Walker hits you over the head with racial stereotypes to prove a point that I don't quite agree with.

I know that the majority of authors are white. But that's no excuse for writing tokens or simply choosing to ignore more than 25% of America. We exist and we read your books.

Racial ambiguity is only an excuse. Don't use it. You don't have to be afraid of writing a non-white character.  I've seen too many comments from white authors saying that they don't write non-white characters because they don't know how. Really?

I've written many characters that aren't black. In fact, I've written for just about every major racial group.

Try writing a character first. Then write race second. But don't ignore it because it does exist and it does matter.


  1. I have had several friends who were mulatto. The first friends that I met were three sisters who used to term freely to define their race. I mistakenly took this to mean that it was an an acceptable term to use. Later on at an internship I was talking with a coworker and the topic of race came up. I asked her if she was mulatto thinking that it was an innocent question. I'm half Mexican and people ask me ALL the time whether or not I'm Mexican because my looks and skin color aren't definitely dark or light, I really truly didn't think that this was an offensive question. It turned out that it was and although she didn't lambaste me on the spot she did turn around and write a scathing, and I mean hateful awful scathing blog post about how completely socially inept I was to use the term mulatto so casually. She referred to me as being stuck in a civil war era racist mindset, called me a slave owner and a number of other pretty awful things. I'm pretty thick skinned, but her tirade really hurt. On the other hand it was kind of comical given my own ethnic background and the stories that I could have told her of my Mexican ancestors.

    Now, with that in mind, I also got to know this girl through observation the rest of the internship and she was a generally hateful awful person. So take that as you will. I have asked many people since then their thoughts on the term and I have gotten a range of answers(all from those who have a vested interest in the use of the term) and some say it can be used offensively, others don't find it offensive at all, most thought that the girl I knew overreacted, but some reinforced the idea that the term is very offensive no matter how you use it.

    If I were to use to term to describe a character I would use it from the characters point of view and make sure to include her feelings about the term because there doesn't seem to be a definitive answer about whether or not people feel offended by the use of the term.

  2. I would be uncomfortable using the word mulatto because of its associations with slavery and the South. Too much Gone with the Wind, I guess. But no, I would definitely find an alternative term to mulatto if I could; it's outdated and it has too many conflicting meanings...

  3. Actually, I have a question about this. A few years back, one of my friends (black, I should add) complained that black people in novels are simply described as "black." Other people complain about the opposite (ie, when a black character is described as "dark-skinned" or otherwise, instead of simply saying "black.")

    Just out of curiosity, do you have any opinion on the matter?

    I ask because a couple characters in the novel I'm writing are black, and I want to know how to best describe them physically without offending anyone.

  4. Honestly, black will do. It isn't offensive at all. Colored, yes, but
    black, no.

    Dark-skinned isn't bad either, but that doesn't mean anything race
    wise. Aborigines, Africans, and some Native Americans are
    dark-skinned. Now it kind of irks me when skin is described as
    coffee-colored or chocolate-colored, but that has nothing to do with
    race--it's just a personal description peeve.

  5. Sorry to go a little off topic here, but this question plays into a favourite area of mine - the question of outsider perception. For example, Cory can say, very casually, that she's black, and nobody takes offence because she IS black. If a white person were to say it, however, connotations change. It happens everywhere. In India, for example, we have a lot of Sardar (Sikh) jokes. The Sikh is always portrayed as this affable dim bulb. I used to have a Sikh friend who would tell the same Sardar jokes, but if she caught a non-Sikh telling them, she would go on a rampage. It's the perception that you can diss your community, but an outsider has to be more careful with her words.

  6. I love this entire post, but I especially love this comment: In fact, Hispanic isn't even a race, but that's for another time.

    IIRC, "Hispanic" was created by the US census to make classifying Latino/as easier or something. So yeah.

  7. I usually just say what race they are, like half black half white or whatever. I agree mulatto, is a pretty outdated turn kind of like colored or octaroon or things like that. I think it's only acceptable in historical fiction (depending what era you're writing). Personally, I only use it with my mom (I'm black and my two older half sisters are biracial, not that it gives me a pass or anything) when I'm making a point concerning race. I think biracial is the PC term, but I think it would be better to just define it and leave it at that since biracial seems to be a catch-all for anything people can't readily define.

    For me, I'm such a visual person, which comes from my high school days writing stories with a highly visual component. I made it a habit to describe skin tone, eyes, and hair color right off the bat just to let people know that these characters are not whatever they assume they are. I was just rereading this story I was reading and I don't think I got past the first page before describing the characters. I'm not sure it's a bad habit, but I just like to get rid of folks assumptions and just move on with the stories.

  8. My English class last term read and discussed both Recitatif and Use, and I agree that Recitatif is better. It's actually genius. My class and I spent two whole days debating which girl was white and which was black, but in the end it really doesn't matter. It's a great story that really made me think.

  9. That's true. The UCLA video and the outrage that followed should say enough on that topic.

  10. I won't even get started on the Arab/Middle-Eastern = White thing. They aren't the same people, but the US census counts Arabs as being Caucasian although the majority don't look anything like Caucasians.

  11. I don't even know what bi-racial means. Technically, every black person in America is bi-racial. And many races have been so mixed due to colonization. So that term really means nothing.

    I agree with you about getting race out of the way. I used to describe everything from eye color to skin tone, but now I just mention what they are and move on. I leave everything else to imagination. After all, the story is the most important part. But I'm not going to let people wonder about the race of a character unless I intend it to be that way.

  12. It took me a long time to get over my fear of using the term "black"--basically, until one of my (black) students told me that he inevitably saw white academic's use of the term "African American" as a residual of racial guilt. Since then, I've become more attuned to the cartwheels white people--writers especially--will go through to avoid calling someone "black." I think that's a shame, because, as you say, "dark-skinned" doesn't necessarily connote race. Many readers will interpret "dark-skinned" to NOT mean black but, like, Mediterranean. Eventually this all contributes to things seeming more whitewashed than they need be.

  13. "I know that the majority of authors are white."

    Well, the majority of published authors in the US are white, at any rate...

    But about the use of the word "mulatto" - I think it depends on the culture. I typically don't hear it that much here in the States, but it's an incredibly common term in Cuba (which, granted, has its own race issues) and isn't considered offensive there.

  14. Something funny though, in ten years kids of color will outnumber
    white kids but the majority of adults will still be white. I wonder
    how that'll affect the YA market.

    I didn't know that about Cuba though. I think it's the same in Brazil
    as well--although they use a different word I think. And then colored
    and black mean different things in south africa. It's all very weird
    and confusing to me.

  15. Currently in Australia there is a high profile court case where a group of Aboriginal people (the first Australians) are suing a right wing conservative columnist under our Racial Villification Act because he named them in a couple of his columns/blob posts as being 'professional Aborigines' - his claim was that because they were light skinned they were taking jobs/grants away from "real" Aboriginal peoples who, he wrote, are "dark skinned". The people suing him under the Act were highly offended by his claims, because in Australia, in terms of Aborginiality, it is who you identify as and also how you are recognised/accepted within Aborginal communities. When it comes to writing characters then, perhaps it is about writing from the inside out - who the person identifies as overrides their skin colour, because who they identify as has more impact on their behaviours and actions. I think it's also important to note that when writing about other cultures in YA (or any other) fiction, that you are aware of your own cultural position as a writer and of any issues around cultural appropriation.

  16. Short answer - outside of academic discussion about pre-Civil Rights Era America, it's offensive.

  17. Yeah... in one of my novels I never call out anybody's race. I know one of them is Latina and another very mixed-race, but-- I dunno. It never seemed to fit the narrative to mention it. But because I didn't, beta readers assumed they were all very white and actually criticized me for having an all-white cast.

    I also had a black bad guy at one point but I actually changed him to white when I realized that I was unconsciously mimicking a racist trope.