I was reading a blog post this morning that caught my attention and made me think. It’s the January 31 post from Chicks on the Right entitled “Hey, Ya’ll! Help Find This Criminal! But We’re Not Going To Tell You What He Looks Like. Because Racism.”
Let me quote part of it to you, then I’ll comment (and yes, I’ll make it applicable to writing):
“According to this, members of the African American and African Studies, Black Faculty and Staff Association, Black Graduate and Professional Student Association, Black Men’s Forum, Black Student Union, and Huntley House for African American Males have jointly written a letter to the University of Minnesota’s president to ask that no racial descriptions be provided in crime alerts… OMG. The reason that the race is provided in a crime alert is because it’s part of a PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION OF A PERSON. The purpose of an alert is to allow the public to help identify the criminal. If the race is known, that tends to give a person something to go on.”
My husband works in law enforcement (civilian) and frequently creates BOLOs (be-on-the-look-outs, or crime alerts). I’ve got first-hand experience seeing these things. The Chicks are correct: the main goal of a crime alert is to describe the suspected criminal well enough so that people can identify him. If there’s a color photograph to go on the alert, then the racial background might not need to go on the sheet in words, but there are plenty of times when a photo isn’t available. Thus, ANY descriptors, including the lightness or darkness of skin, could be helpful.
(This photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net)
In my books, I don’t give a ton of description of my characters. I usually give something, though: hair color, eye color, height, distinguishing scars or tattoos, stuff that might be of interest to the reader. I usually try to work these things in a little at a time, in appropriate places. I’ve never used the “look in the mirror” scene to have a character describe herself–too hokey–but I have had a female character think about her so-called flaws when she’s feeling insecure, and that might include the paleness of her skin, or the straightness of her hair, or her lack of curves (or over-abundance of said curves).
I have only used racial descriptions a few times in my writing, although I usually have a cast of characters who are as diverse as the area I live. But I struggle with using race as a descriptor. I’m a pale Caucasian gal with a Scandinavian background, and it doesn’t bother me if someone refers to me as “white” or “Caucasian.” I’ve even heard “ghostly.” That’s what I am. However, I find myself (in this age of political correctness and diversity) wondering how to refer to someone who has darker skin. African-American doesn’t work for me–if we live here, we’re all Americans. American of African descent? Too wordy. Black? Am I racist if I describe someone as black? I had a black cop in one of my books, and I described him as African American, but I always wondered if that was a good way to describe him because it didn’t sound right–the whole “we’re all Americans” thing. I did it that way because another author I admire did it that way in her book. But I still don’t know if it was right/okay/non-offensive.
It makes me nervous just thinking about it. Am I being offensive by writing racial descriptors? Does it really matter? Does the reader need to know if a character has pale skin, or dark skin, or something in between? I’m not sure, but I am certain that avoiding the issue isn’t good. I’ve heard agents and editors say they’d like to see more books with protagonists who aren’t Caucasian, which implies describing the character’s racial background in some fashion or using a blatant name. But even a name can fool a reader.
So my question to you is this: Does racial background matter when describing a character? How do you handle this in your books? If you’re something other than Caucasian, does it bother you to read that a character is Asian, or black, or Inuit? Am I alone in feeling uncomfortable about this sometimes? Please share your wisdom with me.