Don’t Be Racist

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
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.

4 thoughts on “Don’t Be Racist

  1. I don’t know that I have any wisdom to share, but I have to wonder when people come out on the side of criminals and want to make life harder for law enforcement. Sadly, most victims of personal injury crimes if I’m not mistaken belong to the same ethnic group as the perpetrator. So these people are just making life harder for themselves….But in terms of fictional character descriptions, I take my lead from black mystery writer Walter Mosley who is not shy about describing the physical characteristics of his characters, including race. Where one has to be careful is using stereotypes instead of fleshing out individual people who are unique and in many cases go against type.

  2. It is an unfortunate effect that innocent people can end up suffering when information in a description is limited to a focus on race/ethnicity. Case in point, a woman in a headscarf was physically attacked by a man on the street shortly after the Boston Marathon because he was so certain that all Muslims are inherently terrorists (news flash: they aren’t). A report calling for people to watch out for a tall Black man in a hoodie will result in many innocent men being accosted and harassed.

    In that respect, I understand why people are calling for a new approach to such reports… but I completely agree that leaving race out of it entirely is the wrong way to go. Providing as many physical details as possible, and a detailed sketch if possible, is better. Identifying details, like a scar, a tattoo, etc, will be far more informative and helpful than skin color alone.

    As for writing, I completely understand your feelings and hesitation. I am not completely pasty, but I’m pretty deep in the white end of the spectrum. (I avoid the beach for fear of blinding people with the glaring reflected sunlight off my legs…) I struggled with ‘white guilt’ for a while in middle/high school until I came across someone who accused me of racism in such an idiotic way that I lost my fear of offending people.

    The biggest problem, as I see it, is that some people find ‘Black’ offensive while other people find ‘African-American’ offensive. Whatever name someone comes up with, no matter how careful they are to avoid offending, someone will find a reason to be offended by it. African-American, for instance, was thought up as an attempt to avoid offending… but not all dark-skinned people hail from Africa, and some people dislike being spoken of as some sort of partial American rather than full American. (This is why I prefer to err on the side of ‘Black’ rather than on ‘African-American.’)

    But in my writing, I usually don’t use labels at all. Honestly, I don’t include much description of physical characteristics because, to me, personality and who they are is far more important than what they look like. There are some traits that are important to the character – in a recent book, my female protagonist is clearly described as having very pale skin and blue eyes, because those traits created a specific image and helped convey her initial fragility. On the flip side, I reflected on the characters later and realized that I had not once provided any physical description of the male protagonist. At all. He could be Black, he could be Latino, he could be White, he could be anything. Frankly, it wouldn’t affect or change the story whichever way, and I’m perfectly content to leave it as is and let the reader get their own image of what he looks like.

    When I do include a character’s race in the description, as I said before, I usually don’t use labels to convey it. I instead describe what they look like. One character contrasted the caramel undertones of her chocolaty skin to the reddish undertones of another group’s similarly chocolaty skin – this was important to the story, since it identified her as not being part of that group. Another piece might include a line about how a guy’s mocha-toned skin made his smile seem all the brighter, or how a lady’s bronzed skin was almost like the tans that fake-and-bakers are always seeking after but never quite reaching. There are plenty of ways to convey ethnicity without having to worry about labels and the potential of offending people.

    • Thanks for sharing, Aggeloi. I like the “mocha-toned skin”–I think I’ve seen that before in published books, too.

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