Life Is Music
Take Away The Colour
("erase away the pain")
by Rix Roundtree-Harrison
When I received my manuscript back from the editor, he made a suggestion. He recommended that I should resist using racial descriptions such as African American, Latino, Latina, Caucasian, Asian, Native American, black and white to describe a character's race. I was like, "WTF? Don't use a character's race to describe them?" Then something told me to go to the Internet and check this out. I did. I was surprised at what I found. Online there were literary discussion boards featuring ongoing conversations regarding describing race in fiction literature. The racially diverse group of writers, publishers, editors in these discussion boards said the same as my editor, resist using racial descriptions of characters. I saw this as a small group of writers who for whatever reason were uncomfortable with race so they are trying to make (race) rules they want all other writers to follow.
I learned that these folks weren't going to use racial description for their characters in their works and they encouraged other writers to follow suit. Why? Is race something that causes them personal psychological pain? Is it because they think that just including race will cause them to be considered racists? Does race make them uncomfortable? Is it as the lyrics in the eurodance song Take Away The Colour suggest? That should writers exclude race the readers won't have to be reminded of the injustices done to people of colour? Will exclusion of race erase away the pain?
These writers, publishers and editors offered alternatives to using racial descriptions. The main suggestion was instead of using the terms African American, Hispanic, Asian or Native American etc, use ethnic names such as Trayvon, Juan, Komico, etc. Well first off, not every person of colour necessarily possesses an ethnic name. I know African Americans named Frank, Loretta, Glynis, Alayna, Todd, Tim, Gwen, Robert and Larry. Also, some blacks, whites, Asians and Native Americans share names. I know a black, white and Latina Maria. I know a white and Latina Mercedes. I know white and Latino Hectors. I know a black, Hispanic and white Ricardo. I know a black and a white Shawn who both sport long dreadlocks. Now that's interesting. It's interesting because several of the writers on this discussion board suggested using physical descriptions such as dreadlocks and blonde hair to get a character's race across. Well as I said, I know black and white men with dreadlocks. I also know blonde-haired Latinas and black women.
The folks in these discussion boards universally agreed that the writer should leave the characters' descriptions to the reader. No way, says I. The readers would see the characters as white. People have a tendency to read white. I did an unscientific survey. I asked black, white, Hispanic and Asian friends if they were reading a book and a character was introduced whose name was John or Jane but no race or physical description was described, what race would you assume he/she was? They all said white. I think this goes back to how many of us were taught in school. It is conditioning. When I was in elementary school, in the books we read all the characters were white. Some of you remember these characters, Dick, Jane and Spot (their dog). I believe it was middle school for me when we were assigned to read West Side Story. It was the first time I read a story that focused on characters of colour (Latinos), and it was thrilling. Prior to that we'd read lots of Shakespeare and white poets like Emily Dickenson. In everything we read the characters were white and they didn't have to be described as white, we knew that. We were reading books written by white people in a white world from a white perspective. White was (and is) an un-described racial default.
Some of the writers in these discussion groups said, "Forget about race. Respect your reader's right to cast the story. Leave race up to the imagination of the reader." I totally disagree with this. As legendary movie director Martin Scorsese said about widescreen/letterbox theatrical films that are cut, edited and reformatting for television, "In a sense, technically, you are redirecting the movie." It's the same with leaving a character's race up to reader of a book. They are inserting their view. They are, in a sense, rewriting the book. I spend months writing, editing, revising and agonizing over my book. It's my vision, my imagery, my creation, my characters. My characters are of many races and I want those races represented in my work. I don't want the reader usurping my story and visualizing my characters in their image and making them their own. I don't want readers changing things. So it should come as no surprise to you that I also disagreed with the arguments of those on the discussion boards who said, "Race should be left ambiguous. The readers need to feel that they are a part of the story." Since when? Yes, the reader needs to enjoy the story and be engaged. I can engage and entertain the readers and include racial descriptions. If racial descriptions bother the reader and enables them to not become a part of the story, there is a problem with the reader, not the story.
Another writer in the discussion groups suggested the use of jargon, diction or accent to describe ethnicity. That sounds like the discussion participants are suggesting the use of Ebonics (Black English). As an African American I get tired of hearing, "You speak well and are so articulate," as if I were an anomaly, I'm not. People of colour have a wonderful grasp of the English language. It seems to me that the media, culture, and writers in these discussion groups want to perpetuate the notion that the bulk of the black and Hispanic population can't speak well. I know members of all races who are masterful with the English language and others who speak sloppily using slang and jargon. Just as it is in the real world, in my books I've black, white, Hispanic, Native American and Asian characters who use English masterfully and those that do not. Now I'm not saying that writers should not use tools such as dialogue with jargon, diction, and accented English with their characters. In some characters you would have to depending on the state, part of the country, city or nation the character is from. I'm saying I won't use this method just to get a characters race across because just like with dreadlocks, blonde hair and names, races share the use of dialogue with jargon, diction, and accented English.
Some in these discussion groups want to use physical descriptions such as flat noses, lip size, slanted eyes and food colours ("walnut brown") to indicate race. But they were afraid to use such descriptions as they feared they would offend. Ah yes, I can assure you, descriptions such as those would offend many. I don't understand this discussion. The simplest way to describe race (and not offend) is to simply use black, white, Caucasian, African American, Native American, Indian, Asian, Hispanic, Latino/a, etc. You want your readers to have a say in the characters descriptions? Use those terms then let the reader take it from there. It's so easy you don't have to resort to offensive things like food colours, flat noses or slanted eyes to describe race. You don't have to use racially shared things like dreadlocks, blond hair or blue eyes to get the character's race across.
As much as some wish we were, unfortunately we are not a colour blind post-racial society. When we humans encounter each other, a person's race and sex are the first things we see. We use race (and sex) to describe friends, coworkers and strangers. I've heard people describe me as "The tall thin black guy." That's an accurate description that is not offensive.
I live in a world filled with people of colour and in my books I intend to feature them. I will include the race of my characters in my stories. I live in a neighborhood where my neighbors are black, white, Muslim, Hispanic, Asian, Jews, Christians, etc. They represent all income and educational levels. They are a variety of races, speech patterns and names. Not everyone conforms to what is perceived to be the way a person of a particular race speaks or lives. I want my books and the characters within to reflect the world in which I live. So my views have nothing to do with being politically correct, just representational.
President Obama, a biracial Christian with a Muslim name said, "America encompasses every shade of humanity. Together we make a radiant story." A story, just like America, is a complex entity. Exclusive to no one individual your story is uniquely your own. Everyone has a story. They are stories within stories that parallel entwine and merge, creating a plethora of diverse storytellers. Storytellers and stories collide crafting a story, comprised of stories composed of vibrant radiant beautiful people of colour. The readers of my stories will find a racially diverse world that represents the world in which I live. It is the world of Nikolas Thime.
Nikolas Thime: The End Of My World. Available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Apple iBooks
© 2016 Rix Roundtree-Harrison
Written by: Rix Roundtree-Harrison