Not So Novel: Polite Racism

If you want to open up a dialogue on racial diversity in literature, Twitter holds some answers to the question of why race is so difficult to address in modern writing.

On Oct. 13, young adult and middle grade author Shannon Hale took to the site in response to a blogger's question about diversity, to express concern with a growing problem that is certainly nothing new to the world of books.

"A lot of white people in my generation grew up in a time when it was polite to pretend race didn't exist," she tweeted, "this faux-politeness is a fallacy."

The "faux-politeness" Hale refers to, of course, is either glazing over race completely in an effort to prevent a character's physical description from offending a reader, or using more 'friendly' (in other words, less honest) terms such as 'coffee and cream' to describe a darker skin tone. There has never existed a more refreshing point of view than that of a narrator who comes right out and tells the reader their best friend is a Latina rather than 'exotic,' that their French teacher looks like she might be from Japan but then again, the narrator isn't sure because she hasn't asked yet (and doesn't want to make any assumptions based on 'almond-shaped eyes'), or maybe that the boy she's crushing on has one white parent and one black parent rather than just skin similar to the color of chestnuts.

Seldom do we see a white character described as having almond shaped eyes, or skin the color of a beverage, because white characters are not frequently described beyond eye color, hair color, and body type. Common sense dictates that writing a non-white character should follow the same process as writing a white character, yet readers will almost always assume that any character not assigned a race is white. If a character is not white, readers must always be given a description of skin color before all else, and that description is never quite honest but is always overly-creative. Perhaps if the narrator is especially hungry that morning and describes everyone with whom she comes into contact (herself included) as the color of a food item just to draw attention to her hunger, this concept is more acceptable.

Hale raises important points, from the idea that many people act in ignorance when it comes to writing race, to giving her own solution to the problem: admitting to the ignorance you have displayed, and openly admitting to the mistake while asking for help directly from the people who feel wronged or misrepresented so as not to encourage further ignorance. In response to Hale's comments, one user addressed a prominent concern in writing and in life: "isn't it more racist to not notice race?" Because, yes, it seems like the racist act may not be in understanding that different races are present in the world and that an author might mistakenly offend someone in the process of attempting to do justice to diversity in literary representation, but in attempting to ignore diversity in order to avoid controversy. While it is not -- as many users explained over the course of the conversation -- the responsibility of non-white people to teach white writers how to write race, there is something to Hale's belief that we should not let fear stop us from writing racially diverse characters.

Hale concludes with a perfect, and simple, solution to writing diversity:

"Just say what your POV character would say. Again, it's misguided politeness to pretend race away."

For a much more thorough piece on writing race, specifically in YA Literature, read this post by Sarah Ockler, responding to a 2012 article by Jen Doll from The Wire.