Saturday, October 23, 2010

'That tall black one over there." Race, Writers & Creating Connection

In the October issue of The Writer magazine I found an article about character description that every writer in America should read – absolutely every one. It’s that important. But first a related bit of personal story from years ago, which begins in the middle of things:

I stopped to ask a woman vendor if she knew the fellow who sold jeans here at the Samaru market. "That tall, black one over there," she answered, and gestured toward people milling about the shops across the way. "Right," I sighed to myself. "That’s about as clear as mud." I was a white person in a Nigerian marketplace, for goodness’ sake. Half the people around me looked tall and black.

Later, a Nigerian friend laughed when I told him, and recalled his first student trip to North America. He never forgot getting off the plane in this strange, new place and looking into a sea of white faces -- faces that, to him, all looked alike.

Eventually both of us would graduate from our initial states of embarrassment, as we began to see with new eyes, to distinguish the shades and features among the diverse peoples in our adopted environments. For each of us that meant a brain that grew new neural connections, a brain physcially altered by new experience, so that we looked at the world with eyes informed by a new mind.

As writers, too, we need to look with new eyes at the characters in our own stories – and perhaps develop a new mind in the process – if we are to get beyond stories in which people of a different race or ethnicity “all look alike.” Lynn Capehart brings our attention to this very real writer awareness gap in her excellent article "The Importance of Inclusionary Writing." In her discussion Capehart shares an example and would have us ask, “What’s wrong with this picture?”

“Detective Winn applied the match to his pipe and watched the suspects enter the room. Through a haze of smoke he sized up each man. The leader, Riley, was first through the door, tall as timber, bald head marked with the scars of a fight he almost lost, dangerous eyes searching every corner of the room. Behind him was his stooge, Tram. Squat and round and hard like a boulder, his small glasses sat awry on his mean face. Bringing up the rear was Solomon, a tall black man.”

“The writer does not mention the race of Dectective Winn, Riley and Tram because the writer is white and these characters are white,” says Capehart. “The description for Solomon is summed up by a racial label. . . . . Ask yourself,” Capehart adds, “If you were in a room with several tall black men, how would you pick out Solomon? The answer is that you couldn’t, because the writer has not given you any real description of Solomon, the individual, who happens to be black.”

Hmmm, very much like my experience in the Nigerian marketplace, and by the way, as Capehart points out, not good writing. “Asian” and “Mexican” show up as character descriptions in another example as “generic stand-ins” for the race. Capehart notes that writers of color also need to avoid labeling characters as merely “white.”

Think this is just a problem of bad writers? Think again. Capehart offers specific examples of “best of” compilations, pieces in highly-regarded publications, and uninformed comments from mentoring authors. Taken altogether, the evidence more than suggests an authentic need for working that important piece of the creative paradigm : PAY ATTENTION!

Because this is not about political correctness.” It is all about the writer’s most basic work: creating connection with the reader. The one you want to read your book. The one whose imagination you want to engage from first page to last. Who will recommend it to others, if she likes it, or put it down and never come back, depending. To forge this connection is the writer’s primary motivation for learning craft – and there is always more to learn.

So you probably want to know, “What is the real-life effect on readers who encounter this awareness gap in our writing?” And to consider, perhaps, how a writer's life beyond the page might better inform characters on the page. See my next post On the Page and Off -- Race, Writers & Creating Connection.
Related Posts:
Race & Writers - with links to poetry, blog posts & resources
Black Butterfly Moon - a poem & discussion of color in writing


  1. I've noticed this for YEARS. Glad the profession is weighing in.

  2. Yes, and I'm surprised that this is the first article I've seen on the topic. I think it's a great idea to leave a comment or respond to the author (viaonline article on The Writer site) to let them both know we appreciate it.