Employer prides itself on featuring characters and children of multiple ethnicities and abilities without drawing attention to just how diverse we are. It’s not “Look – kid in a wheelchair! Let’s reference how Tommy lost his legs,” but more about just quietly depicting the world as it’s populated – with people of differing sizes, shapes, and skin tones. With illustrations, it’s easy to show, not tell the reader that “Hey, non-Caucasian people exist and have the same dignity as you” without being all obvious about it. But in writing, how do we guide the reader to think of race/ethnicity as not mattering?
I can’t offer much but my own personal self as a case study. In reading Leah Bobet’s new novel, Above, I found myself struck when finding out halfway through that the main character was Indian. Of course I had to analyze…why did I presume this teen was white? He was, after all, a member of a subset of population with appendage differences (like animal features) and some of his neighbors even described as having skin colors on the primary scale, not tones you’d find as foundation options.
Did it matter that the main character was non-white? Not in the slightest. Did learning his ethnicity change my perception of him, his plot, or the themes he connected to? Not really. It gave him more texture as a character, but it didn’t consume his overall identity. It was like what Employer does – depict the world as it is (minus flipper feet) – wonderfully diverse – without making a big fuss or using it as a plot point or main method of characterization. Yet it still niggles me that I read people as white unless told not to straight off, or that in character creation, it’s difficult to create a character truly race-neutral (Is she Tatooine? Atlantian? Can’t tell, but it doesn’t matter!)
How should writers signal to the readers that they are not ethnocentric without being all proud about it? Thanks to one aspiring writer, I know how not to do it. Identifying multiple characters in ways such as “Consuela, the Haitian lunch lady,” (not real example, but facsimile of it) gets your writing roundly vituperated by editorial staffs.
The adages say to write what you know or write what you want to say. If we stick to emotional themes (I know what’ it’s like to be 13, conflicted about pleasing my parents but separating myself at the same time) or important issues (Leah Bobet on gender/ethnic/physical discrimination) open to all people, can we then really have a universal character? Or do you think one’s physical make-up affects one’s perception of those themes and it won’t be authentic to readers whose backgrounds differ from the main character’s?
Tell me about it.