Dear white writers,
This isn’t about naming and shaming. Many acclaimed, otherwise socially progressive writers are guilty of the following things. So are many of the (white as well as non-white) people I know. It’s easy to fall into these traps because they’re so common, but perpetuating them just increases the likelihood that other people will do the same.
And yes, correcting these things isn’t going to magically end racial tone-deafness. You could argue that they’re trivial compared to much more important, even life-threatening, signs of racism. We live in an era, for instance, where the statement Black Lives Matter needs repeating.
But some of you have a major platform. People pay attention to what you write. And these aren’t off-the-cuff descriptive choices, delivered without thinking as though in casual conversation.
You’ve had time to hone your writing for accuracy and appropriateness. You’re essentially paid to do so.
So, white writers from majority-white countries, please stop:
1. Using “nude” or “flesh-colored” to describe an object
What you may mean is “beige.” Or, if you don’t mind being accused of pretension, “ecru.” “Wheat” is a nice, underused word as well. In any case, referring to a nude shoe or a flesh-hued wall is both imprecise and oblivious, given the many, many shades human skin comes in. It’s also clichéd. Writers, you can do better.
2. Mentioning the skin color only of non-white people
It’s cringe-inducing (and reminiscent of nail polish) to emphasize only coffee-colored, cinnamony, or dark-and-stormy skin–rather than, say, wheat-colored skin (see above). Doing so subtly reinforces the idea that whiteness is unremarkable, but brownness, yellowness, or blackness should be commented on. It also creates an awkward situation for readers, in which we’re supposed to assume that a character is white (and straight, and able-bodied, etc.) until told otherwise.
“White until told otherwise” is especially problematic in journalism, where so often the ethnicity or nationality of crime suspects is only mentioned if they’re not of the majority group. So a phrase like, “three teenagers, one of whom was black,” spotlights blackness in the context of criminality. It doesn’t draw attention to whiteness, because whiteness is continually allowed to be the default.
3. Assuming an ethnicity when there’s clearly no basis for it
You hear and read this all the time: “An Indian man walked into the room.” “I passed a Japanese lady on the bus.” “There’s a Jamaican kid, or whatever, who always plays there.” Unless you or your characters have magical ethnicity-detecting devices, enabling precise determinations that a person is Japanese and not Chinese, or Indian and not Bangladeshi, there are some pretty ignorant assumptions being made here.
Say it with me: “A South Asian man walked into the room.” “I passed an East Asian lady on the bus.” “There’s a Caribbean kid who always plays there.” Obviously this doesn’t work if, for example, that apparently South Asian man could be Middle Eastern and that kid you think is Caribbean might be African. But I’m extending the benefit of the doubt, supposing that you or your character has heard, say, the woman speaking an obviously East Asian language, without being able to identify which one.
4. Suggesting that white people have no ethnicity
Referring to Thais and Mexicans as “ethnics,” calling Ethiopian and Turkish cafes “ethnic restaurants,” or even expressing a weirdly sentimental longing for the ethnic identity that your Iranian and Brazilian friends have–all of this is pretty damn weird. Ethnicity isn’t a secret handshake that only people of color have been inducted into. You may not know your ethnic group, or you may understand, like any excited sociology student, that ethnicity is a social construct, but you don’t get to be the only one exempt from having one.
5. Making ethnicity (or sexuality, or disability, or any other minority status) the most interesting thing about a character
It’s common to see brief descriptions of a group of people that run something like: “A’s best friends are B, an acerbic accountant; C, a Nigerian immigrant; and D, a shy poet.” Which of these doesn’t belong? Being Nigerian is not a personality, any more than being Canadian or Dutch is.
I understand the usefulness of shorthand (“closeted lesbian,” “disadvantaged black man,” etc.), but this can so easily slip into trite stereotyping. The argument for expediency doesn’t hold up–people used to make it when writing female characters, suggesting it was easier to have readers assume that doctors, writers, and politicians were male until presented with evidence to the contrary. But you’re writers. Precision and elegance in communicating ideas are your forte. This shouldn’t be a stumbling block for you. Strong writing requires moving past the conflation of a personality type with an ethnicity.
Thanks in advance, white writers. Despite not being a white person, I’m guilty of most of these missteps myself. So I know how unnatural it might feel to go against the white-as-standard grain. But we can’t fully appreciate others’ humanity without first adjusting our assumptions about them.
P.S. Some of my favorite writers are white.