|I'm told her lipstick is to die for!|
Race, in the United States, is tricky.
Anyone who thinks otherwise is probably selling something.
As a reasonably affluent, white, male author writing female characters and characters of color there are always potential pitfalls and landmines. That’s not ALL I write, but I certainly write those things. Me being who I am, and my characters being who I write, certainly opens the door to criticism whether deserved or not. About a year ago, I was informed (well lectured/ranted at) that one of my novels was “racist”. It doesn’t matter which one.
I have blind spots.
I’m the first to admit it.
When criticism is legitimate, I learn from it.
Racism is real, and many authors who haven’t lived it, or dug into it, stumble and bloody their nose when attempting to write characters of color. I’ve started and rejected sharing the story above many, many times. Ultimately, it’s not worth addressing, but since race and racial politics are very much a thing, and since I’m not going to back down from writing the characters I want to write, it’s very much worth sharing a more recent discussion that came up.
For one of my works-in-progress, RELICS OF PURGATORY, I’m introducing a new character. She’s a black character. Not the first that I’ve written, but that doesn’t matter. As I do with all my characters, I needed to describe her hair. Calling black hair a very touchy, very political, very divisive issue, is pretty much the understatement of the last four-hundred years. I had very specific ideas about what her hair should look like, and I wasn’t willing to compromise those just to make my life easier. There’s no great detail there. It’s a line or two at most. But hair—or lack thereof—is very much a thing we use to describe and define ourselves so it’s on my checklist of fundamental character descriptions.
|Daveed Diggs is SO talented!|
Hair is about 8,000% more important for black Americans. While I’m certainly not an expert, I’m well aware of American history. As always with a subject I’m not fully comfortable, I started to do my research. When I approached a writing group for some assistance, I was overwhelmed with all the helpful suggestions by other authors. It’s so great that, at least this group, is very aware of the issues and pitfalls.
A few fell into the classic traps-and-tropes, which others were quick to educate.
What I was shocked by the—thankfully few—angry responses. I was accused of “self-censorship” by one and “virtue signaling” by another. It was even suggested that I wouldn’t “survive being a writer” if I was being “uber-sensitive” about this particular issue.
Laughable, but there it is.
|WWADD—What would Alexander Dumas do?|
The answers, in this case, are pretty simple.
It’s not self-censorship to use correct descriptive terminology. A writer dealing with firearms doesn’t call it a “clip” when really it’s a “magazine” and knows the difference between a semi-automatic and automatic weapons. Doing research on a touchy subject is hardly the overtly conspicuous humble-brag of virtue signaling, especially for a single descriptive line in a book of 80,000-plus words. Finally, being aware of history, including one of the great evils of the world and the centuries of fallout that have lingered like a cancerous growth, isn’t debilitating so much as it’s being a smart, inclusive writer.
I’m wholly unwilling to back down from the character that I’ve envisioned. I’m also wholly unwilling to turn a blind eye. As the late, great Maya Angelou said, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” That’s not only being a decent writer, that’s being a decent human. It’s literally the least that I can do, and since I know better, I’m not just happy to do more, I’m obligated.
Here’s a wonder site, Writing With Color, if you’re interested in the avoiding some of the landmines and pitfalls.