The Tumblr Post that Started a Debate on Race and Writing

Normally, I’m not one to start an online debate with another blog, but while scrolling through Tumblr a few days ago, I came across this post.

(Credit: www.thewritershelpers.com)
(Credit: www.thewritershelpers.com)

I immediately shared the post with the other contributors here at the blog, and we, along with many other Tumblr users, had a wide range of thoughts regarding this piece of advice.

(Credit: www.thewritershelpers.com)
(Credit: www.thewritershelpers.com)

Before I begin, I think it’s only fair to say that there were also many Tumblr users who shared their support of The Writers Helpers, the Tumblr blog which handed out this advice. According to these users, the account admins were not being racist, but simply honest.

(Credit: www.thewritershelpers.com)
(Credit: www.thewritershelpers.com)

In case you were wondering, I fundamentally disagree with the original advice offered by The Writers Helpers. Do I think that the admins of this blog (or “S,” the specific admin who responded to the question) are racist? No. I do not. However, the statement—the advice itself—advises writers to treat their own characters’ races as unequal.

Lynn Capehart, an author from Los Angeles, wrote an essay for Glimmer Train discussing the problem of racial inequality in literature. For me, Capehart’s advice was spot on. In the essay, she writes:

Many white writers will be surprised to learn they are supporting racial inequality by their use of race in describing characters of color, as compared to white characters. These writers never mention race unless the character isn’t white. They often use race alone to delineate the character, as if she were a generic stand-in for the entire race, a stock character that can be substituted for any other in the group, and not an individual with a unique set of talents and tics. Worse, by letting a racial category create the largest portion of a character’s description, a writer adds the additional underlying message that everyone in the group “looks alike.”

By saying that readers will automatically assume a character is white unless otherwise stated, you are essentially admitting that there is a “standard” race—a default race, if you will. Anonymous, to answer your question, you do not need to mention a character’s race. But as with most choices we make as writers, the decision to mention race or not should be consistent—not dependent on whether they are white or not.

In most cases, race doesn’t need to be directly referred to. For a black character, Capehart asks authors to push themselves, “Is his skin the color of weak coffee, dried clay, milk chocolate, a moonless night, or dark as the devil’s heart?” These words are not only much more descriptive than saying the man was black or the woman was Asian; they are beautiful and a much more creative use of language.

It is, perhaps, social conditioning and our subconscious that makes us—whether we are white or not—choose to believe that a “standard” race exists (in this case white), but using that as a defense for poor advice is excusing the inherent racism in that logic—perceived or not.

When I asked my fellow contributors how they felt, many of them suggested that readers do not picture characters as fully-formed people. By that, I mean readers may visualize Katniss Everdeen—from The Hunger Games—as an olive-skinned girl with grey eyes and dark hair, but that’s it. The images our minds create are vague. In the back of our minds, we may know the character’s race, but it is the character’s personality, dialogue, and movements that stick with us as readers. There is no clearer example that comes to my mind than the many racist tweets that appeared on Twitter when viewers realized Rue was black—something that Suzanne Collins made very apparent in her description of both Rue as an individual and the people from her district. Yet, many readers must not have picked up on those clues. Does that mean Suzanne Collins needed to be more obvious about her character’s race? I don’t necessarily think that’s the answer, but perhaps readers, at the end of the day, see what they want to see.

Melanie Figueroa

Melanie is the Editor in Chief at The Poetics Project. Having earned a masters in writing and book publishing from Portland State University and gained experience as an in-house editor, she now works as a freelance editor and writer. Her favorite book is The Bell Jar. You can follow Melanie on Twitter or Instagram @wellmelsbells.

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