Thursday, January 21, 2016

Shallow Descriptions of People of Colour

Writing characters of colour has often proven to be a difficult thing to do for Caucasian authors. Because we live in such a segregated world, many often don’t know enough about cultures outside of their own to write a convincing portrayal.  One of the biggest stumbling blocks outside of ensuring proper cultural markers, is creating a proper description. How many times have you read about coffee coloured skin for instance?  Often, there’s absolutely no nuance because there is a tendency not to see the individual uniqueness of people of colour.  We are not now, nor have we ever been a homogeneous group. Furthermore, different racial groups have specific markers and while not always present are often in exsistence.

Far too often the descriptions of people of colour are lazy and are used as quick and easy ways to convey one thing only - Otherness. This character is not described with any real desire for us to know what they look like but simply so they can be duly labelled as not white - as not default

This can be so glaringly seen when we see descriptions of white and POC characters next to each other. Often the race of the white character will not even be mentioned - because there’s no need to mention it, it will be assumed. When two children are described in A Kiss Before the Apocalypse they are described as “a girl and an Asian boy”. Quick quiz - what race is the girl supposed to be?

If you said anything other than “white” you know you’re kidding yourself. Sure there’s nothing overtly labelling her as such, but the mere fact that she isn’t described while he is, is labelling enough.

In some ways we can see why an author would do this - there is such an overwhelming assumption that all characters are White that even characters that are described as POC are too often assumed not to be - making it all the more important to clearly label minorities (as we mentioned when talking about Quiet Minorities). In some cases this may even lead to such overwhelming excessive labelling that we have the Blackety Black Black trope; it almost feels necessary to try and force an audience that is almost unable to see POC to see the non-white skin!

But by singling out the POC for this kind of description while leaving the White characters as blank slates that we know the societal default will fill in serves to Other the POC. The fact you’ve spent several paragraphs mentioning the mocha, caramel, chocolate skin of the POC but not done the same level of milk vanilla yoghurt description of the white characters is glaring. When you talk repeatedly about “the man doing this” or “Jane doing that” or “the lawyer said this” but then that all becomes “the Asian man”, “the Latina woman” or “the Black lawyer” when a POC is involved then you are underscoring the difference; constantly reinforcing the idea of the societal default, the societal definition of normal, by overly drawing attention to POC as needing emphasis, as needing description.

The contrasting different descriptions emphasises the Other, reinforces the Other, underscores that these characters are Other. That doesn’t mean the characters shouldn’t be described or have their race mentioned - again, our objection to overwhelming societal default means we want minorities to be clearly labelled as such - but make that description universal so it doesn’t other someone. If you’re going to spend 3 paragraphs being slightly fetihistic about dark skin tones, then do the same with white ones. This is also a useful tool to see if you are being fetishistic and slightly creepy when it comes to describing skin tone or any racial characteristic - if that jumble of words describing a White character seems slightly-in-need of a cold shower or a restraining order, then there’s a good chance it applies in the same way to the description of POC. If you’re going to mention the “Asian wizard” or “Black shapeshifter” doing something, then include the same racial identifiers for White characters as well - do not allow the very absence of description to be a filler for assumed Whiteness. We see this excellently done in the Bone Street Rumba series - by not singling out POC, race becomes a characteristic to describe rather than a marker of the Other to draw attention to.

The over-description of POC also tends to emphasise how much so many of these characters are tokens. Their race is mentioned over and over again and at great length precisely because this is all the character is. The token has no other personality or defining features other than their minority-ness.

This is also shown by the sheer shallowness of POC descriptions - when a White character is described in length we can generally expect detailed description of every part of them (especially in romance) EXCEPT skin colour. But for POC, race, maybe one-or-two features (especially skin colour) are described and that’s it - there’s rarely a loving description of every rippling muscle, curl of hair or curve of breast. You get the racial description and that’s it - because generic POC is all the author is aiming for.

It’s not enough to talk about caramel coloured skin or slanted eyes to denote a character as a person of colour.  From reading, one would think that Black people only have 4 options when it comes to our hair: bald, afro, dreadlocks or braids, when there are in fact numerous hairstyles that Black people wear. When was the last time you read about a character who had coils, bantu knots, twist outs, or mohawks & fauxhawks to name a few? To mention these would mean taking the time to actually learn something about black hair care and we cannot possibly do that now can we?  When it comes to Native people, when we are not being given the racist Pocahontas bullshit steeped in some stolen Wikipedia mysticism, proper description is often lacking.  Some genetic traits like larger front teeth with a gap, an inverted breast bone, and high cheekbones are just a few examples of descriptions that would go a long way to fully flesh out the idea that the character in question is Native. Yes dear writers, please for heaven sake stop having your Mercy Thompson like character running around with feathers in their hair and having that be the sole symbol of their Native Identity.  If I read about one more 1/8 Asian character with slightly slanted eyes to represent their supposed Asianess I swear that I will scream. How about we go with something like the epicanthic fold, extremely glossy or shiny hair, flatter faces etc,. There are many things that go into what makes people different, it’s just that they are purposely ignored because that would mean seeing people as individuals and stepping outside of a comfort zone.   

More often or not this is where a biracial identity comes into play.  When a biracial character is presented, quite often the features that are European are played up and then a small marker of colour is included to present a mixed raced character to the viewer.  I must be honest, quite often my cynical brain simply sees this as a way for a lazy author to gain inclusion cookies without having to do the work while allowing the character in question to have the mien of Whiteness.  A few good examples of this trope are Jeremy from Kelley Armstrong's Otherworld series, Ivy from Kim Harrison’s The Hollows,  Anita Blake from Laurell K Hamilton’s, Anita Blake Series, Joanne Walking Stick from C.E. Murphy’s The Walker Papers to name a few. Biracial people absolutely deserve representation in our media but to be used as a writer’s device so that an author can avoid either proper characterisation or description is not racially progressive and is in fact beyond problematic.   

Including the different racial markers helps convey who the character really is.  A description of a Black person that includes bantu knots, and wider and fuller lips for instance is not a bad thing.  Seeing that we are different from each other is wonderful because it recognizes the diversity of our world.  A problem only occurs when we apply value to difference or as is too often the case, ignore the difference in order to present a Eurocentric appearance standards

Again we have to say that not all inclusion is good - and how minorities are included matters as much as their presence. It’s not just how prominently characters are involved in the story, what tropes or stereotypes are invoked or what bigotry runs rampant - even how they are described and how we expect readers to picture these characters has powerful implications and effects.