Writing characters of color without making their ethnicity clear
Hello! I’m new at writing and I want to write POC. Is there a way to write them without mentioning their skin color or origins? Mentioning traces that will lead the reader to just know they are? (Am I making sense?)
Because we live in a world where white media dominates, even in countries where white people are a minority, if you never describe your characters or give obvious clues to their origins, even people of color will read your characters as white. It’s best not to leave room for any doubt because racist people and even well-meaning clueless people will imagine that they have plausible deniability.
There’s an assumed default due to the skewed nature of mass-consumed fiction, in which everyone unless mentioned otherwise is thought to be white, straight, male (which is REALLY weird because it’s not like women are actually in the minority), and come from either a Christian or Christian-based areligious background.
Try this little thought experiment:
The chef cleaned the last of the knives and put it away in the block.
Who did you picture? A white man? A woman? What color was their skin? Were they fat or thin?
I bet you didn’t picture a heavy-ish brown Middle-Eastern-coded woman. But a chef just like that is a major character in my series.
Let’s try another one.
The commander scowled at his team before handing out a fresh set of weapons.
I was thinking of a Black man with an ocular disability. What, you didn’t get that from my sentence? You couldn’t tell I was totally fangirling over Nick Fury again? (He’s dreamy. This is a factual statement.)
In addition, there’s no reason not to describe your characters. It’s not offensive to say someone has dark brown skin, “medium brown skin” (I have a lot of that in my books), is Korean-American, is Black, is Navajo, etc. Just try to stay away from food words or any kind of description that sounds like you’re literally turning a human being into an object or consumable product.
Here’s my description of a man who owns a music shop in my latest book:
He was tall, and broad, and very fat, and he seemed nonthreatening and kind. Shulamit studied his appearance, trying to parse his ethnicity. His skin was the same medium brown as her own and that of her people, but his hair was thick and coarse and pulled into the rough locks that looked like braids but weren’t, like the people to the south whose skin was darker.
Would you have gotten any of that if I hadn’t described him? You would have assumed that both of them were white and that Tzuriel was thin, most likely. It matters to me that they look the way they’re supposed to look, so I had no qualms about describing them plainly.
Here are some of the ways Fiona Zedde describes some of the characters in her Black lesbian short story anthology When She Says Yes:
skin like the bark of a baobab tree
the ascetic lines of her face hewn in rich tones of rosewood
My short Afro wouldn’t wilt in the rain.
I knew what I must have looked like to her – a petite, brown-skinned girl with wide, long-lashed eyes and rounded cheeks who’d never seen the inside of a tattoo parlor, much less wanted a tattoo.
>> Mentioning traces that will lead the reader to just know they are?
You have to be careful with that. A lot of my readers, including women with dark skin and my own mother, thought that the Perachis were supposed to be Black, not brown. One of my best friends got all the way through my book four draft and thought my Portuguese-coded characters were supposed to be in Spain. And there are people who read Hunger Games and didn’t know Rue was Black, although I feel weird mentioning that because I haven’t read or seen them myself.
In short (too late!) there’s no reason not to mention it and a lot of reasons mentioning it is actually vital if you want the representation to be meaningful.
As a Chinese-American person who writes Chinese/Chinese-American characters, even if their heritage has little bearing on the plot, I make a point of describing them as Chinese, whether it’s through cultural markers (surnames, or speaking Chinese dialects) or appearance.
We live in a world where readers will default to white unless it’s specifically spelled out for them: otherwise they will bend over backwards trying to justify why this character is white and not PoC. Here’s an example: a book I read in middle school featured a Japanese-American teacher whose only marker was her surname, and yet when we had to do collages depicting her, everyone used a photo of a white woman instead.
I strongly recommend against using traces to describe your PoC characters: we suffer from enough invisibility as is, and your method implies that describing our races would be shameful.