On Describing Race

Great post by Maureen Johnson over at Ask Daphne yesterday in response to this question:

“Recently I’ve read a few books where a character is introduced a few chapters into the story and the narrator/main character describes her as “black” or “Asian” or “Hispanic.” It always jolts me because the rest of the characters in the book are not described as “white,” but it is assumed as a reader I know they are. Now if by saying a character has blue eyes and red hair the author figures I’ll know the character is white, why can’t he/she just say something like “her eyes were as brown as her skin” to describe someone who is black? It just comes across that the author assumes his/her readers are white. Does this bother anyone else? Am I being overly sensitive? For the record, I’m white.”

There have been several posts recently about the issue of describing race in novels, with the general complaint being that if a character is described as “black” or “Asian” or etc. then why aren’t white characters described as white?

“Doing good descriptions is hard, because you have to choose which facts are relevant to mention. How people *interpret* these facts–well, that’s another matter entirely. But when you write something, you have to have SOME sense of what impact your words are going to mean. That is pretty much the job description. Those descriptions are code–they should tell you something about the character, something aside from what’s there, flat, on the page.”

And there’s a lot to be said on this subject, about how come white is always the “default”. Mitali Perkins actually had an excellent article about this in School Library Journal this spring:

“When the characters, plot, or setting requires an author to define race, how does he or she accomplish this? Is there a “Korean kid” or a “black girl”? The problem is that socially constructed race words like African American, black, Asian American, and Latina are typically used only for characters who aren’t of European descent. North American authors conventionally don’t use “European American” or “white” to describe characters because to label every character’s race makes reading tedious. Why use any such labels at all, then? The best answer is because it made sense for a particular character or a first-person narrator to label people with those terms.

“If labels aren’t used, but you know a character is nonwhite, ask yourself and your students how the author communicated that fact. Check for tired food-related clichés about “coffee-colored” skin or “almond-shaped” eyes versus fresh, bold attempts to delineate race and culture in a story.”

And this is pretty much how I’ve gone about it. I’m sure it says something about me as a reader that despite living in a very multicultural world, I’m going to assume a character is white unless told otherwise (by the cover, the character themselves, or a description). Of course, there are exceptions  — for instance, if I’m reading a novel about a prince in medieval Japan, I’m going to assume his ethnicity is, you know, Japanese. And it changes, too. If I’d picked up a novel a few years ago about the daughter of the President of the USA, I’d picture someone who looked like one of the Bush girls. Now, I’d picture one of the Obama girls. And that’s because my head goes to the “president’s daughter” file in my brain and the first picture that pops up is the REAL president’s daughters.

Or maybe Zoe Bartlett.

In SSG, the characters’ races/ethnicities/minority status were very much part of the story, as sometimes they were selected for the society to fulfill certain token spots. Rose & Grave needed the gay black member, the male Asian-American member, the Muslim Middle-Eastern member, the Jewish member. The narrator Amy, who is white, is also more likely to think of someone’s race if it’s a race different from her own.

In Rampant, the characters’ nationalities actually took precedence over their races, but it also didn’t make sense to me, knowing as I did that Alexander the Great started out from the eastern edge of Europe and moved east across the Middle East and Asia, and then the three thousand years of history that followed, that all the characters would be white. Most readers (rightly) assumed that Grace Bo, from Singapore (and an Asian hunting line), was of Asian descent. Funny story about Grace: in college, I wrote a short story about a girl named Grace (no last name) who was in medical school, and EVERY SINGLE PERSON who read it assumed (wrongly) that the short story Grace was Asian-American, probably because most of the people we knew who had names like Grace and were studying to be doctors were in fact Asian American. So maybe that contributed to my thought process when naming Grace Bo Grace. Well, that and the fact that Grace under pressure is the big discovery that character makes in Rampant. Readers also probably picked up on the fact that Ilesha, from India, was Southeast Asian, and knowing that Valerija comes from eastern Europe is enough to get a picture of her appearance in your head.

But this isn’t always the case. Despite quite explicitly describing the French hunter Zelda as having dark black skin, there were readers who translated that as “dark black hair” and I sometimes wonder if I made a mistake not being specific in my descriptions of Giovanni. Yes, he’s half-Italian, half-American. But when you picture Giovanni, do you see this?


Because that’s what he looks like. And though Astrid describes him in detail, she never specifically says he’s black. And a lot of readers have taken her descriptions of dark skin and curly, close cropped hair as being indicative of white Italians. I know many white Italians who have, for white people, “dark” skin and dark curly or wavy hair. My brother, for instance, who is practically as Italian as Giovanni.

I did not get the dark skin and hair in the genetic lottery. I REALLY did not get the curly hair. But I digress.

Anyway, I don’t know what the right answer is, and it’s one I’m going to revisit in every book, because I’m going to continue to write characters of many different ethnicities. In my experience, I think the possible danger of throwing a reader out of the story by explicitly describing a character’s race like the question on Daphne’s blog is probably a fair price to pay for making sure that your readers know the race of the character. YMMV.

But again, it’s relatively easy in contemporary fiction, set in America for a primarily American audience, because they are using a racial language the reader is familiar with. Other cultures don’t necessarily mean “of African descent” when they say “black” and sometimes, that word can be incredibly charged.

Another challenge would be to describe the character’s race in a time when the words we use don’t mean anything. How would a character in, say, Carrie Ryan’s books describe people of different races? They don’t even believe in the ocean in that book. Do they believe in continents like Asia and Africa? You’re not Asian-American if there’s no America, if no one knows what happened to Asia.

But now I am curious. So I made a poll:

Posted in polls, writing industry, writing life, YA

23 Responses to On Describing Race

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this subject, Diana! And for the link back to my blog.

  2. JJ says:

    Really great post, Diana.

    (On a random side note: Grace is a common Korean-American girl’s name–I know about 80 Grace Kims. I think it’s because Eunhae is a common Korean girl’s name and it actually translates to the word “grace”.)

    When I was living in London, I learned that “black” has different meanings in England; the term is also used to describe people of South Asian and Caribbean descent. Also, “Asian” means “Indian/Pakistani/South Asian” over there, whereas in the US it usually indicates someone of East Asian or “Oriental” descent.

    Personally, as someone who is biracial and American, I don’t mind seeing race as a descriptor, as long as that character is three-dimensional and, you know, a PERSON, rather than a cardboard cutout example of an ethnicity.

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  4. Diana says:

    I didn’t know that Grace was a common Korean name! How interesting. Though I notice that a lot of Asian_American women, especially Korean American women, of my generation have what I consider “old fashioned” names like Grace, Liliy, Rose, Ava, etc. And now, of course, all those names are back in style for white babies.

    When I picture Grace in my head, though, I picture my sister in law when I first met her (she was 19 then). And my sister in law has a very unique name.

    I’m working on something now where I picture for the character John Cho, who is (I believe) Korean-American. And hawwwwwt.

    Speaking of hawt, a moment of appreciation for Tristan Wilds here.

  5. SB's Mom says:

    Interesting topic! I appreciate any help an author can give me in picturing a character as soon as possible in a story. I also think it helps the author to know where the audience’s head is (for instance, the different interpretations of “black”). I was at least 50 pages into the first-person narration of “Alien Island” before I realized the narrator was a woman. In the absence of clues, the default position even in my feminist head was male. The same thing applies to age — we don’t assume a character is very old, for instance, unless it’s made explicit. We are probably in the midst of a cultural shift where white will no longer be the default race, but I don’t think it’s happened yet.

  6. beth says:

    Wow. I thought I was sensitive to race in novels, especially as I read RAMPANT close to when I started reading LIAR by Justine Larbalestier. But when I read Giovanni’s description, it reminded me of my Italian-American friend, Chris. His skin is certainly dark, but he’s white. I never questioned my interpretation of his ethnicity–even while reading your post, until you brought up Giovanni, I never thought differently.

    But…I’m not sure that is a bad thing. From your description, it’s certainly possible to have either interpretation of skin color–which means we can make it more personal. Personally, I like it when ALL descriptions of characters are minimized so I can cast myself in the role of the hero. When a white heroine is described with dark hair, for examples, or given a body description that doesn’t match mine, that minimizes my enjoyment of the story.

    Obviously, I’m not a minority. I wonder if other people–minority or not–do as I do and cast images of themselves or friends into books. If so, perhaps it best to minimize all descriptions of all physical characteristics…

    On the other hand, I also applaud when a book pushes us to diversify ourselves. If I only have white friends, I don’t want to only read books where I can interpret the characters as white, if that makes sense.

  7. Rhiannon says:

    I seriously thought that you were joking with that picture of Giovanni, at first. Upon thinking about it, I don’t know any way that you could have described him without using terms such as “Black” or “African” that would have developed that mental image. I always interpret “Dark skinned” to mean a deeply tanned color.

  8. JulieLeto says:

    I confess I did not see Giovanni as black. Like you, I have a brother who is very dark, while my skin is very light. His eyes are dark, mine are lighter. We’re both Italian. If you gave hints or clues, they were subtle, that’s for sure!

    BTW, just for the record…Hispanic and Latina are not RACE. They’re just ethnicity. You can have black, Asian, white (and everything in between) Hispanics and Latinos. One of my Blazes featured a blond-haired, blue eyed Latina heroine against a dark hair, dark eyed Latino hero. Just to mix it up.

    It doesn’t bother me if someone uses the word “black” or “Asian” to describe a character. When people ask me to describe myself before they meet me, I often say, “I’m the short, red-haired Italian girl.” I think I look Italian. (I’m also Cuban and when my hair was darker, people used to assume I could speak Spanish–which I can’t. Now that I’m a redhead, it doesn’t happen so much!)

    Anyway, I’m not super-sensitive about race, but I just wrote a Caribbean American character in a book and I did say she was black. I used cocoa to describe her skin…but I’m a big fan of Gayle King and she describes herself as being “the color of cinnamon with a dollop of caramel.” It’s even in her theme song.

    I happen to think cocoa is a beautiful thing.

  9. Phoebe says:

    I had a moment of disorientation upon seeing Giovanni’s picture–that’s definitely not how I had pictured him, though, of course that does say something about my own prejudices. Ironically, I recently had something similar happen with a manuscript I’ve been working on. I wrote a blog post discussing how the main character was biracial (half-Polish, half-black); because she’s not on Earth, and so doesn’t use the same racial indicators, and because she’s narrating, of course she didn’t explicitly state that she is half-black. After the blog post, a friend told me that she assumed that a girl with dark skin, and black, curly hair was Indian or maybe Italian. I found that very disconcerting myself. My image of the character in my mind was so established, so tight. And I’d described her accurately! But, I suppose, not accurately enough to challenge assumptions.

    I’m not sure what the way to work around that is, other than to always use descriptors that are appropriate to a narrator. This includes, of course, sometimes describing skin tones of white characters, too, when appropriate.

    Check for tired food-related clichés about “coffee-colored” skin or “almond-shaped” eyes versus fresh, bold attempts to delineate race and culture in a story.”

    I both nodded and cringed at this–it’s a great point, and I’d always noticed that especially in those old Ann M. Martin Babysitter’s club books. But I was recently guilty of that, too. Working on a different story, and after what happened above, I’ve been hyper aware of race issues, and how to describe them. In my current project, I have a black, British character, and two African-American girls. And I did default to the “cocoa covered skin” descriptor for one. Have to find a better, non-cliched way of communicating that. She’s not Jessi from the BSC (and this isn’t 1989!) after all.

  10. Phoebe says:

    Another thought: Astrid and Giovanni have an interracial relationship. I got into a discussion on a Star Trek community about the new movie–and how many black viewers cheered to see Uhura paired romantically with a white male lead, and one of the two primary characters, at that. There aren’t many black male romantic leads in books for teens, unfortunately–particularly when the heroine is white. It makes me wonder if this could have been an opportunity to expand our notion of “romantic lead,” though I can certainly understand feeling resistant to defining Giovanni in terms of race explicitly.

  11. Diana says:

    Phoebe, I didn’t avoid mentions of his race or try to hide his race. I thought I did describe it — apparently this is not the case. But I was not “resistant” to it nor do I think I missed out on any opportunity. Dude is still black.

    Also, as you can see from the previous post, people are way too busy trying to match Astrid up with ANYONE other than Giovanni.

  12. Phoebe says:

    Emphasis on the “explicitly” rather than “describing race”–the subtle difference between saying (and because I’m a nerd and don’t want to bungle your description, I grabbed your book from my shelf): “Slim build, dark, close-cropped hair, high cheekbones, really nice skin” and something like “Slim build, dark, close-cropped hair, high cheekbones, really nice, seal brown skin”–or coming out and saying explicitly that he’s a hella hot black boy (for all the flaws of the word “black”), which, from that picture, he sure as heck is!

    I didn’t mean it as a really big criticism or anything–if you read my preceding comment, it’s something I’ve struggled with balancing, too. I can just also see that there might be benefits for bluntly challenging readers’ race assumptions, particularly about romantic leads.

  13. Diana says:


    “His skin was a shade or two darker than the last time I’d seen him, and his hair curled tightly over his brow and the crown of his head. I ignored most of the marble statues of Italians he showed me, choosing instead to focus on the contours of Giovanni’s face — his broad nose, lifted cheekbones, and wide-set dark eyes with their thick black lashes.”

    This is very educational. Unfortunately, you do have to get explicit.

    I wonder what y’all would have thought about hte dreadlocks he grows in book 2?

  14. JulieLeto says:

    Phoebe, don’t knock yourself for using “food cliches” to describe skin tone. I mean…what is olive, if not a food? It’s perfectly acceptable. Skin can be caramel, cocoa, olive, peaches-n-cream, etc.. Is it cliche? Maybe…bit sometimes, cliches are perfectly acceptable and do quick work of describing something that is probably, ultimately, irrelevant to your character, unless your book is about race. That this author cringed when she read those is just her opinion. To me, they are not the least cringe-worthy.

    I do have a hero in an upcoming book who is Indian. I went into my crayons for that one…burnt umber. I love that color. I love that hero. ::sigh::

  15. Diana says:

    LOL on the olive! I never thought of that!

    My husband likes to say that he never understood what people meant by “olive skin” until he met me and realized that sometimes, yes, people’s skin is green.

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  17. Alexa says:

    Interesting post. A couple of books have jolted me about how I think about race and other nationalities recently. And set me thinking about how my son will view the world and how I would like him to view it because I do tend to think of everyone as white, unless told otherwise or if they have a name that I associate with a different race.

    If I hadn’t read Rampant and just had the character names and a list of nationalities. I’d have said Grace was the British hunter. That name just seems typically English to me, I see blonde hair, blue eyes, pale skin. Which is obviously different from the rest of the commentators here. And I always have a hard time thinking of Cornelia as British for the same reason.

    And nope didn’t picture Giovanni like that, but nice casting, seriously sell the film rights soon!

  18. Annie says:

    One of my good friends in Sweden was a guy from Italy, Fabio. He had very dark skin for a white guy, and black curly hair (that was irresistible to touch). When I read Giovanni’s description, my mental image was that of Fabio.

  19. Lindsay says:

    Diana, I really enjoyed reading this post about race and the one about strong women and their stronger lovers. Both were very thought provoking. I, too, did not see Giovanni as black, but interpreted his dark skin to be Italian.

  20. Emilia says:

    I did not picture Giovanni like that at all. When I think of his hair I think of longer than the actor in the photo.
    When I think Giovanni, I think Orlando Bloom in Troy with darker skin… almost like the actor in the photo.
    On the subject of olive skin, it usually describes people of Mediterranian descent. Fang in Maximum ride has Olive skin, and he is certainly not green!
    But then again I imagine practically every guy in every book, who has relatively curly brown it black hair. But that’s partially because I’m in love with Orlando, and u would love to see him in a movie about killer unicorns.

  21. Tiferet says:

    I haven’t read your book (I am following links, sorry) but I think I want to! So I can’t answer the poll. But I’ve written a series of stories where I was absolutely flabbergasted to discover that readers (at this point only friends) liked my story enough to want to draw the characters, but apparently hadn’t picked up that there were only three white people in the whole story (which was set on another planet, hundreds of years from now) and were picturing characters whose hair colour, hair texture, skin colour &c had actually been described as fair-skinned white people, even though I thought I had made it as clear as possible that they were black without using 21st century American racial identifiers. I didn’t know what to do except to thank them for the art (because it was very nice that they liked my story that much!) and try and figure out how to rewrite the descriptions to be more clear!

  22. Emilia says:

    What is the name of the Actor in the photo? I know you mentioned him in an earlier post, but it’d be quicker to ask you than to look trough the archives….Yur still rockin Diana. My sister has read all of SSG and thought they were cool. Now she’s gonna read Rampant!!

  23. Diana says:

    Thanks! His name is Tristan Wilds. He started his career on the tv show THE WIRE, and was recently in the film The Secret Life of Bees with Dakota Fanning and Queen Latifa, and is also a regular on the new 90210.