After a hellish January, I settled down to some light reading, a book that was recommended to me. I won't name the book or the author, because that's not how I roll. But I was shocked to find, after enjoying the book for almost three hundred pages, something so fundamentally "WTF?" that I had to stop reading: the hero, an African-American, casually got into his refrigerator and pulled out grape soda.
For those unfamiliar with grape soda as a stereotype, well... it's a stereotype. I have no idea how it came about, or why, but grape soda is up there next to chicken and watermelon on the "Stereotypes about African-American eating habits" list. So, last night, when the black love interest offers the white heroine a grape soda, I heard this in my head:
Not only was this offensive, but it got me thinking about how just plain offensive white authors can be when writing about non-white people in general. For instance, what is up with not mentioning the race of a character outright? Let's say I pick up a book and it says this:
"Lamont was tall, with dark hair and burnt-caramel skin. His full, sensuous lips were the kind women envied, and his gold eyes burned in their dark setting."
What that tells me is that the character is black. Right? I'm suppose to assume that, from his name, the description of his lips and the color of his eyes, that he's a black man. Well, why not just say this?:
"Lamont was tall and black, with the kind of full, sensuous lips that women envied. His gold eyes burned with intensity..." etc.
Why are white authors so afraid of mentioning anybody's race? Is it because white people pride themselves on being "color blind?" "Oh, I didn't describe Lamont as being African-American because I don't see color, and neither does my heroine." That's complete BS, and it's more offensive than pointing out someone's race. For one thing, it's dishonest. Let's say you're white and you're out shopping with your friends, one of them white with red hair and one of them black with black hair. You get separated from them, and you ask the really perky blond girl at the kiosk who wants to try and straighten your hair right there in the middle of the fucking mall for some reason NO I AM NOT INTERESTED AMBER, LEAVE ME ALONE FOR GOD'S SAKE if she's seen your friends. How do you describe to Amber, the inappropriately placed hair straightener, what your friends look like? The first thought that will come to mind is "A redhead and a black girl." You won't say the part about your second friend being black, though, because you've been taught that acknowledging race is rude.
Well, you know what? It's not, and exactly the opposite is. In fact, refusal to acknowledge the race of a person or a character is not just rude, it's flat out racist. What you are doing is making their race something to be ashamed of, something you don't talk about in polite company. Oh, sure, it fulfills the "I'm colorblind!" mentality that white people have pushed for years, but when a white person says, "I don't see color," what they are saying is, "I see everyone as a white person." Being "color blind" removes a part of the character's identity, and an important part. Unless you're writing your book set in a fantasy world or the far, far future in which racism has been completely eradicated, your character's experience of being African-American or Asian or Latino in the Western world is going to be a part of what forms their opinions and personality. And if you're not prepared to deal with that, and treat their race and experiences as valued differences instead of something to be ashamed of, maybe you shouldn't be writing non-white characters, white authors.
So, my fellow white authors, lets make a pact to stop doing the following:
- Avoiding any explicit mention that the character is of a different race. It's perfectly fine for white people to notice that a Person of Color is, in fact, OF COLOR. We all do it. It's called having eyes.
- Describing a character's non-white skin color in food terms as a substitute to naming their race. Stop it, please. No more caramel, no more dark chocolate, no more coffee-with-cream, no more. Please, God, no more. When you sit down to write a love scene between two white characters, do you describe your white hero's skin as "the color of golden vanilla ice cream"? No. You don't. Stop turning People of Color into your food fetish.
- Relying on stereotypes to flesh out Characters of Color. Not every black woman has to be sassy. Not every Hispanic woman has to speak Spanish fluently, or come from a huge family.
- Pretending that because we write Characters of Color, we are completely without prejudice. You still probably have some. I know I still do. Ignoring it won't make it go away. Confronting it does, and working to retrain ourselves from the things we learned from society and our families is a lifelong process. The second you start acting like you don't have a racist or prejudice bone in your body is the second you close yourself off from learning anything.
Back to the grape soda. I firmly believe that this author, who would not acknowledge the race of this black man by explicitly telling the audience that he is a PoC, was misguidedly using the grape soda as a clue to the audience as to the hero's race. I could even go so far as to say that she might have been warned away from mentioning his race outright by a well-meaning editor who didn't want to offend anybody, but who didn't see anything wrong with the grape soda reference, either through ignorance of the stereotype or the misguided assumption that since Dave Chapelle made jokes about it, it's fair game now. I don't know. But it really got me thinking about what I'm going to be more careful about in my writing in the future. I hope it makes some other authors think about it, too.