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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

I wasn't calling you a racist

We interrupt this temporary hiatus to bring you a very special message:

I wasn't calling you a racist.

No, not YOU-you, dear readers. Well, I mean, I wasn't calling you a racist either.

During a critique I was giving to a fellow writer, I may have offended. I'm not going to give any specifics around who (perhaps*) thinks I called them a racist, because I don't want to violate the trust of a critiquing relationship. However, I will share with you my offending words. And the set up: the author had used the term "Asian" or "Asian features" to describe several characters, who then received no further physical description. Meanwhile, other characters were getting entire paragraphs devoted to the shade of their hair and shape of their bodies.

MY CRITIQUE (an excerpt)
"Okay, here's the thing. I don't know where you're located, but like the majority of people on this site I am in the US. The US is predominantly white, and the people we see in media are predominantly white. It creates a default: Unless someone tells you otherwise, you assume a person/character is white.
But don't buy into or SELL into that BS. Because it is total BS.
I know what you're trying to tell me, but I want you to branch out of this catch-all idea. Tell me about her features. You're not describing a race of people, you don't have to be scared. You're describing a person. You can tell me what her face looks like, and without drawing on meaningless comparisons. In my edits, I gave an example** (this is how I picture her face). Go for it, give her some tangible features. Because "Asian" is SO broad, that "Asian features" can mean practically anything. This isn't even an Eastern/Western/Southern Asia thing (although, to be clear, "Asian" doesn't just mean East Asian, despite how it's used). Let's face it: Priyanka Chopra and Mindy Kaling, Ziyi Zhang and Lucy Liu look NOTHING alike.
Also, when you describe one person as "Asian" but don't even assume to specify the blonde people as white ... it rubs me the wrong way. Why do the white people get to have specific features, but the Asian people just look "Asian"? Break out of this mold. Then stomp on it a little. Grind it into dust. Mix it with some water. Make it into plaster. And then create something new and better."
I was sharing this with a friend because, let's face it -- anyone can be a little touchy when told that they were rude. But especially me, because I take a lot of care to not be rude. Direct, but not rude. So I shared with a friend to get an outside opinion. She read through and told me I should post this to the blog. And you know what? Clearly I agree.

I know I've talked about race on here before, but it's not a one and done issue. Especially not in the world of genre fiction. So I'm going to keep talking about it. I sincerely believe that it is our responsibility, as writers, to create diverse worlds. I believe it is our responsibility to be deliberate and conscientious when we write about race, or even just mention skin color. Especially in a world we have created, where the same racial constructs may not exist. What does it mean for a character to be black in a world where slavery did not exist? I'm not insinuating that there is no meaning -- I am challenging that the meaning is the same. It is your job, writer, to consider what it means in the world you made, and also what it means in the world where the reader resides. Be considerate, and then choose to write in a way that deconstructs and reconstructs race into a new purpose.

And in the meantime, try to avoid solely describing characters' looks in a manner that "describes" approximately 60% of the world's population.


*To be fair, they weren't explicit about how they felt I was rude. But this being the touchiest part of my critique, I imagine it may have had something to do with it.
**Example: with Asian features**"with dark hair and high round cheekbones"

***This is not the exact language. I did not include any of the writing of the critiqued piece.

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