DIVERSITY MATTERS

by Bonnie Schroeder
 
Bonnie Schroeder started telling stories in the Fifth Grade and never stopped. After escaping from the business world, she began writing full-time and has authored novels, short stories and screenplays, as well as non-fiction articles and a newsletter for an American Red Cross chapter.
 
The recent uproar over the lack of non-white nominees for the Academy Awards got me thinking, because I seldom explicitly depict people of color in my books and stories. I don’t think I’m a racist, so why is that?
First off, although I have many friends who are Black, Asian and Latino, I don’t think of them by that label. I think of them as my friend who was with me during a traumatic purge at our former employer, or my gal pal who shares my love of classical music. And so on.
Therefore, I don’t often assign a racial label to the characters I write about. Many of my characters could be black or green or blue or purple, but it’s not relevant so I don’t go into it.
Should I?
The reason I ask is that our books and stories are often source material for films and television programs, so in a sense, diversity starts with the writers. But is it myjob to impose diversity? I’m not sure.
When I was working in the business world, I certainly enjoyed a diverse assortment of co-workers, many of whom became close friends. Then I retired and spent more and more time in my home community, which has a predominantly White population. I didn’t notice the change at first, preoccupied as I was with making the transition from worker bee to independent writer.

Then I joined a Tai Chi class at the local Y, and the first people to welcome me were an Asian couple. The teacher was Black. A graceful Filipina taught me some of the moves. Suddenly, my world grew more colorful again—no pun intended there, or maybe it is. And I realized how I’d missed hanging out with people who didn’t look or talk like me. Variety is, after all, the spice of life.

We need variety and color in our lives; it enriches us and makes the world more interesting. The universe offers a panorama of colors, shapes, sizes, sounds, tastes and smells to experience.
But back to my question: should I be more explicit in my character descriptions to make it clear that the protagonist or her friend or her boss is a particular race or color? Is there a way to denote ethnicity—to make my writing more polychromatic—without being obvious or patronizing?
After all, despite the self-important proclamations of certain performers, Hollywood would be nothing without the written word. So to circle back to my original premise, your book or my short story might be the starting point.
Sometimes the story or the situation demands a character be a certain race, but often he or she could be any race, at least in my stories. Then the reader can decide for himself or herself if the character is Black or Asian (or Martian.)

 

Weigh in with youropinion on this admittedly tricky subject. Do you consciously include a variety of ethnicities in your writing? Do you think it’s a good thing to do? Or is it better to let the reader fill in the blanks and imagine a character in any color they want?

16 thoughts on “”

  1. You raise a good point, Bonnie. It made me think about my own work. Sometimes I label a character's race or ethnicity if they are different from my protagonist as part of my description, but I also add other clues. If my character meets Jorge, Ibrahim, Mei Ling, and Nechama, I don't have to label them beyond that. Speech patterns, family history, and personal effects can also identify a character's culture.

    But ultimately, I guess it's not a matter of what WE think about the subject, but our protagonist's view vs the world view. Would he or she denote race, or ethnicity? Would others? I believe some people in this country might see an interracial couple and think nothing of it. I know that wouldn't have happened 50 years ago and I'm sure that today, not everyone would view that couple as simply a couple. Very thought-provoking post.

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  2. When diversity is forced down my throat, I spit it out and go on my merry way. As a writer, I have no control over how a reader reacts to a character, whatever their color. That's their problem.

    But in my Johnny Casino Casebook Series I did deliberately use characters of different races to be my bad guys or girls. I wanted to be fair. And it was fun to show that anybody can be bad. I see shows on TV where certain races or sex are always the doctors or judges or high ranking police officials. Come on, we can see what you are doing. And when the bad guy is only the red-neck… Oh brother.

    There are good people of different races in my books and stories, but I don't dwell on it. People are people. Other than my book, Media Justice, race isn't a factor. Nor should it be.

    Terrific post, Bonnie.

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  3. Thanks, Miko. There are so many sides to this issue, and you make a good point that it does come down to the protagonist's view–which can be a useful character reveal as well.

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  4. Excellent post, Bonnie! Sometimes last names indicate a national heritage, but other than that, I purposefully avoid common race tags, such as skin color or dialect. People are people, and I leave it to the reader (and Hollywood–oh,do I wish!)to color them any way they want.

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  5. I agree with the above. Excellent post. The name, perhaps speech pattern, habits, experiences that they might talk about all tell you something about the character. The beauty of books is that the reader decides how they envision the character. You might ask five people about a character and get five distinct opinions of what drives them, what kind of a person they really are, etc. As an aside note, we are supposed to be a melting pot country, but when we identify people as African American, Asian American, Mexican American, etc. don't we put them in a preconceived category. Shouldn't we all just be Americans? The same goes for any country in my opinion.

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  6. Having just returned from two weeks in Africa, I am so used to seeing black people, that it is quite a culture shock to be in a mostly white surrounding again. I don't see a problem with mentioning a character's ethnic background in some way in our stories – speech, last names, or even skin tone. Sure it might not make a difference to a reader.. but then again… I think of Pamela Samuel Young's black lawyer series. She mentions when a particular character is white or Asian, and it works fine. In a book set in the modern business world, a casual mention at meeting a character that he/she is unique, might lend richness or understanding in a situation in chapter 17 without having to mention it again. Would the mention of a character's handicap or position in a wheel chair have the same consideration? Each book or story is unique, so we as authors SHOULD be able to “color” them in the way we choose! Provocative post, Bonnie.

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  7. I have two black characters in my Rocky Bluff P.D. series and I identify them as such at the beginning of every book, and don't do any reminding after that. In my Deputy Tempe Crabtree series, she's an Indian and so are some of the characters in various books and yes, I identify them as such, but again don't keep reminding as the book continues.

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  8. On the other hand… in a series on “Women in the LAPD” that I wrote for a local newspaper, I wanted to show the friendly camaraderie between detectives (as opposed to the more staid atmosphere of the “uniform” side), and I recounted a scene at lunch time where a black female detective tossed a banana across several desks to a fellow detective. He missed the catch and got some ribbing for it. Boy did I get a backlash from the woman who took it in a way I would NEVER have meant (black & banana?). So, unless you MEAN TO BE CRUDE, be cautious when you write ethnicity into your stories.

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  9. Oh, Jackie, I see what you mean. I think sometimes we tend not to see the racial implications of our words, not because we're racist but because we're the opposite, and we forget there are stereotypes out there.

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  10. I agree: such an interesting point. I have black friends who do not like to be called African Americans, as they feel it separates them: they are Americans. I also have white friends, now American citizens, who were born in Africa.
    But on the question of identification, I only describe race, religion or ethnicity if it is a relevant point in the story. Otherwise I like to leave it to the readers imagination as to how they visualize the characters. And as a reader I like to use my own imagination, too.

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