Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Writing and Race

Disclaimer: I'm trying really hard not to offend anybody in this post. I apologize beforehand if someone feels uncomfortable about this topic.

The YA author Justine Larbalestier often posts on her blog about the subject of race in fiction. I used to follow it a lot, but I only drop by occasionally now, because the greater emphasis on ethnic politics rather than craft is not my cup of tea (but everyone is entitled to write whatever they want on their blog, obviously). This is a pretty touchy subject, but since I am a minority and I write, I figured I should address it.

Now, I guess I would be what you considered a pretty white-washed Asian. I've been told by people who are Asian and people who are white that I am not very...ethnic? I've always found this kind of funny since I can speak Chinese fluently and my reading is not half-bad. When I go to China, people frequently don't know I'm foreign unless I specifically bring it up. I guess since I don't dress like an anime character and am not into Asian pop-culture, this makes me not very Asian. Okay, fine. I can accept that. I mean, when I was little I used to actually think I was white. You might think I'm lying, but I assure you, I am not. I was a racially confused child. I used to dream about having blonde-haired, blue-eyed babies, and it was a sad, sad day in my life when I realized this was genetically impossible (or at least very improbable).

My characters are primarily white people (Caucasian; sorry, I'm just going to use "white" because it's shorter; hopefully, that's not un-PC). I read fiction and imagine MC's to be white (unless specifically indicated otherwise - this probably says something about what society makes minorities think, but that would be delving into a whole different problem). There isn't a lot of fiction with people of color (abbr. POC) anyway, and errr, Justine's blog (through no fault of its own) sometimes makes me feel guilty that I am not one of those people who searches for fiction with people who "look like me." I never thought about not being able to relate to people who are not Asian. I mean, I sympathize with those people who are like unique combinations (ie Malaysian-Chinese or Muslim-Australian or something) who crave for fiction that "represents" them, but it honestly never occurred to me (until I read Justine's blog) to find a character who is racially me.

I realize that the lack of POC fiction is a problem. There are plenty of children who struggle with identity issues growing up because TV and books are full of white people. And I think that there should definitely be more people who write POC fiction, and it shouldn't be limited to POC authors - white people can equally write POC fiction (as Justine has proved). But I also 
don't think that POC authors should be expected to write only people who look like them. Look, I really enjoy POC fiction. When I pick up a book about Chinese people that is good, I am thrilled. I do relate to it, very well. It's cool when they talk about Chinese food and Chinese customs and things where I can be like, "Wow, my parents said that when I was young too!" But at the same time, I have no problem relating to a Midwestern white girl from a small town. Because I share more experiences than just through race. For the same reason, I can enjoy a book about a Muslim girl discovering her identity. Or a French royal princess from the sixteenth century. Or a gnome. Or a bee. Or whatever.

Books shouldn't be marketed to a certain ethnic group; I refuse to believe a white person cannot relate to a book about a Chinese girl, and I ALSO refuse to believe there are minorities out there who cannot relate to MC's that are white. And authors shouldn't be expected to write based "on their own racial experience." I'm an Asian writer. And I write about white people. And Asian people. And fairies. Does it matter? Perhaps, it is narrow-minded for me to assume that just because I don't see the world through racial goggles, nobody does either. I like to be optimistic, though. And I like to think that everyone can choose to take off their racial goggles if they want to.

What do you think?


  1. I've always liked to read books by authors of different ethnicities because I like to go places I don't know but still find things that are universally the same. The best stories are about the emotions all people experience. So I have read books by authors who are white, black, Native American, Asian, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, agnostic,and on and on. Give me a good story, and I'll follow you to Mars or Faerie, too.
    Good post.

  2. WTF, blogger totally just deleted this nice long comment I had going and I'm too tired to be that coherent again, so here's generally what I thought. Oh, and thanks for this thoughtful and thought-provoking post!

    I'm mostly in the same boat as you. My fictional worlds are also primarily populated with white people, even though I'm Asian, and I do tend to default imagine fictional characters as white unless otherwise specified. It has to do with the society we grew up in, I'm sure, as you said, where basically the "white" becomes race-neutral because it's the majority. It's like how people over here might think anime characters look white, but in Japan, they default view the characters as Japanese unless otherwise specified. (There's this great essay about this online somewhere called 'The Face of the Other' or something.) But like you, race isn't something that usually considerably factors into whether or not I can relate to a character, which is why I guess I also don't actively seek out characters racially representative of me.

    That said, I do think it's very important for there to be more POC representation in all areas of fiction. Also like you, I do feel a bit guilty for not actively seeking POC or writing POC, though I do also really enjoy POC fiction - if I didn't, I wouldn't have taken a bunch of courses in Asian-Am lit among other things - but I also don't want to feel guilted into doing either of those things. I want to do it because I want to, because it feels true to the story. The other thing is, what if a character isn't obviously written as a person of color but they are?

    I don't think POC authors should be expected to write POC. We should, as always, write what we want to write and write what makes us happy. It is obviously possible for people to relate to people who are different than they are. I mean, look at the success of Avatar, where we as an audience are expected to relate to giant blue people with tails, or any number of so-called kids' movies where the stars are a bunch of walking, talking animals. So people can look past the surface, but the problem is often times, they don't, and we can't ignore that race is still a factor in aspects of media and society today.

    Uh, that was rambly. Hopefully that will all still make sense after I push "post."

  3. First off, anyone who takes offense when none is intended is just plain silly, a fool as the saying goes. I personally think we should all be looking past the outward appearances because we all are similar within. Like you, I can relate to a well-developed character no matter what their race is. I also can relate to races that don't even exist. And I hardly think it offensive to call me a "white" person because that's just a description of what I look like. I actually am one of those people who think PC has gone way too far and is tearing us apart, so take my opinion for what it's worth. (Not much! lol)

  4. Well, since I'm a middle-aged white male, I am "The Man". I'm the hated group that every minority sector of society talks about, so you can imagine how much fun I am at a party. Okay, it's not that bad, but if I were to be classified in a group, that's probably where I'd fall.

    That doesn't of course mean I actually think, feel, or act that way. One of the neat things (IMHO) of being a white male is I have a clean slate with really no background, no cultural identity at all. So I get to enjoy reading all about you people who DO have some culture or racial ties. See, now you've got me thinking about this and I may have to blog about it myself. In the end though, I don't think you need to apologize or justify why you are who you are or why you write what you do. Those people who's opinion really matters already know the answers to those questions. Nice post, Icy.

  5. Honestly, I can relate to your story, even though mine is sort of the exact opposite. ;)

    Maybe I looked like a normal white girl growing up, but when my (army dad) family moved back to the states--to the "Great-white North", even--I craved any kind of ethnicity I could find in my books. I wanted adventure in far off places with people who were different from the closed-minded kids who called me a Nazi because I was born in Germany.

    But at the same time, I enjoyed stories about girls who, while being the same race, were definitely not "like" me. They were pretty or popular, or smarter.

    Anyway, thanks for having the guts to speak your mind!

  6. Thanks for all of the thoughtful comments, everybody! That's a lot more writing than I expected! :D

  7. I think I freaking love this post. It is fascinating to hear your perspective and I'm glad you put it out there. Write what YOU want to write--that's the bottom line.

  8. I've read a few books where the character isn't white. Great post here. Colour of skin doesn't matter. It is the character of the characters (sense is there somewhere) rather than what they look like which counts in a book.

  9. XiXi--I thought this was a well-written and insightful post. I think you are spot on. IMHO, writers should not be expected to write based on an agenda--ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation.

    If a reader comes to a piece of fiction with their own agenda, the short-sightedness is with them, not the fiction.

    Thanks for sharing this post.

  10. Hey XiXi. I just found your blog.

    I completely agree with your statements about how race should not affect the writer's work (or any other form of media for that matter). People should be able to write about whatever and whomever they want to without being judged, ESPECIALLY in the USA (the alleged melting pot). A writer should not lose credibility just because he or she is writing about another race. And really, do you need to have the same ethnic background as the main character to relate to him/her/it? I think not.

  11. Okay, just read your second post on this and hopped over and read this post and I agree 100%. I'm African-Canadian, and lately, with all the discussion on race, I've been wondering whether I'm *supposed* to be writing about my culture or my race simply because that's what you do. But I kind of resent that. Most of the books I read growing up (and still read) feature Caucasian characters. I wanted to be Anne because I thought SHE was a cool character, not because of what color her skin was. It really doesn't matter to me whether characters are like me or not. It's their voice and story I relate to.
    So a lot of my characters are white, some are not. A lot of them are like me personality-wise; some are not. I love that writing gives me the freedom to do and write whatever. That's why I write.

    Awesome post(s)!