1. g_man526
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    g_man526 Member

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    Bet you never heard this one before (sarcasm)

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by g_man526, Sep 8, 2011.

    I'm writing a far future sci-fi story, one in which the memory of Earth has been all but erased from memory. Rule #1 from what I've learned about writing is never to "import" terminology in your writing that come from the universe that you exist in, but don't exist in the universe you're dealing with. That being the case, I have a character that I want to be African-American, only problem being that in a universe that's forgotten about Earth, the concepts Africa and America most likely mean nothing. How do I describe this character physically short of saying he's black?

    It's not terribly important he's African-American, but in my mind I picture him as this character (in terms of narrative role):

    [​IMG]

    In this guy's body (in a general sense obviously, I won't copy him bit by bit):

    [​IMG]
     

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  2. Banzai
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    Banzai One-time Mod, but on the road to recovery Contributor

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    Maybe I'm missing something, but why not say he's black? As far as I can see "African-American" refers only to a blend of nationality and ancestral heritage, which as you have correctly deduced have no meaning outside of a modern day earth context. So given that there is neither an Africa nor an America in your fictional world, you can't possibly mean to refer to either, ergo you mean black. So say black.
     
  3. g_man526
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    g_man526 Member

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    Yeah I mean I'm strongly tempted to do so, I just don't know how touchy readers are about political correctness. Calling someone black I realize isn't politically incorrect per se, but people (at least in the US) I've noticed do get cheesed off about it in a casual conversational context. In fact the only person I know personally who is totally comfortable with people using black as a descriptive term is a friend of mine who is black, who in fact prefers when people use that instead of African-American.
     
  4. Banzai
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    Banzai One-time Mod, but on the road to recovery Contributor

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    I wouldn't worry about it, to be completely honest. Sure, some people may get upset, but that's always going to be a possibility. Would you hesitate to describe a white person as white? I think, as long as it's in the pursuit of the story and legitimate description, then it's fine. You're not writing something deliberately or obviously offensive, so don't waste time worrying about what some people may think about it. Just tell your story :)
     
  5. mugen shiyo
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    mugen shiyo Contributing Member

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    Just say dark-skinned, darker skinned, or some other synonym for brown like amber, sienna, earthen, etc...I've read books refer to people like this all the time. Not Black, but dark-skinned and such.
     
  6. scribblepuff
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    scribblepuff New Member

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    Maybe dark-skinned could mean several things, though. I'm pretty dark-skinned in the summer, for example, but I'm far from black. I think the world is accepting black as a politically correct word. As long as you don't use the n word you'll be fine.
     
  7. Mxxpower
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    Whoa there... you think calling a black man black is somehow wrong in America? What do you say about white people? German American's? Dutch Americans? Polish? "White dude" works just fine. Do you refer to Somolians as Somolian-Americans if they aren't citizens? Do you ask black people which country they are from so you can correctly classify there american-ness?

    Sounds like a lot of work to me, especially when you consider the book you're writing is based in the future when people will hopefully have moved past such labels.

    The important thing, is how your POV character would describe themselves or others in their own words...not what the the reader's bias's are, or political terms that change with each decade. Political correctness certainly hasn't stopped anyone from reading works by Ernest Hemingway.

    What if racism is a huge problem in the distant future? What sort of labels might they use? That actually isn't a bad idea for a story right there...
     
  8. g_man526
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    g_man526 Member

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    Yeah I usually use that particular descriptor for more Mediterranean and Middle Eastern shades.
     
  9. Yoshiko
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    Yoshiko Contributing Member Contributor

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    If they're black say they're black. If they're brown say they're brown. If they're yellow say they're yellow. If they're white say they're white. I hate it when authors try to find words to step around simply stating the character's skin colour.
     
  10. Banzai
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    Banzai One-time Mod, but on the road to recovery Contributor

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    Agreed. Call a spade a spade. Anything else just further's this ridiculous situation where calling things as they are is somehow offensive.
     
  11. TobiasJames
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    If you're worried about political correctness, "African-American" is often more insulting than "black" because you are making an assumption that the person you are describing has African lineage and US citizenship. This accounts for a very small minority of black people living in America, and an even smaller minority of black people globally.

    +1 to all the suggestions made here so far... 'dark skinned' describes him generally, but a more specific description like 'skin the shade of ebony' would help clarify the reader's mental picture of the character further.
     
  12. Banzai
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    Banzai One-time Mod, but on the road to recovery Contributor

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    Precisely.

    Would you call this man African-American?
    [​IMG]

    Well you'd be wrong. He's British. In fact, he's the MP for Streatham (London).
     

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  13. madhoca
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    What makes you think that in the 'far future' distinct races will even exist? Perhaps they'll be merged in the crucible of time and global travel--but maybe we'll get throwbacks, like a totally blond, white-skinned and blue-eyed person, or a very dark black-skinned person... Then, if you want to make an issue of it, it will seem natural to comment on his colour.
     
  14. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    I agree. 100% agree. (and it never made much sense to me that we would call black people "African-American". I mean, take Mickey and Martha from DW. They're both black, but they are not American.)

    I also think that if you're going to describe a person as "black", describe skin tones of other characters like "the pasty white skin" or the "olive skin" so you don't appear to be singling out a specific group of people.
     
  15. digitig
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    Because he isn't black? Look at the pictures again, and think of the actual colour, not the race. They're both brown, but we call them black because of association with some other Africans who are so dark-skinned as to appear black -- an association that might not exist in the fictional world.

    As for political correctness, by all means don't give gratuitous offence, which is what political correctness should really be about. But the term "African-American" is already problematic. Here in the UK we cracked ourselves up when we saw US broadcasters describing Nelson Mandela as "African-American". What was American about him? Here in Britain "black" is generally the politically correct term -- the one used on government forms. Some people say "people of colour", but if you ever meet somebody without colour, run: they're a zombie. And the politically correct term changes with time anyway: within my lifetime "negro" was politically acceptable. Essentially, the only reliable way to ward off (not avoid, ward off) accusations of racism is to treat characters of all races with honesty and sympathy. Remember the classic Lenny Bruce comedy routine?
     
  16. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    digtig just took the words out of my mind.

    Just treat the characters equally and honestly. Don't single them out.

    Writing a story that makes a big deal on a character's "differences" is the biggest turn-off for me.
     
  17. Steerpike
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    You know, I've discussed this very issue with friends who are black, co-workers who are black, members of various writing groups who are black, etc. It has actually come up a surprising number of times. Without a single exception, every one of these people have stated they prefer to be called "black." Apparently one receptionist at my prior firm preferred African American, but that's just what I was told, I never spoke to her about it.

    A Gallup poll of blacks in America indicated that 74% of the respondents (all of whom were black) either preferred "black," or said it didn't matter.

    One of my friends, who is also a writer, put it well when it came to "African American." He said he found it insulting in that it assumed he traced his heritage to Africa. He did not. Imagine someone with ancestry through Australian Aborigines living in the U.S.? Would it make sense to call them "African American?"

    I think "black" is the most accepted term.
     
  18. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    And white people aren't really "white." Nevertheless, the terms "black" and "white" can be used without offense, in my view.
     
  19. g_man526
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    Oh yeah, I'm not trying to make a big deal out of it at all; it's just that I have a particular mental image of him that I want to translate to the page. In another thread I said I would be pretty sparing in physical descriptions for this story, apart from the villain, the wise sage, and a few other people. This guy is the wise sage, and while it's not terribly important what he looks like, I like the image in my mind very much and would love to preserve it.
     
  20. Raki
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    Raki Contributing Member

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    I agree that "black" is an acceptable description, though I do remember an African American professor I had in a creative writing workshop a few years ago prefer the latter term (and making a huge fuss about it, too). Honestly, in a fictional world where the present day racial issues do not exist (as they do), I would say to just describe the skin color (and technically, it's not black, but varying degrees of brown). There shouldn't be a need to "label" characters as black or white, just let it be a piece of the character's description and that's it. Of course, if race, skin color, etc., is still an issue in your fictional world, you may read other works to get a feel for how those authors handled it. I haven't read anything lately that I can remember that would be a good example to this, except maybe how Stephen King treats Susannah (Detta, Odetta, Mia...) in his Dark Tower series. You may also check out The Forever War by Joe Haldeman.
     
  21. digitig
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    Oh, I think they can be used without offence. I'm just not so convinced that they can be used in a fictional context that is supposed to have lost the cultural heritage of those words. My concern was for artistic consistency, not cultural politics :)
     
  22. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'll keep quiet about what else I found in there! :D
     

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