1. Oscar Leigh
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    Oscar Leigh Contributing Member

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    Describing Whiteness?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Oscar Leigh, Aug 20, 2016.

    Okay, so this might go under word mechanics or character development, I don't know. (Administrators help me!!) but I have an interesting question.
    A lot of books describe characters race, but they don't normally do this for white people. Now, the name of the characters and the settings being primarily white do lend some excuse, but it does feel like a double standard. So, should we describe it if we indicate others race's and if so how do we do that?
    Discuss.
     
  2. IcyEthics
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    IcyEthics Member

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    I think settings set a default, and therefore we tend to not describe assumptions. A person being white doesn't need a descriptive in a setting where the standard is white. Why waste words on something that people assume already? If you're describing every character as black in a story that's taking place in Nigeria, while leaving skin colour out of the equation for white characters, it becomes odd, though. I say all this as a white person, though. If a story took place in a racially mixed setting, though, I think all characters should be given an equal treatment.
     
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  3. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    It's fairly rare to find places that are uniformly white though, isn't it? I mean, I'm having trouble thinking of any places where I'd be surprised to encounter a person of colour...
     
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  4. IcyEthics
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    IcyEthics Member

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    A lot of rural areas, in Europe especially. My parents live in a town with 3 people of colour. I also don't think it's about uniformity, but about majority. I think in America 60% of people are white, while all other races make up 40%. Still, you're totally right in that it shouldn't be a surprise, though. But that 40% is very diverse, while the 60% is homogeneous.
     
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  5. izzybot
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    izzybot Human Disaster Contributor

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    IMO if you're going to describe some people's races you should describe them all. Partially just for consistency, but also I'm not into reinforcing white-as-default, so it's what I do, anyway.
     
  6. Scot
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    Scot Active Member

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    We've all come across pejorative examples of describing race, but to establish a character's race in the readers' mind without offending can be tricky.
    How about in dialogue? "No. Not him. The white dude." or "Suspect is a Caucasian male last seen ..."
    You could let drop other tell-tales, such as red hair, freckles, blue eyes, aquiline nose, tanned forearms or even sunburn.

    But do you need to mention your character's colour? Is your character so vague and nebulous the reader is in doubt? Does it even matter?
     
  7. Oscar Leigh
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    Oscar Leigh Contributing Member

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    I'm not worried about the offense being it described. For black people I just say "he had caramel skin" or something. I'm just worried about a double standard of white being the default race.
     
    Last edited: Aug 23, 2016
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  8. big soft moose
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    big soft moose Active Member

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    Some parts of Rural britain are pretty damn white away from the towns (and pretty damn racist in that 'oh know we arent racists way' ) in the village where i work theres one algerian couple and one black guy who's wifes white.

    The Algerian couple bought the village post office and we had a big hoofraw because they were baking bread and it ... shock horror... smelt funny (spiced spelt bread) ... some of the old ladies were suggesting in all seriousness that he was an al queada spy intent on poisioning the vilage (they are actually Algerian christians who left algeria because of peresecution by fundamentalists) - I digress

    One of the things i find odd about describing skin colour is that very few white people are actually white (leaving aside the ocasiional red head with very pale skin) mostly we are either pale pink or some shade of golden brown/orange from tan - very few "black" people are actually black mostly they are a sort of chocoalte brown, although i've got afro carabian freinds who arent much darker than me when i'm heavily tanned.

    Really unless its important to the story for some reason how much melatonin someone has in their skin pigment is the least important thing about them - so generally i don't make any comment (about my characters) about it unless it matters
     
  9. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm white as well, so I'm not speaking from experience on this, but based on reactions I've seen from readers of colour, it can mean a hell of a lot for them to read about a character who's from their ethnic group. I don't think it's the pigment in the skin that matters; it's the shared experiences, culture, etc.

    If you're writing in an alternate reality where racism doesn't exist, ethnic history is different, etc., I still think it's easier to accept that racial differences are just about melatonin, but in anything contemporary I think it's much more significant.

    (This shouldn't be seen as an argument for always including characters of colour in contemporary works, though! I generally shy away from writing them in contemporaries because I don't feel confident in my abilities to properly understand the differences they'll have experienced growing up/living as members of their group. It's much easier, at least for me, to pack characters of colour into my speculative fiction, because there it can just be about melatonin, or at least I can just make up whatever cultural implications may be.)
     
  10. big soft moose
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    big soft moose Active Member

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    But in that case describe the culture not the colour - there is after all a big difference between the culture of say an ethiopian and the culture of say barbados - in fact even in the islands the culture of martinque will be different to the culture of antigua (because the former was french and the latter british) - also some islands have a different negro culture where all the slaves that were settled there came from one tribe in africa.

    likewise with the countries and tribes in africa , theres a massive difference between say a member of the Ibo tribe in nigeria and say a zulu or matabele (in fact even in one country theres a significant difference between the matabele and the mashona ).

    I don't have a problem with describing and celbrating cultural difference, what worries me is when people (mainly white people) think theres a 'black culture' and have every character having come up from da streets where da niggahs had it tuff , and every character is either a drug dealer or a pimp, or if he's now a cop or a socialworker or whatever hes "overcome his background" where he used to run with da homies - even if you are writing about 'the streets' you can do it more authentically than that ( I am of course using the generic you, not implying that you personally would do anything so crass)

    The same is true if we are talking about 'arabs' - rather than classifying them all as towel headed camel jockeys likely to blow themselves up at the first opportunity , a discerning writer can look at the difference in culture between say Oman and Syria

    Same with asians , same with hispanics/latinos , same with every ethnic grouping - including in fact 'whites'
     
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  11. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    If your black character comes from Ethiopian, sure, say he's Ethiopian. But if he comes from Barbados--the only person I know from Barbados is white. If I hear of a character from Barbados, I may very well picture a white character unless I'm given more to go on.

    And if the character is from Canada, the US, the UK--I think it can be a little disingenuous to drop a bunch of hints about "the culture" when you could just say the character's black, or East Asian or whatever.

    But I agree that if we spend time clarifying the colour/culture of characters of colour, we should probably do the same for white characters, any time there's ambiguity.
     
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  12. big soft moose
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    big soft moose Active Member

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    It really depends on the culture hes from - if hes an integreated secular black dude from LA then fine say he's a black dude from LA (or just say hes a dude from LA if race isnt important), but if he's from say the somali community in london , describing him as a black dude from london doesnt really cover it

    The same goes for characters of any colour - its only worth mentioning the background/culture if its important ( Jack Reacher for example is from a place called "army" - its pretty important to his outlook on life)

    ETA - also I'm not saying drop a bunch of hints about the culture to avoid using the word black - i'm saying do your research and actually talk about the culture because the diverse cultures of the world are interesting and make for a more rounded character regardlss of his skin colour
     
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  13. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    So really the trick in my opinion is to describe nobody's race directly and just describe everyone visually.

    I've had the discussion about describing skin-tone with African-American authors and we both agreed that you kind of have to in that case because differentiation in skin tone at some level replaces the tricks white writers use to differentiate white characters from each other - namely hair color. But you can also describe white skin visually - there are lots of shades of 'white'. There are people who are very pale - almost milky. There are people wth tans, people with various shades of olive tint, people with prominent freckles, etc.

    Just describing someone as white doesn't tell me what they look like any more than just describing someone as black.

    Also keep in mind that there is a difference between race and culture. For all of my characters, and especially the supposedly-generic "white" ones, I make sure I know their ethnic background and history. For me it's important not just to have a mixed cast in terms of race, but also to have a mixed bag of American white people in terms of having characters who are Irish, Polish, Italian, etc.
     
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  14. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    If it's really important to you that your readers know the exact skin tone of your characters, then, yeah, I guess you have to describe it - without using food comparisons!

    But in most cases I don't think it's really that important that my readers have a crystal-clear visual image of my characters. A vague idea is fine, for my purposes.
     
  15. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    You know, the other day I was sorta' skimming my WIP's, pretending that I was writing, deleting a word here, adding a word there, you know.... the shit we do when we're kinda' stuck, and I realized that when it comes to describing my characters' phenotypes, though I tend to think I'm the kind of writer who doesn't fill this blank in, I'm wrong... I am that kind of writer. :bigconfused: My stories have a lot of sex in them, so there's a lot of description of hair and skin and eyes and lips in the context of someone appreciating the attributes of the person they're boning, mid-bone. I don't come out and flatly say someone is black or white or latino or [fill in the ethnicity], just what the one character sees and touches and kisses and [fill in the sexual action] of the other person.
     
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  16. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yeah on the food comparisons - learned that one the hard way.

    But right on the bigger point which is you need to identify the visuals that help each character rather than running down the laundry list. Sometimes skin tone helps - sometimes not. I think I've only ever gone for describing white skin if I want the reader to realize that someone is particularly pasty white. You can also cheat on pointing out whiteness by noting that someone is a blonde or a redhead (with a few important exceptions, the genetics for that go with the lack of pigment that causes white skin - although I do have a natural blonde non-white character.). I did a description of black skin one time because I really needed to communicate that an individual was much, much darker than the other black people around him - but I have several bigger African-American characters than that guy and I haven't done skin descriptions. I'm debating whether it's important for me to point out that one of them is relatively light skinned - because I know the CHARACTER thinks about that a lot, but part of me just wants to leave it. And I have one lingering food description still in my text because I can't find the right word and it eats at me (that character is Indian-American and it's important for me to point out that she can't white-pass).
     
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  17. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yeah, sex scenes call for a bit more description, for sure! If you're in your character's head and your character is totally focused on someone else's body, there's gonna be some details.
     
  18. Laurin Kelly
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    Laurin Kelly Active Member

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    My novel has a very diverse cast of characters because it takes place during a televised cooking competition (like Top Chef), and those types of shows are intentionally cast by the producers to include chefs from different ethnicities, backgrounds, sexual orientations, etc. Most of the POC characters are clearly identified as such, but now that I think of it, I have one character - an African American woman - and I don't think I specifically mention her ethnicity or skin color. Which makes me wonder if readers are picturing her as white.
     
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  19. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    When I wrote a short story where the narrator was black I didn't mention his blackness I implied it by mentioning a character's whiteness. I wanted to set up that according to him the set color was black and anyone who was different was white or whatever.
    If your mc is white they're not going to notice people's whiteness - unless they point out - JimBob was the only white dude in the Bapist church -- when it's something to remark upon. They're too busy noticing other differences like - religious differences, social status, education, interests etc. I think the lack of white descriptions is just that there is a lack of mc's who are of a different nationality or color.
     
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  20. halisme
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    halisme Contributing Member Contributor

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    I write fantasy, which as a genre tends to be whiter than Ed Sheeran in a snowstorm. Yet, I find myself adding more people that aren't Caucasian. When describing them I just mention that my characters thinks they're from a northern climate, or the nation he thinks they're from.
     
  21. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    I'll be saving this for future use. ;)
     
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  22. Seraph751
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    Seraph751 If I fell down the rabbit hole...

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    Well you have porcelain, peaches n' cream, tan, golden, sallow, pale, translucent.
     
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  23. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    Just don't compare people to food. We don't taste very good, why do you think we only resort to eating each other in a last, desperate pitch for survival? :p
     
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  24. Oscar Leigh
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    Oscar Leigh Contributing Member

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    Does "caramel skin" count as too food-y?
     
  25. IcyEthics
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    Can't say I use caramel for much else :p
     
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