So You Say You Don’t See Color

At first, the question the novice writer asked seemed simple.

A member of one of my writing groups asked whether describing one of her characters as “a black man” was racist.  That one word (racist, not black) often seems utterly terrifying for many white people – especially white authors. I started simply, by asking if she was describing other people in her story as white men or women. Or was she doing what so many authors, and readers, do: assuming that white was the default, and calling out anything other than the default as wrong or abnormal.

Her answer was a little ambiguous. First she said yes, of course she did. Then she added that there were only two other characters, a white man and woman. The woman in the story was lodging a complaint of sexual harassment against…guess who.

The author was adamant that, in spite of the potential for cliché or stereotype, the woman had to be white, the man dealing with her complaint had to be white, and the perpetrator had to be black. It could not possibly be racist because she an incident like that had happened to her, she was simply using that for her story. Since it really happened, she was certain the information had to be okay. Since she became so certain about that, I was left to wonder why she had even bothered to ask the question in the first place, because no matter what anyone said, she already knew what she intended to do, so no one could change her mind in any way.

The complication is, this is essentially a memoir, and I’ve noticed how people seem to always want to be 100% exact in a memoir. But at the same time, she finally admitted she had felt no reason to mention the race of the [white] man doing the investigation. That detail somehow did not matter. Nor had she done any more physical description about the black man except to give his race. Height, weight, demeanor, facial expression etc., the only thing that mattered enough to go in to her story was that he was black. My final question to her was, why was it necessary to mention race at all?

Is it because you know the default character is white, so unless you tell the reader otherwise, they would see all three characters in your tale as white, and that was something you could not have? Did his being black alter some crucial factors in the story so it was unthinkable to keep that knowledge from readers?

Sometimes racism is that simple, that it is absolutely imperative that people know the bad guy was black.

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