I've avoided writing about this subject in all possible ways, and believe me I could have kept my head buried in sand much longer. But the question cropped up recently during a standard interview, and I've been thinking about it ever since. So today we writers have to ask ourselves a question: where does race belong in books?
This Land is Your Land
Some literary characters are very clearly defined when it comes to race. James Patterson has never made it a secret that Alex Cross, his main protagonist, is a black man. Tony Hillerman writes about Native American heroes. But did any of the Harry Potter books implicitly state that he's a white boy?
Race is often implied in books, more than stated, and that's my personal approach. Through descriptions, it's possible to convey race without stating it outright. A pasty or pale-skinned character can be a presumed Caucasian. The phrase "coffee-colored" appears a lot with African-American characters. Someone whose ethnicity is stated, a Peruvian for example, clearly has a skin tone to match their origins.
But usually, race goes unstated. This allows the reader to envision whatever they want, to think about the characters in a way that's comfortable for them. But it also doesn't do anything to bridge cross-racial relations, or show people of different races that they aren't so dissimilar from each other. By the same token, a book featuring a character whose race is clearly stated may alienate some readers. Unfortunately, we still live in a world where some readers may avoid a book written about an African-American hero.
When it comes to race, there's always a very fine line between acceptance and prejudice -- and that's what makes it so difficult to write. Every author has to find their own way to address race, but remember this: if you can't do it without stereotyping, discriminating or judging, don't address it at all. If you think you can't write objectively about the topic, don't.
Race is a dicey subject, but it's the writer's job to figure out a way through all those difficult situations. Sometimes, complete avoidance may be the most successful writing technique. But if you feel you're ready to address race in a non-offensive and potentially eye-opening way, go for it. Making people think is part of a writer's job, too.