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Writing 101: Writing About Race

The issue of race, or more specifically racism, is everywhere right now. Well, actually, it's always been here -- but there are times when it gets talked about and it's felt more keenly than other times. And in this particular moment in history, racism and race are being talked about everywhere. For writers, this begs the question do you talk about race in your books? And when you do bring up race, are you doing it the right way?

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Race and Writing

Have you ever read a book where all the main characters are described with specific features -- brown hair, blonde hair, green eyes -- but only one, or maybe two, characters are ever described with a specific skin tone color? This actually happens all the time in books...though you may not have really noticed it before. 

When one character is singled out for being Black, or Hispanic, or by any color at all, it suddenly becomes glaring if none of the other characters are described by their skin tone. It suddenly makes every other character presumably white, and it suddenly means your book is operating under the presumption that white is such a dominant race, it's only worth pointing out if someone is non-white. Which may not even be true -- perhaps all the characters in your book are Black. 

So, how should writers be handling race?  It's up to every writer to decide how to mention the issue, or whether or not to mention it at all. But for the sake of sensitivity and equality, there are probably two options that stand out as the best. One option is to mention every character's skin tone and include this when their physical appearance is described in the book. Another is to describe skin tone for none of the characters. Hemingway did not describe the appearance of his characters or even mention what they looked like, which certainly didn't harm his stories at all. So don't think your books will somehow be lacking if you fail to include this information about appearance.

Ultimately, of course, every word on the page should be of the author's own choosing. Don't write it if you don't feel good about it. Include it if you think it's important. And if your book is about race or if race is an issue in your book, then you'll want to note this detail about your characters because it's a central theme of the story. But if the goal is to move toward a place where race isn't an issue, maybe the right move is to leave this detail ambiguous. 

Race is a tough subject to tackle. It's tough to talk about and it's tough to write about. But that's okay. Authors will help set the tone for the discussion and help the world move forward so that maybe, race won't be such a polarizing issue in the future.