This month I want to talk about writing different races, ethnicities, and skin colors. Let’s start by defining these terms.

  • Race: Race is the classification of humans into groups based on physical traits. Racial categories have changed over time (especially what it means to be “white”), and modern research suggests that race is just an outmoded method for explaining observable differences between ourselves and others. In other words, race isn’t an essential category but rather a social construct.
  • Ethnicity: Ethnic groups are a way to categorize people who identify with each other based on common ancestry, language, or cultural experiences. Ethnicity has more to do with cultural identity, while race is assumed to be a biological category (even though, again, it’s really not).
  • Color: Human skin pigmentation is determined by genetics and is essentially a result of melanin count.

Even though race is not actually a scientific category (we’re all the same!), discrimination against people of color and different ethnicities has been and continues to be very real, with tragic consequences. This means that when white authors write characters of color, they have a responsibility to make sure their representations are both authentic and complex. This can be very difficult to do, because even though an author may not feel racist, the social system in which he or she operates is. White authors most likely have not experienced the oppression that people of color face on a daily basis. (See my post on white privilege.) For this reason, I feel that it would be inappropriate for me, for example, as someone who is not Black, to write a story that centers on the struggles faced by Black Americans. Instead, I can support diversity in literature by championing the incredible work done by Black authors.

This doesn’t mean I can’t write Black characters into my work. The world isn’t white, and I should include characters from all backgrounds, colors, and ethnicities. However, I need to be selective about the kinds of stories I’m telling, do my homework, and hire sensitivity readers to make sure my depictions are accurate and respectful.

In my next post, I’ll tackle the how of writing color. For now, I’ll leave you with some reading.

Sensitivity Readers and Why I Pulled A Project  by Mary Robinette Kowal

Colorblind Ideology is a Form of Racism by Monnica T. Williams

The E-Racing of the Hunger Games: Race and Cultures in Fiction by Hiromi Goto

Writing the Margins from the Center and Other Moral Geometries by Amal El-Mohtar

Call to Action

Read and help promote a book published by an author of color.  The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas was just published a couple of weeks ago and is already a #1 NYT bestseller. Let’s keep it there!

Previous Posts

Intro: Improving Representation in Literature

January: Understanding Identity and Representation

February: Acknowledging (and Battling) Colonialism, Marginalization, and Erasure

March: Writing Race and Ethnicity

  • Writing (and Not Writing) Race and Ethnicity