A Sea of White

I can always do better.

We all can.

As a writer, I’ve come to see is the lie of “Colorblind” writing. The idea presented is that if writers don’t deliberately describe a character, the audience is free to imagine that character in whatever fashion they might want. It’s a great idea in theory. One of the things I love about writing is how much I can allow the audience to do the work. My own style is often mistaken for YA-influenced because I’m not a big fan of overlong descriptions. It’s not because I am trying to write simpler. It’s because I honestly don’t give much of a damn about stuff like that, often finding it uninteresting in stories I read. When I describe something, it should matter. And if it doesn’t matter, I don’t tend to describe it.

This applies to my characters as well. I often don’t describe my protagonists unless they have something noteworthy about their appearance. And if they’re human, which they sometimes are, I don’t usually give them much of a description beyond the most basic. What’s interesting here is that I’m not one of those writers who actively imagines his human characters. I tend to keep them vague even in my own mind, unless it’s necessary to know something about them. Earl the vampire is scrawny and balding. Duke the werewolf is fat and unshaven. Nessy the kobold is a little brown dog-like creature. The Nurgax is a purple people eater. Vom the Hungering is a fuzzy mouth on legs.

But a lot of the ordinary humans don’t get much of a description, and if I had my druthers I prefer it that way. Picture the character with brown hair or blond, short or tall, skinny or fat, whatever. It doesn’t usually matter to me. But there’s a catch.

If you don’t describe a character, they will usually be imagined as white. It’s not simply a matter of bigotry. It’s a function of our own cultural programming. White is default. It’s just the way it is. For a long time, I didn’t worry about that.

I worry about it now.

As I’ve mentioned before, Phil and Teri Robinson from Divine Misfortune are meant to be black. Both solidly middle-class from middle-class backgrounds. They don’t “sound” black, and they don’t “act” black, but in my mind that was a product of their environment and background. It’s not necessarily realistic, though this is also a novel about gods hanging out in the modern world so realism isn’t always a concern. Still, there’s absolutely no indication that Phil and Teri are black. No descriptions. No comments from other characters. No jokes or asides. They’re black in the way that Dumbledore is gay, which is to say completely without consequence on the story they’re in.

And that’s a cop out.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Phil and Teri, and I think they’re good characters. I’m not interested in going back and making them more “urban” or whatever you would want to call it. That wouldn’t fit with who they are, and the voice would probably be all wrong because I’m not the person to be writing that story with any authenticity. It’s my universe, my rules, and there is nothing in Phil and Teri’s behavior I feel is a disservice to them. I like them fine as characters, but the fact that they are coded white in so many ways and that the story doesn’t actually challenge that assumption means that Phil and Teri aren’t black. They’re white, and there’s nothing in the text to say otherwise.

Like deciding Dumbledore is gay, it’s meaningless portrayal. In many stories, a character’s sexuality, race, etc might not be important, but if you don’t describe these things in the story, the assumption will be that they’re “normal”, and that means . . . well, we know what that means. It’s an insidious little world, an insidious little assumption that enables us to continue to see so many aspects of humanity and human behavior as Outsiders.

And writers who avoid addressing the issue explicitly are part of the problem. Writers like me.

If I could change Divine Misfortune, I’d go back and add some indicators of the Robinson’s ethnic background. It wouldn’t be relevant to the story. In my worlds, prejudice and bigotry tend to not be important because they’re my worlds and I’m allowed to do that. But it wouldn’t be hard to mention that the Robinsons aren’t white. And I’d do that.

Misfortune came out seven years ago (jeez, where does the time go?), and I’ve published four other novels, and it’s been mostly a non-issue. The protagonist of Chasing the Moon is described as blond, I believe. It’s been while, and, as I’ve said, the appearance of most characters don’t matter much to me. Emperor Mollusk and Zala are a space squid and a lizard woman, respectively, so it’s not a big deal.

In Helen & Troy’s Epic Road Quest, Helen is both ethnically Greek and magically a minotaur, and Troy is clearly Japanese-America. Both were deliberate choices on my part. Helen Nicolaides is Greek because I thought it fit with her minotaurism, and Troy Kawakami is the All-American guy subversion of the white dude we so often see in the role. If I had it to do over again, I’d probably have given Helen a different ethnic background to shake things up. It’s my world, after all. There’s absolutely no reason why a Pakistani or French or Argentinian family couldn’t be afflicted with the minotaur curse.

(ASIDE: I deliberately avoided making Epic Road Quest a world of Greek mythology. There are references to many mythic traditions throughout the book, as well as the well-worn tropes of fantasy in general. But I think making Helen Greek and a minotaur puts many people in a very limited frame of reference, which is a shame. I don’t know if a shake up would avoid this, probably not, but it would be worth a shot.)

And now I’m working on the Constance Verity Trilogy. From the beginning, Connie is described as “ethnically indeterminate”, which I thought was a clever way of saying she wasn’t white but not saying what her ethnic background was. In the first book, her parents remain unnamed and there are almost no references to what Connie actually looks like.

Yeah, I’d do it differently now.

Worse though, there’s almost no reference to Tia, her best friend and sidekick, of being black. The only solid indication is that her last name is Durodoye, which is Nigerian in origin. At least Hiro, by virtue of his first name and his occupation (ninja), is easy enough to recognize as ethnically Japanese. And Bonita Alvarado (though not what she initially appears) can be seen as clearly non-white.

That’s a huge misstep, and one I’m tired of making.

The good news is that the terrific covers by John Picacio correct that problem for Connie, clearly marking her as a non-white person. And the second book does make it more explicit, with a reference or two, that Tia isn’t white. And the third book establishes that Connie’s parents are named Augusto and Jiya, fitting the covers’ portrayal of a person of mixed, non-white ethnicity. It’s something I’m happy to correct, and I will continue to think about in everything I write in the future.

The inevitable pushback when bringing up topics like this is that someone will ask, “Why does it matter?”

It’s not always a white person who asks.

But it usually is.

And I too love the idea that it shouldn’t have to matter. In my perfect world, it wouldn’t. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and ignoring the realities of that world in favor of some expectation of how the world “should” work is a great example of, well, privilege. It’s not that having privilege guarantees a great life, but it does allow many to ignore the cultural coding that surrounds them.

The very question: “Why does it have to be political?” is one of luxury. In a world where a female-led Ghostbusters is met with countless raging fanboys and where a superhero movie starring a diverse non-white cast is seen as threatening (even while surrounded by a whole universe of White-People-Save-The-World films set in the same shared setting), you can bet it matters.

We can always do better.

And I will.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write.




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  1. Matt. Harmon
    Posted March 6, 2018 at 9:10 pm | Permalink


    I’ve read Gil’s All Fright Diner and In the Company of Ogres. I did not give much thought to the main character’s demographics when I read those books. I am just starting on Divine Misfortune and knowing that you intended Teri and Phil to be black is interesting, made me check my ‘assumptions’ about the characters at the start. I don’t expect it to make much difference as I read through the story but its good to check your own assumptions about the world every now and then.

    Matt. Harmon

  2. Randy S.
    Posted March 12, 2018 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    Interesting. I’ve read each of your books (several twice) and the only characters I didn’t read as ethnically white were Troy and Hiro (and almost certainly only because they were explicitly described). I guess I didn’t read them as white so much as it never occurred to me that they might be anything BUT white.

    Naturally, normal is relative to your circumstances, but more to the point, I’m using myself as a standard for “normal” in these instances. I’ve never really thought about it before, but it will give me new some perspective.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted March 12, 2018 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

      It’s larger than identifying with characters that look like you though. It’s how society has trained us to view character defaults. The training is unavoidable, but we can always strive to question what we take for granted.

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