Tuesday, October 31, 2006

BAD Writer! Using Race as Description.

Kimber had a great post on her blog a while back about use of brand names and well-known products in novels. I kind of went on a tear in the comments because I think using brand names instead of descriptions is a sign of Lazy Writing. Makes me mad every time.

Yesterday, I encountered another sign of Lazy Writing makes me even angrier: Race as Description. The book, which shall remain nameless*, featured the following gems:

1) "A few seconds later, the door opened to show him a tall Hispanic male." (p. 59)
2) "At six feet even in height, Andre was a handsome African-American man who..." (p. 68)
3) "'It's our differences that make up our strength.'...To emphasize his words, he pointed the top of his beer to indicate an African-American couple on their right. Three seats over from them was an Asian family." (p. 86)

Maybe you're wondering why I am so pissed off. After all, it looks like the author went out of her way to highlight the diversity of her characters. But, listen, race is not a visual description. "African-American" describes a rainbow of skin-tones, hair colors, body-types and features. My dad has a dark-chocolate complexion, my aunt (his sister) has red hair, honey-colored skin and freckles - both are "African-American".

Likewise, "Hispanic" doesn't say squat, except that the person in question speaks Spanish. Are they Americans of Spanish origin? Maybe Mexican? Peruvian? Cuban? Ecuadorian? Argentinian? Dominican? NewYorican? "Hispanics" can be anything from blond-haired, pale-skinned, blue-eyed European types, to dark-haired, brown-skinned people of Native American origin, to dark-complected people who routinely get mistaken for "African-American" here in the States. And don't even get me started on the Asian-Argentineans & Asian-Peruvians I've met - "Hispanic" encompasses all Spanish-speaking people, so they count, too.

And while we're on the subject of the word "Hispanic" - why would a writer use the same careless, a-cultural catch-all that Richard Fucking Nixon used to lump all Spanish-speaking peoples as a visual description? The only reason I can think of is that the author thinks that Hispanic is a race, and that race is a description. (That description of Carlos occurred before the character uttered a single line.)

Except, she never describes the white people as European-American or white. Here's a description of a person whom I will assume is white (despite, or rather, because of, the lack of any racial signifier): "A petite receptionist was dwarfed by a large brown workstation...She had her blond hair pulled up into a tight bun and was dressed in a thin light blue sweater set and a pair of khaki pants." (p. 46)

I don't get it. There's an African-American character, a "Hispanic", even a Vietnamese-American character, and yet this blond chickie doesn't at least get a shout-out to her "Polish-American" features or "Nordic-American" ancestry. Instead, the author lets the character's name, "Kristin Delinsky," say "Nordic-Polish" for her. So why the hell do we need to be told that some guy named "Carlos" who sprinkles his dialog with Spanish words is Hispanic? Or that "Andre Moore", who makes Gone with the Wind slave jokes (slave jokes! p. 123) when the heroine tells him to do something is black?

Perhaps the author is one of those people who thinks that only non-white people have a race? When she writes "man" or "woman" she means "white man" or "white woman" - everyone else gets a racial modifier. Quote #3, above, describes a crowded theater. Only the nonwhite members of the crowd get listed by race. There is no mention of a "European-American" family enjoying themselves.

I hate that shit, mainly because it paints the author as the sort of person whose default image of a person is a white person. I'm not calling the author a racist or implying that all her linens have eye-holes cut in them. I'm sure she means well - it's pretty obvious she's trying to be all diverse and multicultural and shit. The thing that makes me angry is that instead of looking around her to see that people of other races come in all shapes, sizes and shades, and that the standard Census categories for race are woefully inadequate as description of that spectrum, she took a lazy shortcut that ended up insulting at least one of her readers.

Writers ought to be able to observe or fabricate individuating details and convey those details in their descriptions. But if all this author sees is race when she looks at or imagines a person, I'd rather she didn't do us multicultural types any favors.

I once dropped an acquaintance for referring to me as her "biracial friend" in a conversation that had nothing to do with race. If that's all I was to her, if that was all she saw, I'd just as soon not be a part of her world. Race is no substitute for visual description. Name-checking the races of friends or characters does not make a person - or an author - appear multicultural or color blind. Instead, it does just the opposite.

* for copyright's sake, the book was "BAD Attitude" by Sherrilyn Kenyon