Writing Ethnic Characters

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unity-in-diversity
Okay, right off the bat, we have a problem.  Actually, I suppose it’s a problem with how we’re approaching the problem.  Read the title of this entry again: “Writing Ethnic Characters.”  It’s making the assumption that most readers (or listeners) for this entry will be white writers trying to figure out how to create and describe characters who are not white without relying on stereotypes, over-used cliches, or offensive terms.  It also could be said that it makes the implicit assumption that white is the “default” while everything else is “other” or “ethnic.”

Unfortunately, I’m not sure how else to segue into a discussion of this challenge that white writers face. While writing All’s Fair, I found that I had to research how to describe certain characteristics of people who are not white since I have had very little contact with people of color in real life.  (A slightly embarrassing example is my search to find out what black people look like when they blush.  They might feel their cheeks heat or burn, but what does that look like to someone who is watching them?)

This is something I’ve started to struggle with now that I’m aware of how lacking in diversity many of my stories have been.  I don’t want to have token non-white characters, but I also want to take advantage of how many variations there are in the colors, sizes, shapes, and looks of humans.  It’s easy to describe non-human characters; usually your protagonist will be a human and if they are encountering elves, orcs, or dragons for the first time, they are going to notice how they look.  But how do you work in descriptions for characters without waving your arms and shouting, “Hey!  Look!  Here’s a black person, and Asian person, and a Hispanic person!  Hooray for diversity!”
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Inspiration vs. Appropriation: Where is the Line?

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There’s a term that’s been popping up a lot lately in regards to story-telling which has caused a great deal of friction online: “cultural appropriation.”  The strict dictionary definition states that: “cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements from one culture by members of another culture.”  When you put it like that, it doesn’t sound so bad.  I mean, cultures all over the world have adopted from one another via trade or conquest since the dawn of human history.

But now this term is being seen and used in a completely negative fashion.  Worse, it seems to have no limits or boundaries.  It seems that one can come under fire for celebrating Cinco de Mayo if you’re not Hispanic, wearing Native American costumes (especially the admittedly tasteless and stereotypical Halloween versions) if you are not a Native American, or for wearing cornrows if you are not of African descent.

Those are fairly benign modern examples, although there are more disturbing ones.  Like the wearing of blackface, which was used to reinforce negative stereotypes about blacks to maintain segregation in post-Emancipation America, or Hollywood continuing to cast Caucasians into roles that really should be given to someone else.  (See the controversies over having Matt Damon save the Great Wall of China or casting Scarlett Johansson as the Japanese cyborg Motoko Kusanagi in the upcoming live-action version of Ghost in the Shell.)  So, obviously there is negative cultural appropriation that has happened in the past and continues to happen now.  But where do you draw the line between legitimate concerns and people making a mountain out of a mole hill?
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Does Diversity Hold Back Space Exploration?

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DISCLAIMER:  This entry is only a thought exercise!  I am not proposing that one stance is better than the other, nor do I condone extreme positions either for or against the diversification or homogenization of any culture(s). 

Project Orion: one of the coolest ships that was never built. (Artwork by Adrian Mann)

Project Orion: one of the coolest ships that was never built. (Artwork by Adrian Mann)

I recently read an article about NASA testing equipment and programs that will theoretically carry humans to Mars.  Part of me was really happy about it, but at the same time, I was also disappointed because the federal space program is pretty much dead due to lack of funds.  NASA is getting just enough to play around with ideas and reinvent the wheel, but not enough to actually do anything substantial.  The private sector may yet succeed with companies like SpaceX, but the lack of interest in space exploration is so discouraging that I sometimes fear we’ll never reach beyond our planet before the next great extinction.

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