We don't live in a white world. We live in a world full of color, and that goes for people as well as things. So, why do so many books end up mono-ethnic? Truth is there's all sorts of reasons. In a lot of ways, people naturally segregate. It sucks, but it's true. Books about family don't get a lot of options unless it's about a person of another race coming into the family. Sometimes, because of the story the author is telling, it just "doesn't work" to be multi-cultural. And that's fair.
But what of those books where there's room for everyone? Why don't more writers put in people of color? Because it's hard in ways it shouldn't be.
Statistically, most writers in the US are caucasian. (I did a very quick and dirty google for some stats and the best I came up with was this article on TV writers. 12% are minorities. That's it, and if that's representative, it's kind of sad. But, onward...) The old adage "write what you know" shouldn't apply here, but it does. Sometimes it applies because authors are racist (sad but true). Sometimes it applies because it's just easier not to do the research on other cultures. And sometimes it applies because we aren't racist and we are afraid no matter how hard we try, we might come across that way.
I want diverse casts in my work. My world is multicultural and richer for it. The same can only be true of stories where that is the case as well. But often, when faced with those characters, I freeze up. Let's examine this for a minute...
In my YA series, Trey Harper is Cass's boyfriend. He's African-American and a basketball star. <---- I know this is a stereotype and I made a conscious choice to use it anyway. He also likes to talk like he's a street kid even though he's not. And Cass calls him on it every time because she knows that's not the real him. Trey is smart, funny, and pretty much not afraid of anything. I love the guy. But he started as a stereotype--and that's how Cass originally saw him too. (Then again, Cass starts out with everyone as a stereotype :P) My biggest issue when dealing with Trey? Describing his hair. He has awesome High School Musical era Corbin-Bleu-hair. I had no clue how to describe it. Stupid as it sounds, that was the moment I almost made him white. But that tiny bit of description stalled my writing for a long time.
In the Badlands world, Mahala is an escaped slave. Again, I love her. She's a fantastic character--the one who doesn't take shit from anyone (including Ever). And her history is traumatic and... let's just say I'm really geeked to write her story (hopefully soon). But there are difficulties with writing her. For starters, the language used in the time period would be unacceptable today. No one would say "people of color" or "African-American." At one point, she refers to herself as a "nigger." I didn't do it for shock value. I did it to be true to the time period and the character. And I agonized over it for days. I don't like that word. It's too charged with hate and negativity. But then it wasn't. The history of the word is beyond crazy. I don't know if it will be in the text whenever that manuscript gets published, but I left it there for now because it's what she would have said.
But soon, I'll be on her story, and that presents a whole new set of problems. For starters, much of it will take place in the Confederacy. By definition, it will be racially charged. It can't not be. But more than that, it's a romance, and that creates a whole new set of problems for me. In the first two installments, she was a minor character, and one most of the main characters were used to being around. Her skin color might be something they "noticed" but it wasn't a big deal to them--she's just Mahala. And that's how it should be, except in a romance, the love interest will notice everything about her. He will love her hair, her eyes, her skin... all of it. In his passages, he should see her in somewhat poetic terms. And like it or not, "dark" and "brown" and "black" in themselves are not poetic. The problem is, most of the more poetic phrases to describe skin color are food based: chocolate, coffee, caramel, peaches-and-creamy, milky. That tendency isn't just a PoC issue--it crosses racial lines, but it's been brought up time and again that people of color don't like it and find it offensive. That means in order to write Mahala's love story, I'm going to stall over and over again searching for ways that the hero can describe her--because he is the poetic type.
And right now, I'm faced with an antagonist who happens to be a PoC. First, I have to describe her from another character's point-of-view who knows nothing about her other than she's fawning over the hero. At this point, she's not hated, she's just unknown, and there's a layer of jealousy involved. The point-of-view character, again, is going to notice every amazing thing about this gorgeous woman. So... wording problem is rearing its head again. Plus, I'm beating myself up with the knowledge that I made the "bad guy" a PoC. Every time I think about it I get twitchy, because I'm anticipating backlash over this of the "Why couldn't she be white" variety. She's not white because when I closed my eyes, and thought of her, she wasn't. At the time, she was just a extra. It wasn't until I started writing her that I realized she had a slightly bigger role to play, and by that point, I already had her in my head. Is she world-ending evil? No. It's not that kind of story. Quite frankly, she's just a college girl who thinks really highly of herself and is convinced everyone else should too. But... she's the antagonist. And if I let myself think about that fact too much, it stalls me.
The thing is the world isn't just white. But just like there are good white people and bad white people, there are good and bad people of color too. If I made every bad guy African-American, I'd say it was a good sign I was racist. But, quite frankly, if I never make a bad guy a person of color, I'd say it's a pretty good sign I'm a coward who's too afraid of offending people to write real characters. I don't want to be a coward. But I really really wish making my cast multicultural wasn't so damn hard.
***With Larry's permission, I'm attaching a link to a blog post he did on this topic recently. It's the first one that ever made me feel like I could breathe and just let the characters tell their stories. So, thank you for that, Larry Benjamin :) ***