I stumbled on a post by Michelle (a.k.a. The Surly Writer) about her experiences with race growing up. This led to reading through her friend Jim's (a.k.a. Suldog) post along the same topic. They both got me to thinking about race in writing. Let me put forth a disclaimer first however. If you have strong feelings about race, racial tension, etc, you may want to stop here. I will be using the blanket terms like white, black, hispanic, etc. Its less typing for one thing, and I don't want to get into worrying about who will be offended if I choose caucasian instead of white or african-american instead of black (or visa versa). This will not be a soapbox discussion. No, this will be something slightly different than their particular posts, though I do advise you to read through Michelle and Jim's blogs anyway - it's good stuff.
What I thought about after reading their stories is how race affects my writing, how my perceptions of race (or maybe my experiences) affect what goes into my writing. For example, although I don't purposely write about just white people, I am man enough to admit that most of my characters end up being white. Is this because its easier for me? Or am I being close-minded in my process? My WiP ironically has a MC that is hispanic, so I guess that's a step in the right direction. But what I'm trying to get at is that my writing is definitely affected by my own experience and background, regardless of how much I appreciate the diverse cultures in humanity. Should I be doing more to involve a multitude of races? That's a soapbox question better left unanswered.
A mantra that has been stated over and over again in this industry is "write what you know". If that's true, how can I possibly be successful writing a book about a homeless hispanic woman? This mantra has good and bad implications, and sometimes I think it limits us as much as it benefits us. In the context of race, writing what I know means describing a middle-class white man who rarely had to deal with racism. I can't possibly comprehend what its like to be a poor black male living in the southern US amongst white neighbors. Or can I? As if writing well weren't difficult enough, putting myself in the shoes of someone whose experience is completely foreign is really a challenge. I don't think it's an impossibility however, and this is where the mantra should be tossed to the curb. I might not know what a particular person of a certain race might do in a given situation, but walking through his footsteps could be a really interesting and rewarding experience. And if I work at it, the writing can be something to admire.
So what tools can we use when we're outside of our comfort zone, outside of our "known area"? Language is the first obvious answer. Dialog speaks volumes about the person and they're background. While it may not necessarily dictate their race, there are sometimes indicators or language that can be used to help fill in the details. We can also provide our character with clothes, an accent, a certain type of car, etc. Of course we want to avoid stereotypes, but whether we like it or not, there are certain perceptions that everyone has about a given culture. We should use the ones that advance the story, not an agenda - unless the agenda is the story, of course.
At some point in our writing, there will be racial tension. Even if we're writing a sci-fi epic about the Borlians and the Pugnats, somewhere along the line race should enter into the equation. There hasn't been a society yet that is free from racial tension (not even Star Trek's utopia), so we need to include it in our writing as well. Despite the negativity of racism, including it's facets in our writing makes things more believable. Perhaps someday we'll be able to look back on our history and laugh about how ignorant we were, being worried about everyone's race, but for now it's an integral part of humanity - whether we like it or not.
How do you deal with race in your writing? Do you even think about it? And how often do you push yourself out of your "coccoon of personal experience" to describe a different perspective?