Race, Color and Intent

I am white. I’ve been told people know that just by how I write. Perhaps. But when I say I am white, what does that really mean? I have less pigmentation in my skin than Will Smith. I have less than Jennifer Lopez as well. I’m pretty sure I have more pigment than Christina Hendricks. So, based on that description, and how culture currently refers to quantity of pigment, I am white.

I was raised in a small rural Pennsylvania town, side by side with country hicks and Mennonites both. I’ve read comic books and science fiction and fantasy novels most of my life. I am a Trekker and a Whovian. I also have this annoying – and some would say naive or even delusional – belief that everybody is equal and society (meaning you and me and every individual person) should act that way. I hold doors for people – not just women – because I like to be nice and I think it shows respect. So I’m pretty sure all of that makes me white as well. At least, what the greater American culture says is white. Perhaps nerdy as well.

Yes, I like Weird Al Yankovic.

You, too may be white. You may be African American/Hispanic/black/ Asian/Latino/Inuit or something else entirely. Based on what I said above, I don’t care. Welcome and thank you for being here. I really, truly hope to get to know you better, whoever you may be.

But I have done something that some of you might be upset about. I wrote a novel, and all the heroes are, at least by skin pigment parameters, black. To make matters more muddled, one of the villains is black, one is (again by appearance only) Hispanic, and one is pasty white with red hair and freckles.

This novel is a fantasy novel and I won’t bore you with unnecessary details. But I will tell you this; I’ve tried to include elements of real-world African culture into this novel. I know a little about this because my lovely wife lived in Africa for a time, and is in love with the place. And I did some research. But I’ve never been to Africa myself, and I have no friends who are black, or Hispanic for that matter. I have no reason not to except that none have crossed my path in that way. I would love to have some close friends of color, but I don’t. It doesn’t bother me because people are people. I have friends. They all happen to have low amounts of skin pigmentation.

Some people will read my novel and will take it for what it is. They’ll enjoy it for what it is or what it isn’t, and perhaps dislike it for the same reasons. I say people are people. Novels are novels. But there will be some who won’t even read this book and will judge it. They will say a white Pennsylvania boy can’t write about black and Hispanic people because he doesn’t know about them. He isn’t one of them, so he can’t properly write them. I don’t think they’re correct, but perhaps they are.

It’s my intent, however, that I believe matters. I intend to write stories that grip people, that bring some joy into their lives. I intend to portray my characters as true to who they are. I am not going to let some protean, transient definition of how a person of a certain level of skin pigmentation should act. I won’t and you can’t make me. But some people might try.

There are people, I’ve no idea how many, who feel uneasy with President Obama because he’s black. There are others who are upset with him because he’s too white. I say he’s the president, and I don’t care what his skin color is. I think that’s the majority view. So how does that effect my choice to make all my main characters dark skinned? How does it effect how I wrote them? I really don’t know. But I know they’re written the way they presented themselves to me, and as a writer, that’s what I have to be true to.

I have no way of knowing the real reaction my book might provoke, positive or negative, because it’s still a manuscript. But if I get it published, I’m sure there will be some reaction in the negative. I’m just fine with that. It’s a fantasy novel, and that’s how I dreamed it up.

Perhaps it’s a fantasy that I wish for a day where terms such as “racism” and “inequality” are only found in dictionaries and history books. It may be a fantasy, but I prefer to call it a dream. And in this dream of mine, I’d like to believe my two very white children will be evaluated for who they are as people, and not which pigment-coding genes they have. Wait, I think someone else said it a bit better than me, right?

Martin Luther King Jr.


7 thoughts on “Race, Color and Intent

  1. oliviaacole says:

    The title of this blog includes “intent” but I see very little mention of intent here other than “intending” to write a story that people like. There are many (myself) included who would tell you that intent (when it comes to racism) does not matter at all.
    But my question is this: why did you choose to write about black characters? Your wife lived in Africa, you say, but I gather from your white children that your wife is also white, meaning her experience of Africa is vastly different than the majority of those who populate it. Living in Africa is not being Africa. So I’m curious: why black characters? It’s more than just “that’s how they presented themselves to me.” You didn’t tell us what this story is about, but I think it matters. If you have so little experience with black people–which I must admit is troubling–why feel the need to write from their perspectives?

  2. First of all, thank you so much for your comments.
    I didn’t go into the details of the novel because they don’t directly matter, but I’ll give you a touch more. Two of the characters are twins, girl and boy, about 15, who grew up sheltered. The other main character is a professional soldier. The story itself is fairly consistent with fantasy literature (the characters find themselves hunted by an evil overlord-like villain and they must escape and survive long enough to stop her.) The feel is much like a Napoleonic/tribal Africa fusion.
    Also, the story isn’t an African story per-se. It doesn’t take place on earth.
    There are several reasons why I used an African source for much of the material. The biggest is, honestly, that’s just how it felt. I can’t dissect my muse more than that. But I also think tribal Africa has so much beauty to it, so I guess the aesthetic of Africa appealed to me.
    A few lesser reasons are that I hadn’t seen anyone else write a story quite like mine (although there are many stories coming out these days doing equivalent fusions) and that I wanted to push myself – to write out of my comfort zone. Tackling a vastly different culture seemed a good way to do that.
    As a related point, most of the characters are female as well. I often write females as the characters in my stories, even though I’m male.
    And one final point. I have no friends of color now. That doesn’t mean I haven’t in the past. One of the things I’m most excited about as I work to become a Real Writer is getting to know many new people of differing backgrounds and points of view. People are a great joy to me, but rural Pennsylvania isn’t very diverse, I’m afraid.
    I hope this helps you understand what I’m doing. This blog was prompted by a conversation I failed to have with someone on Twitter who rejected me out of hand simply because I was not black, like I had done something wrong. I believe in unity, all of us marching into the future with arms linked. Thanks again!

  3. IGnatius T Foobar says:

    Sorry dude, you’re a Straight White Christian Male and therefore responsible for all of the racism, sexism, and all other xenohatred thoughtcrimes in the world.

    • oliviaacole says:

      Being white, straight, Christian and male doesn’t mean one is responsible for what you deem “thoughtcrimes.” But it does mean you should acknowledge your privilege, which I think technospiritualist does, for the most part.

      • I’m learning as I go! We all should try to do the best we can, and that’s my aim. My father was racist, and my mother might have been as well, not sure. I try hard to be better than they were.

  4. MaryBeth Richmond says:

    I came from a very racist family, although my mother tried to fight her initial instincts and often bit her tongue. I never met a non-Christian person or anyone from any other race or ethnicity until I entered college. I believe that, despite my upbringing, I try to not be a bigot. We taught our boys that labels about color really boiled down to what shade of brown you were. We told them if they EVER treated anyone with disrespect because they were different than them,they would be in “deep serious”. I think this had impact. Their friends are very diverse. I think it is possible to “walk in another’s shoes”, by observation, investigation, immersion and asking lots of questions. You cannot “have” the experiences of others, but you can be aware and changed by them. Can a “white” person write about other cultures effectively? I believe so. This, I believe, apply to anyone regardless of their diversity.

  5. mysweettot says:

    There is nothing wrong with wanting your children to live in a more peaceful society. Don’t get discouraged by all the crap…I am sure that my second book will get some neg reactions to some. It doesn’t bother me what they think…if they really don’t like my literature then they weren’t meant to read it, that’s how I see it and turn the neg into a positive. My books aren’t going to appeal to all readers so I have to accept that. Keep at it! 🙂

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