About That White as Default Thing

WARNING: Extremely contentious topic ahead.

A while back, author Malinda Lo tweeted a story where she came across a woman who told her that she deliberately left her character’s race ambiguous so the reader could decide. Malinda’s response was that the woman should define her character’s race clearly.

Bear with me here. I’ll explain my comment to Malinda in a bit.

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. I’ve actually broached this topic a few times, particularly when it comes to describing a character physically. I’ve been fairly adamant about wanting to know straight away if a character isn’t white, although some people take umbrage with that.

Needing to know a character’s race or ethnicity “right up-front” with “irrefutable textual evidence of a character’s not-whiteness” smacks of prejudice. Why would anyone assume that every character is white unless she is told otherwise?

Look. Being identified as non-white is not prejudicial…unless you have a problem with non-whiteness. There is theoretically is no value judgment on being black, Korean, biracial, or gay. Theoretically. Being ethnically non-white is a fact; facts don’t have value judgment. We, as humans, assign value judgments to neutral facts.

Author Linda Sue Park wrote in a comment in a discussion with the Cooperative Children’s Book Center about the concept of a race neutral character.

I am not black, but as a nonwhite I can attest that my race is an everyday issue. For Asians such as myself, it has negative ramifications far less often than for blacks in daily U.S. life, but not a day passes that I do not confront the question in some form. This is perhaps the single most difficult aspect for those of the majority complexion to understand: There may be moments or even hours when my Asianness is not at the surface of my thoughts, but NEVER a whole day, much less weeks or months.

She also very succinctly why people—even and especially non-white readers—read “white as default” in her blog post here.

I want to deconstruct the idea of whiteness a bit.1 “White” isn’t a race; it’s a cultural construct. Caucasian is given as the racial designation, but not all Caucasians are “white”. For example, the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa are Caucasian…but they are not considered “white”. Neither, for that matter, were the Irish or the Italians at the turn of the early 20th century. Slowly, as these cultures became more assimilated to the “mainstream”, they became white.

This is what I meant when I said to Malinda that “white” is the absence of race. “White” erases all traces of Other. When people talk to me about living in a “post-racial” society, I have to focus all my efforts into not rolling my eyes so hard they fall out of my head. White people might live in a post-racial society; the rest of us do not. We cannot.

My dad is white. My mother is not. Because she is not, I am not. Because my features are more hers than my father’s, the world sees me as Asian. This is not something I ever “forget” or don’t think about.

My partner is also multiracial. His father is Goan-Indian, his mother is white. He is white-passing. Because his features are more his mother’s than his father’s, the world sees him as white. He has to constantly “prove” he is not.2

I describe myself as Asian. But white people don’t generally describe themselves as white; they have the privilege of not having to think about it. That’s why I will always, always read a character as white until told explicitly otherwise, and why I will never be able to see me in a racially “neutral” character.

Because white is the absence of color.

  1. Note: I’m being US-centric because that is the culture in which I was raised.
  2. He gets hideous questions like, “What kind of Indian are you? Dot or feather?”

81 Responses to About That White as Default Thing

  1. Nancy Tandon Oct 21 2015 at 8:16 am #

    Very interesting perspective, JJ. Thanks for the food for thought. My family is all kinds of blended and I can’t imagine life without the colors the different cultures bring to my world, (and I’m not talking about skin).

  2. Marc Vun Kannon Oct 21 2015 at 8:51 am #

    They always tell us to show not tell, and only to write what is important to the story. The color of a character’s skin is not something that is usually important to my story, so I don’t explicitly mention it. I have trouble imagining a scenario where it might.
    On the other hand, they will act and speak in certain ways that could be taken as indicative of a certain background if the reader was so minded to take it that way, which is fine.
    For me the color of a character’s skin would be an “Oh, by the way…” sort of thing, and I leave that stuff out. When I see it in someone else’s work it always sticks out at me, like they were trying to make some explicit point that had nothing to do with the story. I hate that stuff.

    • JJ Oct 21 2015 at 9:30 am #

      For me the color of a character’s skin would be an “Oh, by the way…” sort of thing, and I leave that stuff out.

      Then all of your characters are white. For the rest of us, there is never an “oh by the way”. We live with the reality of our non-whiteness everyday, all the time. No one is ever going to look at someone like me and not think “Asian”. I am never going to think of myself as not Asian. It is the reality in which I live and breathe.

      If race is not important to your story, that’s fine. All your characters will be white, because they will have the privilege of not having race be important to their entire lives.

      • Nancy Tandon Oct 21 2015 at 9:45 am #

        But as a writer I still cringe and worry that by ‘making a point’ of it, I’m offending the person who says:”Needing to know a character’s race or ethnicity “right up-front” with “irrefutable textual evidence of a character’s not-whiteness” smacks of prejudice.”

        However, I guess I need to chew on your response: “Being identified as non-white is not prejudicial.”

        Again, your insights are appreciated.

        • JJ Oct 21 2015 at 9:54 am #

          Usually the only people who are offended by needing to know a character’s race or ethnicity up front are white. Or racists. And if hurting white people’s feelings are what you’re worried about, instead of the harm you might do by writing a character of color incorrectly or erasing them, then perhaps your priorities need to be re-examined.

          • Nancy Tandon Oct 21 2015 at 10:01 am #

            No – I’m worried about writing it incorrectly, or leaving out important elements…and offending the people I’m trying to include.
            Also, ouch! I’m trying to be part of the dialog that works towards improving the overall diversity in today’s publishing, not make it worse!

          • Tinthia Oct 22 2015 at 10:01 am #

            Extremely racist comment JJ.

              • Marc Vun Kannon Oct 22 2015 at 10:30 am #

                Well, there goes any validity this thread might have had.

                • The PubCrawl Crew Oct 22 2015 at 10:36 am #

                  Marc, we are going to issue you a warning. This comment is neither critical nor useful in this discussion and contributes to a chilling effect on the conversation. Any further comments in this vein will be deleted.

                  The PubCrawl Gang

                  • Michelle Oct 22 2015 at 2:47 pm #

                    Racism is not monochromatic. I’ve met whites racist against Asians but not blacks, or blacks but not Mexican, or Mexicans but not South Americans. I’ve met blacks racist against whites and Asians but like Mexicans, or hate Mexicans but like white. I’ve met Asians who hate blacks and whites but like Mexicans. I’m tired of comments like George Zimmerman couldn’t be racist because he was not white. Racism is not monochromatic and every single human is capable of it against every other human. I’ve even met people who hate their own race and think of themselves as the exception. Racism is a rainbow. And we all human and capable of it against all other humans.

              • Michelle Oct 22 2015 at 2:47 pm #

                Racism is not monochromatic. I’ve met whites racist against Asians but not blacks, or blacks but not Mexican, or Mexicans but not South Americans. I’ve met blacks racist against whites and Asians but like Mexicans, or hate Mexicans but like white. I’ve met Asians who hate blacks and whites but like Mexicans. I’m tired of comments like George Zimmerman couldn’t be racist because he was not white. Racism is not monochromatic and every single human is capable of it against every other human. I’ve even met people who hate their own race and think of themselves as the exception. Racism is a rainbow. And we all human and capable of it against all other humans.

                • JJ Oct 22 2015 at 2:52 pm #

                  Prejudice is a human thing, and while racism encompasses prejudice, racism and prejudice are not the same thing. A white person perpetuating prejudice against a black person has systemic power and protection behind the hatred. Individuals are prejudiced, society is racist.

              • Bob (looks white but isn't entirely) Oct 22 2015 at 6:33 pm #

                The amount of logical gymnastics required to contend that it’s impossible to be racist against a white person requires more effort than the weak and unsubstantiated point is worth. My wife is black (mostly) and I’m (mostly) white. We’ve both spent a lot of time in places where one of us was the distinct minority. Most of the time, everyone was fine. On the occasions when it wasn’t, both of us felt much the same way and wrestled with much the same trouble. Same result. Call it racism or prejudice or something entirely different — the label matters less than the conduct. Which gets me back to JJ’s earlier contention. I wrote a book with a biracial protagonist and I identified his race because I wanted to. But if I chose not to, that wouldn’t have made the character white. The assumption means nothing more than that a reader can’t be bothered to seek a distinction. That’s a problem with the reader, not the book.

            • Marc Vun Kannon Oct 22 2015 at 1:15 pm #

              The issue here is not actually ethnicity but categorization. Whether or not there is a ‘white race’, there is certainly a category of ‘white person’, and I would say that discrimination is practiced on the basis of the category, not the ‘race’ or ethnicity or whatever. If people were discriminated against based on their ethnicity, a black man who looked like a white man would still be discriminated against as a black man, which they often are not. So while it may not be possible to be racist against white people, it is certainly possible to discriminate against them. You can discriminate for or against anything you can categorize. In fact, you already have, simply by making the category.

        • JJ Oct 21 2015 at 10:05 am #

          You will receive criticism for “writing outside your own lane”. Always. You will never write a perfect book. Some will be okay with what you write; others will not. There are books with problematic racial elements that did not bother me, but hurt my friends. People of color are not a monolith.

          Be brave, then perhaps have an honest look at your fears and ask if you’re ready to write characters who aren’t white. And if you are, then I would take another look at your intentions, and make sure you’re ready to do the least amount of harm possible.

      • Rowenna Oct 21 2015 at 11:10 am #

        At the same time, if you can trade out the racial or ethnic identity of a character like he’s changing his shirt, it may be that it’s not being done very well, because of the reasons J already mentioned–navigating the world as privileged is different from navigating it without. (Plus the more obvious cultural texture present in many racial differences.) So if it feels like a throwaway detail, in some books (not all!) it may be, and deserves being revisited. (I’m considering the possibility that in some fantasy or sci-fi worlds, race is not understood or does not function the same way it does in ours, so it could potentially be a throwaway detail, and that’s an artistic choice I’m not going to comment on even though I haz opinions.)

        • JJ Oct 21 2015 at 11:16 am #

          At the same time, if you can trade out the racial or ethnic identity of a character like he’s changing his shirt, it may be that it’s not being done very well

          THIS! THANK YOU.

          Yeah, I have thoughts about secondary world fantasy races. I’m not sure what they are, but they are definitely Thoughts. 🙂

          • Kelly Oct 21 2015 at 11:23 am #

            Please ruminate on these thoughts and then share them!

          • Hannah Oct 21 2015 at 11:33 am #

            Oh yes, I agree with Kelly. I’d very much like to hear your Thoughts. Maybe another post?

  3. Jen Oct 21 2015 at 8:58 am #

    You have some really interesting thoughts. It has me all kinds of pondering now.

  4. Katie Oct 21 2015 at 9:08 am #

    I think this is really important, and I’m so glad that you continue to talk about this. Because the fact of the matter is that when I read someone who isn’t specifically identified one way or another, I tend to automatically assume them to be white–not because I consciously make the decision, but because that’s just the expectation I’ve been raised with. And that is such a problem.

    I’m white, and I grew up in a largely white community. Growing up, the importance of “non-whiteness” wasn’t something that was talked about often. I don’t think the people around me (teachers, my parents, etc.) had bad intentions–rather, I think they were more of the idea that “not making a big deal out of it will help make everything equal.” However, I’m more convinced that NOT talking about it only reinforced the idea of white as a kind of “default.”

    I’m really ashamed to say that I was surprised to watch the first Harry Potter movie and discover that Lee Jordan and Dean Thomas were black. I was one of those snooty kids who got upset with EVERY LITTLE difference between the books and the movies, and I remember thinking, “That’s different from the books, isn’t it?” But if I’m remembering correctly, the truth is that Rowling never specifically said. In my childish mind, I just assumed that automatically meant they were white.

    As someone who’s white, I don’t tend to think about race on a day to day basis. So yes, I totally agree with you, and I love that this is a subject that is being discussed in the publishing field. Especially as a writer, I want to be able to accurately and respectfully portray all different types of people. I’ve been thinking a lot about the white-ness of my characters (many of whom I originally came up with as a child), and what that says about the mindset I’ve been raised with. And, more importantly, how to change that going forward.

    Anyway, this gigantic comment is all to say thank you for continuing to talk about this. 🙂

    • JJ Oct 21 2015 at 9:37 am #

      Of course! I’m glad the conversation is still happening.

      Although JKR never explicitly states the race of anyone in her books, she actually gives us a lot of textual hints. For Dean Thomas, he was described as being a supporter of the West Ham football club, which many people in the UK associate with black people. But because this reference is lost on Americans, the US edition of Philosopher’s Stone/Sorcerer’s Stone, Dean is actually called out as being black.

      And now there were only four people left to be sorted. “Thomas, Dean,” a black boy even taller than Ron, joined Harry at the Gryffindor table.

      —Ch. 7 “The Sorting Hat”

      Lee Jordan is described as having dreadlocks, and his name (as well as Angelina Johnson’s) are clues to their race. Rowling often uses names to indicate ethnicity, e.g. Cho Chang and the Patil twins. For those of us attuned to non-whiteness, these are lightning rods. But as we have seen with The Hunger Games, even textual non-whiteness can be ignored.

      • Rowenna Oct 21 2015 at 11:08 am #

        Using textual cues as a writing tactic is so important to point out in the context of this conversation. It doesn’t have to be a sledgehammer writing moment: “Bob is Korean. I should probably bring up that Bob is Korean. You really do need to be aware that Bob is Korean.” Which you definitely didn’t say to do, but much of the discussion centers on “making it clear” and “tell the reader” so the reminder that you can make it clear without bonking people over the head with poor writing is not what anyone is saying to do here.

        • JJ Oct 21 2015 at 11:14 am #

          “Show not tell” is a writing axiom I kind of wish would die, only because showing means the writer and reader need to have a shared language of ideas for certain things to make sense in context. Hence why “black” was inserted into the US text of Harry Potter to describe Dean Thomas (but people still miss this!).

          But I think reinforcing non-whiteness throughout the text is important too. As Linda Sue Park says, there isn’t a single day that passes without her being conscious of her Asian-ness. This subtle reinforcement is what will drive home to the reader the character is not white. But I appreciate it too (in a contemporary setting) when the author straight up names a character as a non-white in the beginning and then continues to show in little ways the myriad microaggressions experienced by a non-white person. Specificity is always a good thing. Vagueness obfuscates and erases.

  5. Hannah Oct 21 2015 at 10:00 am #

    My (half) sister is half Japanese and half Greek/Scottish. Though she’s my half-sister, we have always been treated (and treated one another) as full siblings. My dad adopted her when she was two and I was not even born. Growing up, we were never treated differently by our family and so I assumed (by not thinking about it at all) that she and I received the same treatment from the rest of the world as well. It was only years later that I began to understand that the way the world viewed her and vice versa, was different. Because of her apparent ethnicity, many ignorant people mistook her for Mexican (how, I will never know) and would shout at her from across the street to “go back to your country”. Those who did understand that she was half-Asian still saw her as just that. She was still Non-White. Though I, as a white person, never saw her as anything other than my sister and therefore didn’t think about her race (because I had that privilege), she was forced to confront it in various ways on a daily basis.

    So yes, this is an extremely important discussion, and I am so thankful you are approaching it with such frankness and thoughtfulness.

    • JJ Oct 21 2015 at 10:11 am #

      I was pretty privileged too growing up. 🙂 I grew up upper middle class, went to prep school where the genteel thing to do was look away from our ethnic and cultural differences, except on appropriate “celebration” days. In fact, I didn’t really have to confront my non-whiteness directly until I was in my 20s because of the privileged, tiny bubble in which I grew up.

      I also grew up in racially diverse parts of the US (LA and NYC), so coming South was a huge revelation for me. o_O “Where are you from?” Los Angeles. “But where are you frooooooooom?”

      • Hannah Oct 21 2015 at 11:02 am #

        Ahh that’s very interesting, too! There are so many different experiences.

        But seriously, JJ, where are you froooooom???

        • JJ Oct 21 2015 at 11:08 am #

          Natalie Tran (the YouTube vlogger) has a great video about it from a talk she gave at Brown University.

          Have you noticed that the “Where are you from?” gets softer and longer the further back in your history they want you to go.

          P.S. If you don’t watch her videos, I highly recommend because SHE IS HILARIOUS.

          • Hannah Oct 21 2015 at 11:27 am #

            Haha, oh my goodness. Spot on.

      • Michelle Oct 22 2015 at 2:57 pm #

        I think there ought to be a distinction between race and culture. Racism and cultural. I know a lot of white people who have no problem with black skin but hate “black culture” and would like black people if they just “acted white”. I know my polish grandmother actively forgot her polish culture and language and didn’t teach us, so we would be “American”. I think we are using one word, race, to describe two things, skin color and ethnic culture, and so we are talking past each other.

        • JJ Oct 22 2015 at 3:01 pm #

          English is wonderfully elastic! Maybe someone will come up with a word.

          Unfortunately, race and culture, while not synonymous, are also inextricably linked.

  6. Kelly Oct 21 2015 at 11:17 am #

    Recognizing the enormity of my privilege is something that I’ve only been able to do over the course of the last several years, largely because the privilege is so far-reaching that I never gave it any thought at all. And that recognition and examination can be painful, because, sure, I don’t want to think of myself as a careless, cruel person perpetuating or benefiting from a racist society. But that pinch of discomfort that comes when I examine and acknowledge my own privilege is nothing compared to the things people of color have experienced every single day, for countless years.

    I appreciate these discussions, and am so glad you wrote about this here.

    • JJ Oct 21 2015 at 11:28 am #

      Dismantling privilege is always hard and it is a never-ending process. Heck, I didn’t realize what privilege I had until I was slapped in the face with it either! We’ve been taught that our feelings are Important, and whenever our feelings as Privileged People get hurt, we get defensive. But hurt feelings are definitely nothing compared to Actual Harm, and getting over our knee-jerk defensiveness is the first thing we have to do.

  7. Justin Oct 21 2015 at 1:48 pm #

    “I think what white people don’t understand is that whiteness is not a race; it is erasure of ethnicity. It’s the absence of race.” On first, second, and third read that still comes across as ‘I think what white people don’t understand about themselves, and I do, is that the culture they grew up in and the mix of traditions their families handed down to them don’t count as much as other people’s, because there’s no such thing as white people.’

    It’s arrogant, dismissive, a little offensive, and generally mistaken; and explaining it further just dug a deeper hole. I respect this site too much to let that pass. It might help if you could separate the concepts of “white” and “majority”, because a majority will act like one anywhere in the world you go, so those failings needn’t be attributed to a specific skin color. Or narrow range of skin colors, if you don’t like grouping them together while you group their behavior together.

    • JJ Oct 21 2015 at 1:59 pm #

      Your are correct in that “whiteness” and “majority” are not necessarily synonymous, but I am specifically addressing race and the construct of whiteness (in the US), a point your comment is avoiding.

      • Justin Oct 21 2015 at 3:15 pm #

        I didn’t think I’d avoided it, but if bluntness is clarity, then I find your dismissal of other peoples’ racial identity as an artificial construct to be the exact same kind of rude as “But where are you frooooooom.” There’s no reason you shouldn’t be allowed to simply identify yourself as an Angeleno, and there’s no reason other people shouldn’t be allowed to simply identify themselves as white if they choose.

        If it helps soften the blow at all, I like most of your articles. I just think this one severely missed the mark.

        • Amber Morrell Oct 21 2015 at 3:20 pm #

          At first that line is jarring, and it could be a little clearer–but what I think she means is that “white” is a subjective racial construct, not an actual ethnic construct based in scientific reality–as evidenced by the fact that many Middle Eastern peoples are the same exact race as Europeans but not considered “white.” When people say “white” they mean a very specific socially constructed identity, not a literal skin color, and that is what she is bringing attention to.

          I think that it could have been worded a bit better, or qualified in a way that wasn’t so shocking upon first read.

          • JJ Oct 21 2015 at 3:30 pm #

            I suppose I could have specified that “whiteness is an absence of ethnic specificity”, as US people of Irish and/or Italian descent are considered white, even though they are not culturally the same. Ethnic groups get assimilated into the cultural construct of whiteness over time: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Definitions_of_whiteness_in_the_United_States

            But if I shocked our readers, then I think I’m doing my job correctly. 🙂

          • Kelly Oct 21 2015 at 3:41 pm #

            JJ is a nonwhite woman writing about default whiteness in fiction, and I don’t believe it’s her job to qualify the difficulties and implications of that to make it less jarring or shocking. Racism IS shocking. And if, as a white woman, her post makes me uncomfortable then I really need to sit with that and examine why.

            I don’t believe the tone of this post is combative or dismissive. But nor do I believe we’re owed a spoonful of sugar with our medicine.

        • JJ Oct 21 2015 at 3:24 pm #

          There’s no reason you shouldn’t be allowed to simply identify yourself as an Angeleno, and there’s no reason other people shouldn’t be allowed to simply identify themselves as white if they choose.

          I’m not following. If people are choosing to identify as white, is that not by definition an artificial construct? I do not have the ability to identify as white.

          Now, if you are taking offense to the notion that I am, as you say, “dismissing” your whiteness as an artificial construct, then that is your prerogative. I am not dismissing whiteness. I am explaining my reasons for why I default to “white” when I read “race neutral” characters.

          • Bob (looks white but isn't entirely) Oct 22 2015 at 6:39 pm #

            I don’t have the option of identifying myself as Asian. That fact does not in any way justify a lack of willingness to put in the time to read contextual clues rather than assuming a character is Asian. Or white, for that matter. Your earlier statement seemed like more than a personal opinion, such as, “then I’ll assume your character is white.” It read as if you meant “then the character is white, even if you meant him to be nonwhite.” Tone matters. And in this case, I’m not talking about skin tone.

            • JJ Oct 22 2015 at 6:56 pm #

              Hi Bob, we are issuing you a warning. Tone policing does not meaningfully contribute to the discussion at hand, and as long as exchanges are civil, we will let comments stand. However, further violation will result in future comments being deleted and potential banning from PubCrawl.

              The PubCrawl Gang

    • Sofia Oct 22 2015 at 11:13 am #

      This. I am so tired of being erased and lumped in with the “mayo-colored masses”. What about “white” people who are first-gen immigrants, for example? What about people of historically stigmatized religions like Jews? What about people with accents and weird names who still don’t fit in with the majority? Not like I grew up watching my parents passed over for job interviews despite being overqualified… and being forced to write those stupid “language skill assessment tests”… and having people mock my lunch food, clothes, and accent till I developed a speech impediment for nearly a decade…
      POC are gradually starting to be represented in books, but people like me almost never are.

      But who, me? I’m just the oppressive majority with no ethnicity. Don’t mind me.

      • JJ Oct 22 2015 at 11:29 am #

        “Whiteness” erases ethnic markers, including those of “white” people as I have noted in the post. Immigrant narratives do exist for “white” people: My Big Fat Greek Wedding, The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wacker addresses Jewish and Arab immigrant narratives (this is a gorgeous novel), The Black Dog of Fate by Peter Balakian (Armenian-American), etc. Are these stories underrepresented? Yes. Whiteness is the lack of specificity and the cultural result of assimilation. Like the patriarchy, it benefits no one.

        • Sofia Oct 22 2015 at 2:04 pm #

          I’ll check out The Black Dog of Fate. And I understand your point. But I think the phrasing needs some work. It implies that I don’t have an ethnicity because I’m white, when I do. I’m stuck with it, in fact, it’s noticeable and people still occasionally try to use it against me (not to mention all the “effing immigrants” discussions I end up overhearing because I’m white and pass visually.)

          My Big Fat Greek Wedding was, sadly, an exception to the rule. First-gen is pretty much absent from mainstream culture, and I’d like to hear more calls for inclusion from the same people who advocate for the inclusion of PoC and LGBTQ. Saying things like “white is the absence of ethnicity” isn’t helping. Because hey. we’re here and there’s lots of us and we’d like to be present too. 🙂

          • JJ Oct 22 2015 at 2:25 pm #

            Individuals have ethnicity, but “white people” do not. And not all Causasians identify/are identified as “white” (Middle Eastern peoples, West Asians, etc.). There is definitely an uncomfortable liminal space occupied by Caucasian people who are white-passing, but not part of the mainstream.

            Outside the US, the concept of whiteness is different. But here in the US, being assimilated into mainstream culture means your ethnic markers get stripped away by society at large. (The so-called “melting pot”.) Hence why I believe white =/= ethnicity. White =/= English =/= Scottish =/= Welsh =/= Danish =/= Jewish =/= Greek etc. White = mainstream US. culture, which has absorbed many ethnicities over time.

            • Bob (looks white but isn't entirely) Oct 22 2015 at 6:52 pm #

              Oh, please. I look white. I could tell people, “I’m three-quarters Western European, mostly Scottish, Irish, and English, with some German thrown in, with the last quarter Puerto Rican.” My wife’s description would take even longer.

              But nobody wants to hear that. Outside of a forum like this, nobody cares. I’m classified as white because my skin is white. I have ethnicity because I do. In fact, I have many ethnicities, and so do just about all white people in this country.

              There may not be a white race as defined by a single specific ethic characteristics. However, when you say “white” in the U.S., you usually refer to a bunch of people who share little genetically but a vast amount experientially. I feel a kinship with others who can’t trace the majority (or even a significant minority) to a specific ethnic heritage. The fact that each of those millions of others happens to have a different specific ethnic background does not not mean white people have no ethnicity. It just means that the ethnicity of white people is broad, and deep.

  8. Amber Morrell Oct 21 2015 at 3:14 pm #

    Very succinct and well said. As a white woman, I am not constantly thinking about my race in the same way I am constantly thinking about my gender–but it’s the same concept. White people tend to be resistant to these ideas because they don’t like being told that their whiteness says something about them (hence things like “not all white people” or “#NotAllMen”), even though those same assumptions are being made about people of color all the time. This is a very important topic to be discussing; thanks for sharing!

    • JJ Oct 21 2015 at 3:34 pm #

      Thanks for reading!

  9. Mark Holtzen Oct 21 2015 at 3:56 pm #

    I love these conversations. I’ve been thinking about all this a lot, in regard to my teaching as well as my writing. i can’t tell you how helpful it is to have you spell it out, SPELL IT OUT, for a white guy trying to be conscientious and not take things too personally. It’s hard to push the personal envelope in this regard, but I’m really trying. It takes so much thought and uncomfortable feelings to deconstruct my upbringing (i.e. without having to think about race/ethnicity in any kind of depth or as a detriment). Even typing this I’m trying to read over and over to be sure I don’t offend. I feel fortunate I have helpful friends who have HAD to deal with this their entire lives who are willing to talk to me about it. I’m also making an effort to put myself in situations where I get to talk to people about our different experiences. Living in an urban environment near many different cultures helps with that.

    In my recent middle grade WIP I’ve actually been debating using skin color in a hide and seek game, where kids value the variety of skin tones because it helps them hide more or less effectively. I hope the execution comes through, but it’s interesting to try to think about diversity/skin tones in a different way. I’ll probably piss someone off, and it may be off-putting to some, but I feel like at least experimenting. Yeesh. Anyway, thank you thank you. Digging these Pub Crawl topics!

    • JJ Oct 21 2015 at 3:59 pm #

      Glad you found it helpful!

  10. Mark Holtzen Oct 21 2015 at 5:45 pm #

    And one last thought as this is all bounces around my brain, and I’ll try to word this right.

    The benefit of feeling uncomfortable as I deconstruct my own “truths,” is that I will better understand myself in regard to others’ experiences. Then I’ll reconstruct my “truths” with enhanced awareness. Then, no matter how I choose to portray characters with different experiences than mine–which includes those of diverse backgrounds–at least I’ll be able to defend my choices because I went in with purpose.

    Did I communicate that clearly?

  11. jeffo Oct 21 2015 at 8:36 pm #

    Great post, JJ, thanks for sharing this.

    I generally assumed that a reader would kind of default a character’s race to their own in the absence of clear ‘markers.’ When I put this question out to my blog readers, all said they did this, and assumed everyone else did, too. All who responded were white. The surprising answer, however, came from a white Australian who told me that, without a clearly-defined setting, she “will visualize an American because of the amount of American media we receive.” That was an eye opener, and made me reconsider my assumption.

    When I cast a wider net with the question on another forum, I was informed that “white” tended to be the default, even for non-white readers. This really surprised me, but many people who responded cited the media as a big factor. When all you see are white faces on TV, in the movies, in magazines and newspapers, that’s going to mess with your perception of the world. As a white person, this is honestly something I could not conceive of, and I’m glad I have been set straight. I also admit I did not think of the potential impact of textual clues, like the West Ham reference for Dean Thomas, for example. These no doubt play a subtle role in what we ‘default’ to.

    I wish I could find that thread, which is now long-buried. Thanks again for the post.

    • JJ Oct 22 2015 at 10:42 am #

      Glad you found it helpful!

      Yes, another reason to be upfront about the race/ethnicity of your non-white characters is because POC are so invisible in mainstream media that we are taught not to look for ourselves. Making race/ethnicity explicit validates a POC reader in the way white people have been validated for centuries.

  12. Heather Oct 21 2015 at 11:24 pm #

    I’d like to challenge my fellow white readers with three thought experiments, and hope readers of color will find them interesting, too:

    1. Is there a way that JJ could have said, “I think what white people don’t understand is that whiteness is not a race; it is erasure of ethnicity. It’s the absence of race,” that is inoffensive, or not jarring? Can you make it clear enough to be understood and short enough to tweet? I propose that many white people are uncomfortable with the truth being delivered, not the style of delivery. A lot of us, myself included, unconsciously believe we can make a truth fiction by taking enough personal umbrage.

    2. Can you remember the last time you became aware that a work of art or literature you were consuming represented only white people, like a movie, magazine, comic book, or novel? If you can’t, I challenge you to find them. They are common. Disturbingly, they are more common among “indie” genre works than mainstream. It took me years to learn to develop this skill–thanks, white privilege!–and I’m sure I still miss plenty.

    3. Try, when you’re reading a book with characters whose races aren’t made explicit, to develop specific, non-white races for some of them. Can you maintain your mental image through the book, or do whiten them by the end? If you can maintain this, consider using it as a tool to help deprogram unconscious, internalized biases you may have developed by consuming media in which disproportionately demonizes some people.

    I want to acknowledge that by taking up so much space, I’m pulling some serious white girl BS. Sorry.

    Thank you for this post, JJ. It had me thinking all day. I imagine dealing with the comments is emotionally exhausting. I think we have to hear these things multiple times to believe them. Thanks for putting up with us in the process.

    • JJ Oct 22 2015 at 10:44 am #

      Thanks, Heather!

      There is often “tone-policing” when a person of color initiates conversation on race. It is not my responsibility to assuage people’s feelings. If people found my statement “jarring”, that’s on them, not me.

    • Justin Oct 22 2015 at 3:11 pm #

      Okay, I’m not sure who got more ruffled by this conversation anymore, but I’ll try to engage respectfully and see if we can’t reach a mutual understanding, or if it’s even worth trying.

      1) No, I don’t think there is an inoffensive way to express that particular thought. Condensed to a tweet or expanded to a manifesto, it’s not going to get any less racist or closer to true. The same specious logic could be equally applied to Asians, when you look at the rich ethnic variety on that continent, but I’d advise against posting that tweet too. To deny someone’s ethnicity is dehumanizing, and that never leads anywhere good.

      2) Most of what I’ve been reading lately has been scifi (for research), which leans as a genre toward pointing out how multiracial the future will be, with varying degrees of emphasis and success. Comic books do too. I’m unclear on the point of seeking out instances of unstated white privilege, if the problem is that it’s so ubiquitous; but I will take a look. Are there any glaring examples you can give as a starting point?

      Tone Policing in conversations about race are not limited to people of color, it just usually gets phrased as “political correctness” when white people grumble about it. So you are not alone. That said, it very much is my responsibility to assuage people’s feelings. I genuinely apologize if pointing out racism that I don’t doubt was unintentional has upset anyone. If you found my statements jarring or exhausting, that is on me, not you. I was attempting to point out that it isn’t necessary to dehumanize white people in order to uplift other ethnic groups. I was not attempting to hurt anybody’s feelings.

      I just firmly believe there’s a way through the topic of race that benefits humanity, all of us. We can all be in this together, I have to believe it.

      • JJ Oct 22 2015 at 3:45 pm #

        1. “The same specious logic could be equally applied to Asians, when you look at the rich ethnic variety on that continent.” That logic is already applied to Asians. And I noted I spoke of US mainstream culture because that is the culture with which I am the most familiar, and we are called Asian here in the States. Personally, I do not find that offensive or racist, but of course, YMMV. I am two generations removed from my mother’s culture, and I identify more with someone who is 4th generation Chinese-American than someone who is Korean from the peninsula. I would venture that a 4th generation Italian-American might have more in common with a 4th generation Dutch/Scandinavian-American than an Sicilian. They are considered white in the US. I also think they would probably identify “white” before they would identify themselves by ethnicity.

        2. A lot of science fiction/fantasy is still depressingly, overwhelming monochromatic. Minor characters may still offer some “color”, but the leads of the big media properties are still mostly white. The Avengers. Ant Man. Peggy Carter. The X-Files. Twin Peaks. Even The Hunger Games, whose lead is racially ambiguous but is still cast with a white woman. I think you would have to look harder to find a property that more accurately reflects the diverse makeup of the US population. Maybe the musical Hamilton, or the new Star Wars.

        I don’t believe I’ve dehumanized white people. My delivery is blunt, but I was civil, not confrontational or accusatory. Again, if that was your read of what I’ve written, then that is your reading, of course. If you read other comments here, you’ll find that many people agree with my statement: that many US Caucasians see themselves as being without race or ethnicity.

        I am not offended by your comments, and it’s not on you to bend over backwards to be “nice”. I appreciate civil discourse, which is what we had. But I don’t believe that civility and being “nice” ought to be synonymous.

      • Kelly Oct 22 2015 at 4:05 pm #

        In response to point number two, I think a lot of scifi properties position themselves as multicultural or even post-racial, but I don’t know that that’s supported in the actual text.

        Firefly was a television show, not a book, but that world was built with heavy Asian influence, Chinese in particular, to the point where Mandarin and Cantonese were incorporated into the everyday speech of universally every character across the galaxy. And yet with the exception of Zoe, who was black, all of the other main characters or recurring characters on the show were white. There was not a single Asian main character in that show. And that’s problematic.

        I loved Firefly, and still do, because it’s possible to enjoy something while also understanding how flawed and problematic and potentially harmful it is. But Firefly is just one example of how science fiction superimposes white heroes on a multicultural canvas. And that’s not enough.

      • Kelly Oct 22 2015 at 4:19 pm #

        Also, in terms of all white or overwhelmingly white media representation, I suggest taking a look through Every Single Word, which edits mainstream films down to only the lines spoken by people of color. It is eye-opening.


  13. Todd Oct 22 2015 at 11:52 am #

    Great post! While I think a line like “whiteness is not a race; it is erasure of ethnicity” is initially jarring for white people to read (disclaimer: I’m a white guy), an inability to move beyond that initial impression is emblematic of the very problems the line points out. It is so strange that, within the context of any racial dialogue, many white people react vehemently to being singled out, or to having their privilege singled out, as if pointing out privilege is a violent/offensive act of Othering. It isn’t.

    I also think there’s a separate issue within the writing world and diversity, specifically that white writers should be brave and attempt diversity in their writing, but before that they should acknowledge the (often small) amount of diversity in what they read, and try to make what they read more diverse. White writers should support diversity by buying books by diverse authors, before anything else.

  14. HPWrites Oct 22 2015 at 12:07 pm #

    I’m really glad to have read this essay. I’d like to suggest, though, that one could disagree with the tweet without “tone policing”. I remember seeing that tweet, and it stuck in my craw a bit at the time–but because I wasn’t following JJ’s meaning, not because I have an issue with truth being delivered. I just didn’t agree, in short tweet form. I do agree in long form above.

    The tweet troubled me in this sense: I feel that “white people” (or U.S. Caucasians, to be more specific) too often think that everybody else has a race except them. And if you think of yourself as “neutral,” then by extension, systemic racism, microaggressions and so on are filed under Not My Problem. The issues get framed as something “people of color” are supposed to figure out/cope with.

    So when you said whiteness is the absence of race, I thought, well wait, white people will be all too eager to agree with you there, because they want to be let off the hook. “White” people (I include myself) are the ones who need to spend more time interrogating the concept of race and how it functions in our daily lives. As an old friend of mine says, “you may not believe in race but race believes in you.”

    Anyway, thanks for the expansion. There is a lot of great stuff to chew on here!

  15. Elyse Oct 22 2015 at 12:16 pm #

    I actually think about race on a fairly regular basis as my last name was appropriated for a racial slur over 150 years before I was born, and is still used on occasion, meaning that I have encountered many people who have outright butchered the pronunciation and spelling because they’re afraid of saying or writing it. This is the truth, but I’m not allowed to say anything about it, including that it offends me, because I’ll be labeled a racist, whiny white girl. I guess the only solution would be to change it, which would basically be turning my back on my ancestors.
    I have never encountered a character in a book who has had to deal with this.
    I wish I would so that I would know what to do.

    • JJ Oct 22 2015 at 12:24 pm #

      Yikes! My friend had a surname that is also considered a slur, although she changed the spelling. :-/ I’m sorry.

      (Side story: In fifth grade, we had a substitute teacher named Ms. Fuckes. She wore her surname with pride.)

  16. Swati Oct 22 2015 at 12:58 pm #

    JJ, Thanks for this blog post. It’s always so brave to post about controversial content and I appreciate that you are helping me think deeply about the intersection of craft and race.

  17. Chantilla The Nun Oct 22 2015 at 7:45 pm #

    I find the statement: “You cannot be racist against white people” very weak and all the discussion here miss the point because your point of view is only from someone living in supposedly “white” United States. When Chinese authors write books in Mandarin set in China they don’t have to describe the features of the characters, because Chinese readers assume “by default” the the characters are Chinese people NOT white people.
    You can be racist against white people if you live in a country where white people are the minority, e.g. Japan.
    The white people in the United States are on their way to become a minority, so I’m not sure how valid is the discussion here. Sure, JJ always feels that she is partly Asian, but poor white people always feel that they are poor. All the best to JJ and all those feeling somehow insecure about their race in a quickly diminishing “white America”. We all feel insecure about this or that, not to belittle your race insecurity … but embrace it. God Bless All.

    • JJ Oct 22 2015 at 8:30 pm #

      I note that I am speaking to the US experience because that is the only experience with which I am familiar. My argument applies to the US, and to books first published in the US market for a US audience. And in the United States, while you can certainly be prejudiced and classist against white people, you cannot be racist. While poor whites may always feel poor, they still benefit from a system of privilege that is not afforded to poor blacks, poor Latinos, poor Asians, etc. Intersectionality is increasingly important in today’s discussions about diversity.

      Even if a white population becomes a plurality in the near future, the concept of “whiteness” will still exist, especially as the designation shifts and changes to encompass more and more ethnic groups, as it historically has in the past: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Definitions_of_whiteness_in_the_United_States

      • Justin Oct 24 2015 at 10:21 pm #

        Poor isn’t a feeling. Impoverished people don’t feel poor, they are poor. Hunger does not care what color your skin is. We should probably save poverty for a different discussion, because that’s it’s own deep water.

        When you say, “You cannot be racist against white people”, you are mistaken. For one thing, you’re using an odd definition of racism requiring institutionalism that not even Mirriam Webster has ever heard of: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/racist

        Although, when that incorrect statement was also posted from the Pubcrawl Crew account it became institutional, so either wiay.

        So when you tell me that what I don’t know about myself is that I have no ethnicity, it’s absent and erased, because of the color of my skin; and I tell you that’s an insultingly racist thing to say, I really do mean that it’s racist. Here, there, anywhere, inside or outside the context of the United States, it is by definition a racist thing to say.

        Sorry, I know I said I was leaving, and I’ll go, I just stopped back to get that link Melissa posted to the tumbler page everysinglewordspoken.tumblr.com because I’m really trying to see this from you guys’ point of view. I couldn’t help but notice a serious lack of movies mentioned on that page- there was no Tyler Perry, no Margaret Cho, no Wayans Brothers, no Ice Cube, no Denzel Washington, no Selma Hayak, no Antonio Banderas, no Cheech & Chong, no Sandra Oh, no Danny Glover, no Harold & Kumar, no Sidney Poitier… it was a pretty cherry picked list of movies he decided to highlight. Maybe he’s got a point and maybe he doesn’t, but he has not supported it there. It wouldn’t hurt to highlight some of the good work those people have done, though.

        I can’t. I can’t see this from your point of view. How you got from “Hey, write some more minority characters” to “You cannot be racist against white people” is insane troll logic.

  18. Chantilla The Nun Oct 22 2015 at 9:49 pm #

    Thanks JJ for the response and all the best with your book Wintersong next year, and I like your illustration of the girl holding the little animal(maybe a future picture book). And it’s great that you posted this topic and expressed your views, allowing people to think, no matter if they agree or disagree.

  19. Don Oct 24 2015 at 8:18 am #

    Wow…this thread/comments made me think long and hard about characterization in my own writing. I don’t know this for certain, but I wonder if certain agents have passed on my novel because I’ve written the ethnicity of my characters explicitly, rather than having them assume WHITE or guess by virtue of dialect etc.? I remember having a CP mention that she was turned off by the fact that I did that because she felt I was being racist. Truthfully, I just laughed at her reaction. My main purpose? Agents/publishers clamor for “diversity.” So I think I was just trying to demonstrate that in my novel maybe not fully comprehending the effect it would have on a reader. I don’t know. Maybe in the future, I should.

    • Marc Vun Kannon Oct 24 2015 at 9:47 am #

      Explicit mention of ethnicity (or anything else, really) when it serves no purpose to the story makes me feel like I’m being hit over the head, like those TV shows that would end with ‘Today, we learned that…’.Leaving such things to be deduced (or not) by actions, clothing choices, food preferences, and speech patterns is a much more natural and free-flowing way to handle such things. Tagging a character with a label, so that readers can apply a pre-existing profile associated with the label, seems to me to be the essence of racism.
      Not that elements that do serve the plot are much better, when explicitly shoved in my face, as when the camera will linger over the fallen handkerchief or something. I know that it will be important to the story at some point, which ruins the reveal. Things like that should be either unstated, implied, or included in a mass of similar stuff, so that when the reveal finally comes it will be something I didn’t see eight chapters before.

  20. Annie Oct 26 2015 at 7:04 pm #

    Such an interesting post and definitely a difficult topic. Thanks for being brave enough to share it.

    Your point that white is the absence of race is challenging and interesting. Even though I’d never thought of it that way, I think I agree. I have been watching a lot of Devry University ads because that’s what hulu has been showing me and they make a point to show a diversity of people, especially faces at the end. And I thought the other day that when I watch those faces go by – their races doesn’t register at all for me. Light skin, dark skin, different features, I just process them all the same.

    I also grew up in a very mixed race area of the southwest US. We had a couple of different Indian tribes, Hispanics, white but mostly everyone was some mixture of at least two or three. And because of the physical similarities between the Hispanics and Indians (and all the mixed blood among us) you really couldn’t tell by looking at anyone what race they were. So, I grew up very much without a perception of race, or without a perception of the distinction of races. I’ve always thought that was a gift – to see people kind of without that filter.

    But reading your post – it’s kind of making everybody white, just without saying so. Because in some ways, it removes a lot of the cultural and ethnic differences. I’d never considered that before. It’s interesting to challenge my own views and ask questions about how I write characters.

    thank you 🙂

  21. Michelle Oct 26 2015 at 7:22 pm #

    If ‘white’ is the erasure of race, then so is ‘black’. I know caucasian technically includes middle easterners, and people often don’t include them in white. But I think white means ‘European’ to most people… and I suppose you could say that that is an erasure of their ethnicity; German, English, French, Polish, Dutch, Italian, etc. But then the term ‘black’ is the same, as is ‘african american’, in that it erases Congolese, Somalian, Ethiopian, etc.

    If black and white erase race, so does brown, red, yellow, asian, south american, etc.

    Here is one thing; yes, racism is institutionalized right now toward darker skin colors. I do agree with that, and so I see where people are coming from when they say you can’t be racist against white people (although I think they are doing a crap job of explaining it). But if you think white people are ever going to willingly help that change, then racist white people need to know that changing it won’t simply turn the tables on them, resulting in an equal amount of racism, but against them instead (it’s not any better just because it’s against someone else). If you say, “It doesn’t matter how you treat white people or think about white people, it is impossible for it to be racism,” then believe me, the white people aren’t going to help the institutionalized racism change because once it does they will have no protection. Sure, maybe some of them deserve that. But not the entire white subset of people. And so other races need to take responsibility for their own racism, even if it is powerless racism (for the time being), and do their best to get rid of it same as white people need to do. We all need to do it. We all need to become less of a threat to other races, whether that be the institutionalized white threat that has a real affect now, or potential threat that would have a real affect if it were allowed to. To say that it is impossible to be racist towards white people is not going to help anybody. It just makes the white people who happen to be idiots even more stubborn in their idiocy.

    You also saying that a subset of people don’t have a race simply because they are white. Like they are less than human. Just because of their skin color. What is that?

    Same when people say only white people can be racist. So only a people with a certain skin color (white) can be this specific bad thing (racist)? That is so racist.

    Just because European genes deleted most of the melanin production in their skin doesn’t make them less human. They still have race, they still have ethnicity (even if it’s blended beyond recognition), same as any other race. And they can still be discriminated against. In some countries, they are, because they are the minority. The USA is not the whole world.

  22. Anna Jordan Oct 29 2015 at 11:57 am #

    Hi, JJ. Thank so much for this post.
    I wanted to share this link with you from PRI’s THE WORLD which I thought you’d find interesting. To me it is about the weight of language as well as the American narrow view of human existence that erases the cultural identity from both whites and PoC.

    Despite efforts of many (In colonial times, as depicted in MT Anderson’s, OCTAVIAN NOTHING, and later the Holocaust) race is not biological but a modern construct and the basis for systematically institutionalized inequalities in entertainment, economics, housing, justice, and government (etc). The same social ideas that make us whitewash as we read.

  23. Scotie Rainwater Nov 23 2015 at 2:28 am #

    I do not believe people should be defined by their experience with discrimination. Racism, homophobia, trans-phobia, and the what-not do not exist in the worlds I write.

    I do believe we should give our charters different races for the sake of equality however.

  24. Kevin J. Cunningham Feb 9 2016 at 10:05 pm #

    I appreciate you broaching this topic and sharing your feelings.

    I would say, though, that I disagree.

    I am a straight white male, and I am reminded constantly of my whiteness (and for that matter, my straightness). Every day I’m on Facebook, I see articles my friends post about “Old White Men” who hate this or say that. When I try and discuss these topics, I get told constantly that I can’t understand and never could, so my thoughts aren’t valid. I’ve been told by some colleagues to simply stop talking about it.

    I’m not saying that, as a straight CIS white male, I don’t have it easier than people of other races, genders and sexualities. I know I do, and I know I benefit from white privilege.

    But I absolutely am reminded constantly about my race, my gender and everything else. And most days, when I read what is online, I am increasing made to feel ashamed of it.

    For what I write today, I do choose to disclose the race of the key characters. I won’t spend the time on minor characters unless their stereotypes are important. I feel that doing anything other than will be read as disrespectful, either to my character or my readers.

    • Chris Feb 1 2019 at 11:11 pm #

      It’s okay to be white, straight, and male, Kevin. Be proud of who you are. Don’t apologize.

  25. Chris Feb 1 2019 at 11:09 pm #

    White is not a race technically, but neither is black. They are caucasoid and negroid.

    It’s natural for the assumed race of an English book character to be white; English, a white invention, is a part of white culture.

    It’s okay to be white.


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