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.
@malindalo 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.
— JJ (@sjaejones) September 3, 2015
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.
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.