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Why Do You Have to Say She’s Black?

This will come as no surprise to you, but…you can’t say anything anymore without someone taking offense. You say something, or you say nothing…either way, there will be those who take you to task for it. So here’s the truth: do what you think is right.

I read a review of TIN MEN this morning that was less than positive. The reviewer made some valid points, but also complained about the absence of certain pieces of information that are very clearly there in the book. That makes it tough, because the accurate criticisms are overshadowed by the inaccurate or outright foolish comments.

Yes, you’re right, I shouldn’t be reading the reviews in the first place. No, I don’t always read them. When I do, though, I find they cover a broad spectrum. There are the contemplative reviews, the (positive and negative) bluster reviews (best book ever/worst piece of crap ever), the genuinely-love-sharing-thoughts-on-books reviews, the skimmed-it-just-so-I-can-sneer-at-it reviews, the pontification reviews…whew. You get the picture. If you ever read review sites, you know what I’m talking about.  Ninety percent of them are perfectly fine, even thoughtful and helpful. But there are the others…

In any case…I’m not perfect. I did shit as a kid, up through my teens, of which I’m deeply ashamed.  I wasn’t a skinhead or anything, but I told my share of the wrong jokes, said and did things without thinking about them.

As an adult, I’ve been on a learning curve. I’d hope every thinking person is on that same learning curve. I had some help along the way. My parents were divorced and I was raised by my mother without a lot of input from my father. I’ve always gotten along better with women than with men, which led to me writing a lot of strong female protagonists at a time when it never occurred to me that this was unusual.

I included gay and bisexual characters in my books from my first novel, which I started writing in 1988 or 89, as a senior in college. I’d grown up with a great relationship with my older sister, who is gay. She and her wife were one of the first same sex couples to be married in the country. (We live in Massachusetts.)  Through other friends and relations, I saw the struggles of LGBT people as well as the pain and confusion of one particular friend whose psyche was torn apart by living in a world where people didn’t yet understand that both gender and sexuality exist on a spectrum.

I told and retold those ugly jokes partway into high school. I’d always had people of color in my life, family friends and close friends of mine, but somehow I never connected them to the people I knew and loved. I’d be lying if I said there was some moment of epiphany–there wasn’t. Somehow I just woke up, grew uncomfortable, and then grew angry with myself and others.

My first novel is about a male private detective who just happens to be a vampire. That was key for me, from page one. The “just happens to be” part. I wrote the female protagonist the same way, but she’s not a vampire. She’s an ordinary professional woman who just happens to be bisexual. In 88/89, that didn’t seem unusual to me.  The only hint I had that it might be was when one of the authors kind enough to blurb that novel, Of Saints and Shadows, told me that he wouldn’t have dared to write that character. Only later did I realize that he was talking about backlash. From people who were offended that I’d included a bisexual character who was normal. From people who were offended because I’d included a bisexual character who didn’t conform to their own view of how a bisexual character ought to behave. This sort of thing frustrates the hell out of me, and it’s constant, all these years later. There is always going to be backlash.

We live in the age of outrage, and people will always find a reason to burn. I’d say “no matter how good your intentions,” but usually intentions have nothing to do with it for me. I populate my work with a variety of characters because that’s the world. It just is. And yet…

I’ve said I never made a conscious effort to do certain things, and maybe that was misleading, because some choices are conscious. TIN MEN is ambiguously protagonisted. Yes, I just invented the phrase. It kind of sucks, but anyway…it opens with Danny Kelso and you meet Kate Wade through his eyes, true enough. But you could make the argument that Kate is the real protagonist of the novel, that her arc is more dramatic, just as central, more interesting. That the mirroring of her experience with that of seventeen year old Alexa Day makes this story really about her.

Kate is beautiful. She’s black. She has no legs. Piloting a robot soldier, legs aren’t a requirement.

The reviewer I mentioned sneered at my establishing her beauty. To which I say…it’s third person, but an intimate limited third person POV that rotates from character to character. Danny thinks she’s beautiful. And yes, my female characters notice whether or not my male characters are attractive. They only work inside robots, they aren’t robots themselves. If you tell me you don’t notice whether people are attractive, you’re lying.

That didn’t bother me so much, really. I mean, I can roll my eyes at that. It didn’t make me angry.

If you read the title of the blog, you already know what made me angry.  “Why Do You Have to Say She’s Black?”

I have to say she’s black because most of my readers will otherwise assume she’s white, and I want them to envision a world where the most formidable character, the most competent, the one they’ll all follow (including the guy you assume is the protagonist), is a black woman with no legs.

I have to say she’s black (just a couple of times, not enough to belabor the point but enough so you can see her in your head, particularly since most of the novel she’s inside a robot) because if they ever make the movie, I want to create an environment where it would be difficult for studio executives to cast a white actress.

By the way, there are a lot of women in this book. Of the three female characters you could call “main characters,” two of them are black. The book also has characters who just happen to be of varied religions, sexual preferences, ethnicities, and skin tones. I don’t spend a lot of time on these elements and I don’t pretend to intimately understand the experience of being something and someone I am not. Instead, I just try to present people.

Why?  Why not just have them all be without gender, sexuality, ethnicity, spirituality, or race?

Because once you do that, your characters aren’t inhabiting robots–they are robots.

Why does a white, straight, middle-aged guy care about representation in fiction?

Why do I have to say she’s black?

Because there are people who don’t want her to be.

31 Responses to "Why Do You Have to Say She’s Black?"

  • Douglas S. Williams
    June 1, 2015 - 11:10 am Reply

    Bravo Chris.

  • Betty Bonnecarrere
    June 1, 2015 - 12:26 pm Reply

    I think I may just have a crush on you!

  • Rowanne Moore
    June 1, 2015 - 12:41 pm Reply

    I have never understood why authors are hesitant to mention a characters race. I was at a party once and someone was talking to me about a friend of theirs, who also happened to be at the party. She described him to me in every possible way but what his race was. There were about 12 guys in blue t-shirts, 5 wore glasses etc. She finally said he is the black guy over there. You were correct – I assumed the person she was talking about was white. Why couldn’t she say that from the start? Race isn’t something to be ashamed of. Bravo Chris. Well done.

    • Ruth DJ
      June 1, 2015 - 1:53 pm Reply

      LOL. My daughter was working at an event, and there were other young women working there. One came in and couldn’t remember my daughter’s name (and I’m not sure she realized that L was my daughter). She fumbled around for a while before I finally, gently told her, “It’s OK to say that you can’t remember her name, she’s the Black girl.” (L was the only Black/mixed/biracial person working that day.)

      SMH. In this case, it was just a way to describe a person she didn’t know and couldn’t remember her name.If L’s hair had been pink (yeah, it’s been pink LOL), it would’ve been easier on the poor child that was trying so hard to be polite.

      And yes, if she’d been trying to tell someone else, the default would’ve been White and they never would’ve figured out who she was talking about.

      So in fiction, yes, absolutely, find a way to weave in the description if the character is not White/straight/male. Otherwise, the reader only imagines the default (White/straight/male). Maybe some people don’t want to imagine a diverse world. Me? I’m more likely to read a book that’s outside my favorite genres if it has diverse characters. Well, I do draw the line. I wouldn’t have read 50 Shades no matter what race/color/religion/sexuality the characters were — I didn’t make it past two pages. Ugh, it was horrible..

      • Rowanne Moore
        June 1, 2015 - 8:26 pm Reply

        I couldn’t read Fifty Shades either – what a hot mess of a book. The one thing I really insist on in a good is an author with talent. 😀

  • Jason Pierce
    June 1, 2015 - 1:26 pm Reply

    Excellent! This is the type of conversation we all need to have about sexuality, race, etc. There is a huge difference between using these traits to IDENTIFY a person or using them to JUDGE a group.

  • Beth
    June 1, 2015 - 2:57 pm Reply

    I don’t get the big deal. I describe myself as the chunky middle aged Jewish chick. How else would anyone find me in a crowd? I want to know what you see in your mind when you are writing your characters. I applaud you.

    • Morgan
      June 1, 2015 - 7:19 pm Reply

      Which crowd? 🙂

      The default crowd is the one where Beth or I would stand out. A gathering of my family? Not so much.

      And that’s the thing. Christopher, thanks for not writing to the default.

      • Christopher Golden
        June 1, 2015 - 7:53 pm Reply

        I’m not sure I deserve the thanks. I write to the default in the sense that I don’t always point out the skin color of white characters. (Though I’ve started doing it more.) That’s due to an awareness that most readers will make an assumption of whiteness, partly because I’m white. I strive for diversity, but I want to try to work in commentary on white characters’ appearance as well (unless some other element makes their race otherwise evident so as to make such description redundant). I read a lot of Walter Mosley’s work–most of it–and his third person POV characters remark upon skin color regardless of what that color might be. Just by mentioning that a character is white, I think authors can help remind readers that they shouldn’t assume it. I’m going to try to keep that in mind in the future.

        • David VonAllmen
          August 13, 2015 - 7:48 am Reply

          My nine year-old son was reading his latest story to me yesterday and described his main character as having peach skin, which I thought was great- he wasn’t assuming a character was Caucasian by default.

  • Colleen
    June 1, 2015 - 4:11 pm Reply

    I didn’t get it at first. All I could think was “why not let the reader imagine her the way he/she wants to? or, does it really matter? but the clincher for me is the fact that you specifically are calling out the studios. It does make it more political, more personal. To you and to others that it might affect. I don’t know if it’s necessary to do so in the book, you could make insistence later during screenplays. Dealbreaker. But it’s your baby! I understand your POV. Too bad it has to be that way in the first place, that there are people who don’t want her to be black.

    • Christopher Golden
      June 1, 2015 - 4:32 pm Reply

      Just quickly on the subject of the studios…Only authors of JK Rowling’s power level (and let’s face it, there’s one of her) could control things at that stage. But if it’s in the book, and they change it, there’s potential public backlash there they’d prefer to avoid.

  • Velva Carter
    June 2, 2015 - 12:07 am Reply

    Bravo! Let your passion rule your pen and let your heart tell your story. Great writers never follow rules; instead, they change them.

  • Nickolas Cook
    June 2, 2015 - 2:50 am Reply

    Real people notice when someone is attractive or repulsive–and not just in the physical sense. I’m sure we’ve all known people who are physically attractive, but are so emotionally/mentally repulsive you really wanna just stay as far away from them as you can. Writing a person that is noticeably beautiful in the physical sense is just plain logical. Screw the review. Although I can understand why it set you off a bit. I’ve read reviews of my own works that have left me scratching my head and wondering if the reviewer even bothered to read the book past the first few pages. I’m sure you’ve experienced the same.

  • Sam
    June 2, 2015 - 4:05 pm Reply

    This is definitely not a new issue. Robert Heinlein mentions somewhere in the middle of Starship Troopers that the protagonist just happens to be black. I believe by having him observe his own reflection in a mirror. His very subtle point may be that skin color, though a part of the character, does not define him. And you the reader were making an assumption, weren’t you!

  • Jessica Murphy
    June 3, 2015 - 4:54 pm Reply

    I didn’t read the review, so I can’t judge how the question was asked, but it seems like a valid question. And you’ve given a valid, thoughtful response. This is your distant cousin over here. Hope you’re well.

    All the best,
    Jessica

  • Sandy Kay
    June 3, 2015 - 5:43 pm Reply

    Even without commercial movie considerations, I think it is valid to point out a character’s race and other descriptive characteristics. That way the image of the character in my internal movie that runs while I read will match the image the author had of the character while writing the book. And you are right, as a white woman, my default image would be that characters are white like me without something from the author to give me a different picture.

  • Khaalidah
    June 3, 2015 - 6:30 pm Reply

    On the strength of this post, I’ve pre-ordered your book from Audible.
    Thank you for this.

  • Janet
    June 13, 2015 - 11:15 am Reply

    I rarely pay attention to the author’s descriptions of characters, and I rarely describe my characters. When reading, I picture them the way I want to regardless of the writer’s preferences (no, flaming redheads are not that attractive in my eyes, thank you very much), and when writing, I’m willing to allow the reader the same courtesy. I once read a whole book picturing the MC as black – lo and behold, at the very end of the book, it was obvious the character was white. I ignored his whiteness. I saw him as black, therefore, he was.

  • Addy
    July 31, 2015 - 2:30 am Reply

    I love that you write about diverse characters and that you will write whoever you feel should be there into your stories but my thoughts on the “black” thing are that the issue is not that you said that the person is black but that, that was supposed to tell you who she is. I understand that by default, many if not most, white Americans always assume the main character is or should be white. I would challenge writers to use descriptive language instead of just saying he/she is black (or whichever race). When reading about a white character they might describe the light glinting off of her blue eyes and golden hair and her pale skin, or whatever, there are millions of ways to describe any character from anywhere. The problem is that many times in books the author will write the character whoever they are whether friend, or acquaintance, or coworker etc, is black but everyone else has a developed character description. You shouldnt have to say that a character is black or white if your describe your character. Every racial group has a lot of variety amongst its people and racial groups are generic descriptions of people anyway and do not tell you what someone looks like. I know many “white” people see a “black” person as a “black person” though their skin is not actually black. There are many shades of brown that make up most of the population of the world from very dark to very light . If you simply describe the shade of the skin tone and then move on, that will show the reader who you see and then they are right there with you in the story. Just saying that they are black is impersonal and generic especially for a main character.

    • Christopher Golden
      July 31, 2015 - 11:36 am Reply

      Thing is, I agree. I’m guessing you haven’t actually read much of my work, which is fine, of course. But yeah. Agreed.

  • Rendall
    August 8, 2015 - 12:50 pm Reply

    Only white Americans (tend to) feel it’s rude to mention someone’s race. They feel it’s rude for the same reason they feel it’s rude to mention that someone is handicapped. In the minds of some people, not being white is a handicap, one you do not draw attention to. Being non-white is not a handicap, it is an identity.

  • Brian Tasler
    August 12, 2015 - 2:25 pm Reply

    Why do you have to write an article explaining to your readers and your reviewers your explanation for why your said your character was black?

    Kidding Chris. Good article with great points. Readers expect explanation. Reviewers often just love to criticize.

  • Linda Addison
    August 12, 2015 - 4:01 pm Reply

    You know I’m mostly a humanist and in a world of humanist it’s still fine to describe me a ‘black chick’ (or mocha brown) or “the person with a purple mohawk”…

    You make a good point, Chris, that the default when people read is the character is White. There’s nothing wrong with describing your characters, however you want to. Especially when they aren’t the default.

  • Cat Douglas
    August 12, 2015 - 8:31 pm Reply

    You have to say she’s black, so the reader can “see” your character. How else will they know all that she is, inside and out if you don’t fully describe her? Good grief.

  • Stewart
    August 13, 2015 - 2:30 pm Reply

    Saw this posted on a friend’s Facebook wall–excellent stuff!

    I don’t believe I’ve ever read any of your work, but will definitely add you to my “to-read” list now!

  • Sandee Barry
    August 13, 2015 - 4:52 pm Reply

    Telling a story is like painting the reader a picture….colours make the artist’s pictures bloom in the readers mind. So tired of what we can say, see, be…..

  • Angela Quarles
    August 13, 2015 - 9:38 pm Reply

    I happen to agree, as unfortunately the default setting for most readers is white. I got dinged in a review for not having people of color in one of mine, but the thing is, I did. The review said more about the reviewer that she read white despite the content on the pages.

  • Cornell
    August 14, 2015 - 12:24 pm Reply

    This is just amazing! As a social justice educator, this gave me so much hope at a time when hope seems to be fading away. Thank you for sharing this and using your platform to discuss this.

    Much love,

    Cornell

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