Dear white writers,

This isn’t about naming and shaming. Many acclaimed, otherwise socially progressive writers are guilty of the following things. So are many of the (white as well as non-white) people I know. It’s easy to fall into these traps because they’re so common, but perpetuating them just increases the likelihood that other people will do the same.

‘Whiteness is continually allowed to be the default.’ Illustration by Josh Quick

And yes, correcting these things isn’t going to magically end racial tone-deafness. You could argue that they’re trivial compared to much more important, even life-threatening, signs of racism. We live in an era, for instance, where the statement Black Lives Matter needs repeating.

But some of you have a major platform. People pay attention to what you write. And these aren’t off-the-cuff descriptive choices, delivered without thinking as though in casual conversation. You’ve had time to hone your writing for accuracy and appropriateness. You’re essentially paid to do so.

So, white writers from majority-white countries, please stop:

1. Using “nude” or “flesh-colored” to describe an object. What you may mean is “beige.” Or, if you don’t mind being accused of pretension, “ecru.” “Wheat” is a nice, underused word as well. In any case, referring to a nude shoe or a flesh-hued wall is both imprecise and oblivious, given the many, many shades human skin comes in. It’s also clichéd. Writers, you can do better.

2. Mentioning the skin color only of non-white people. It’s cringe-inducing (and reminiscent of nail polish) to emphasize only coffee-colored, cinnamony, or dark-and-stormy skin–rather than, say, wheat-colored skin (see above). Doing so subtly reinforces the idea that whiteness is unremarkable, but brownness, yellowness, or blackness should be commented on. It also creates an awkward situation for readers, in which we’re supposed to assume that a character is white (and straight, and able-bodied, etc.) until told otherwise.

“White until told otherwise” is especially problematic in journalism, where so often the ethnicity or nationality of crime suspects is only mentioned if they’re not of the majority group. So a phrase like, “three teenagers, one of whom was black,” spotlights blackness in the context of criminality. It doesn’t draw attention to whiteness, because whiteness is continually allowed to be the default.

3. Assuming an ethnicity when there’s clearly no basis for it. You hear and read this all the time: “An Indian man walked into the room.” “I passed a Japanese lady on the bus.” “There’s a Jamaican kid, or whatever, who always plays there.” Unless you or your characters have magical ethnicity-detecting devices, enabling precise determinations that a person is Japanese and not Chinese, or Indian and not Bangladeshi, there are some pretty ignorant assumptions being made here.

Say it with me: “A South Asian man walked into the room.” “I passed an East Asian lady on the bus.” “There’s a Caribbean kid who always plays there.” Obviously this doesn’t work if, for example, that apparently South Asian man could be Middle Eastern and that kid you think is Caribbean might be African. But I’m extending the benefit of the doubt, supposing that you or your character has heard, say, the woman speaking an obviously East Asian language, without being able to identify which one.

4. Suggesting that white people have no ethnicity. Referring to Thais and Mexicans as “ethnics,” calling Ethiopian and Turkish cafes “ethnic restaurants,” or even expressing a weirdly sentimental longing for the ethnic identity that your Iranian and Brazilian friends have–all of this is pretty damn weird. Ethnicity isn’t a secret handshake that only people of color have been inducted into. You may not know your ethnic group, or you may understand, like any excited sociology student, that ethnicity is a social construct, but you don’t get to be the only one exempt from having one.

5. Making ethnicity (or sexuality, or disability, or any other minority status) the most interesting thing about a character. It’s common to see brief descriptions of a group of people that run something like: “A’s best friends are B, an acerbic accountant; C, a Nigerian immigrant; and D, a shy poet.” Which of these doesn’t belong? Being Nigerian is not a personality, any more than being Canadian or Dutch is.

I understand the usefulness of shorthand (“closeted lesbian,” “disadvantaged black man,” etc.), but this can so easily slip into trite stereotyping. The argument for expediency doesn’t hold up–people used to make it when writing female characters, suggesting it was easier to have readers assume that doctors, writers, and politicians were male until presented with evidence to the contrary. But you’re writers. Precision and elegance in communicating ideas are your forte. This shouldn’t be a stumbling block for you. Strong writing requires moving past the conflation of a personality type with an ethnicity.

Thanks in advance, white writers. Despite not being a white person, I’m guilty of most of these missteps myself. So I know how unnatural it might feel to go against the white-as-standard grain. But we can’t fully appreciate others’ humanity without first adjusting our assumptions about them.

Sincerely,

A reader

P.S. Some of my favorite writers are white.

Note: The opinions expressed by guest bloggers at the Submittable blog are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Submittable.

Christine Ro writes and edits for a living, most recently for the BBC and Book Riot. She reserves the right to someday “quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock.” Until then she’ll be adding to https://www.christinero.com

publishingwritingwritersdiversitycraftletter

Got high-quality writing or artwork related to publishing or digital media? Consider submitting it to our blog. Thanks!



  • Imogen Wall

    in fact if white ethnicity was more fully experienced as such it would be a leveller – so people could think about how their own (white) indigenous or ethnic dance/song/clothing/food/ceremony/etc is expressed and see that they have an ethnicity and it isn’t a novelty, it is human. better still, do it : take up morris dancing 🙂

  • Paul South

    People love to tell others how to speak and what to say; personally I hold reservations about that. Incidentally, I also don’t give a crap about being called white. Or black. You can call me black if you like. Its not a dirty word to me.

  • James Wright

    If mentioning skin color is “cringe inducing”, then why is your article written with such an anti-white slant? Even your headline “Dear White Writers, Please Stop Doing These Things” is biased. I’m cringing.

    • Leslie G Nelson

      I didn’t read the article the same way. I thought the point was not that one can’t mention skin color…simply that to only mention skin color of people of color and not white people, or make skin color the most important aspect of a character is what is cringe worthy. I agree.

    • Theonne

      “Mentioning the skin color only of non-white people.” The author specifically says that it is only cringe worthy to mention only the color of non-white people. The author wants you to mention everybody’s race, not just the non-white people

      • Eric Scoles

        & the thing is, this is really good advice (if not overdone), because it allows you to signal actual things about people instead of using lazy ethnic/racial shorthands. “His already-pale skin had gone ashen, translucent with sweat. ‘I can’t hold anything down. Barely had anything to drink even.'”

    • Jenni Li

      Bravo.

    • Dean Garlick

      it’s not ‘anti-white’ to suggest that writers shouldn’t assume whiteness as a default ethnicity in their work, or that their characters should’t be able to magically know the ethnic origins of a person at first glance. I think you’re sensitive about your whiteness being confronted, James. It’s not anti-white to ask writers to be AWARE of their whiteness, and not make assumptions that could marginalize a diverse population of readers. It’s just sound writing advice.

    • Eric Scoles

      To me the interesting question is: Why do you perceive this as anti-white?

      See especially 2 & 4. These are basically pointing out that ‘white’ is an un-marked category — it’s the default. That when you write the way she’s calling out, you’re basically saying ‘everyone’s white unless I say otherwise.’

      The argument here is that it shouldn’t be that way. That’s not anti-white.

  • KarenOfRocks

    This is helpful.

    In my writing right now, I only specify the color of characters whose color matters to the story. For example, I mention that an administrative assistant favors elegant scarves and gold half-glasses, just to give some visual texture to a scene. In reality, she’s patterned on my dentist’s receptionist, who happens to be black. But it isn’t important to the story, she could be any race or ethnicity. It isn’t so much about being colorblind as letting the reader envision the story in his or her own way, as much as possible.

    Most of my characters are white, East Asian, or South Asian, because the characters are based loosely on people I’ve known in my professional engineering career…and those are the people who make up most of the engineers where I worked.

    But still, I need to be more careful in my writing, and not make assumptions.

    • Theonne

      I think the only issue with this is that everybody will assume your characters are white. White people will assume they are white and your story will reinforce the idea that only white people are in these careers. Non-white people will assume your character is white and won’t feel represented (yes,we definitely do this.) So if you do this, you can’t really claim that your book is diverse because the diversity is invisible and assumed non-existent. The only way to make it clear is through cover art of the book or other official art

      I actually really struggle with this because I want to make my writing obviously diverse, but I also agree with you that only important details of a character’s physical appearance should be in a book. I usually fix the problem by making them important. A good thing to remember is that the physical traits don’t have to be important to the entire book, but they can be important in small ways. I knew a South Asian girl who said, when people kept mispronouncing her name: “It’s fine, brown people have weird names!” The fact that she is brown is irrelevant but the fact that she would say something like this tells a lot about her personality. (And if you think about it, her being brown isn’t actually irrelevant, her race has obviously shaped who she is.)

      • Mikeal Dylan Lévesque

        I only mention it when it’s necessary to the plot of the story. For example, I mention the color of a dark-skinned girl and say that it’s losing its colors to emphasize that this person lives in poor conditions. (Locked up in a governmental facility and used as a lab rat, basically) But other than that, I mention it if I need to. So no one’s gonna come here and tell me how to write, it should be the opposite.

    • Eric Scoles

      I’m drawing a blank on details but there was a major novel release in the last year where the author only referenced racial characteristics of white people.

  • Leslie G Nelson

    Thanks!!!

  • Nick Lombardi

    Wait, this is satire, right?

    • Stacy Adams

      I highly doubt wanting writers to stop passively supporting discrimination is satirical.

  • Lew Kaye-Skinner

    Thanks. These are helpful reminders.

  • Michael Pilnick

    rofl that P.S., good one 🙂

  • Kobsssss

    Goodness, white fragility at it’s finest in the comment section. Great article, thank you for the pointers!

  • Seishin

    my work my decisions. don’t like it? tough. you want to write a certain way then do so. you are making a mountain out of a molehill.

  • Fox

    I think you can whittle this down to something a bit more succinct:

    1. Don’t call attention to a characters race/ethnicity/sexual orientation unless it’s relevant to the story.
    2. Don’t make a character’s defining characteristic his or her race/ethnicity/sexual orientation.

    Which are both things good writers would avoid, anyway, because they’re hallmarks of lazy writing.

    Also: wow, this post sure did trigger some folks, huh?

    • Eric Scoles

      I think the other points were worth making as illustrations, but as guidelines, I agree it might be better pared down.

  • Holly Harwood

    Thank you for your article. It is important to use the language people want us to use to describe
    them, Indigenous peoples in the US and Canada now prefer “First Nations”
    I am a white, cis gendered, autistic balloon artist. Quaalatex Balloons calls its beige color “blush.” They make printed princess head balloons in blush for light skinned people and now, after requests from balloon artists everywhere, mocha brown for darker people. Betallex also makes toffee color balloons for people with medium skin. Children want balloon dolls that look like them. Now I can do that for all the kids! I My only quibble is that South Asian people do not look at all the same to me, although it is always better to use a generic than to guess wrong and offend someone.

  • Eric Jarvis

    I’m coming at this from a slightly different angle. As a theatre director I set out to reflect the reality around me in my casting. So my process didn’t assume race or gender unless absolutely essential to the play. I directed a rehearsed reading of a play in development for an audience of playwrights and other theatre professionals. One of the roles was a young poet obsessed by Keats. The part was very wordy so I looked for an actor with a dance background so they could “physicalise” what would often be quite abstract and potentially dull. I found and booked a young black actor who had studied dance before changing to acting.

    After the show there was a Q&A session. Several people asked the playwright questions about why “the black character” did this or that. I explained the casting process several times but seemingly almost nobody “got it”. There was NO black character. Actually had an actress not got a TV call up at short notice there would have been two black performers. At no point was race specified for any of the characters. Yet the prevailing assumption was that I couldn’t possibly have cast a black performer in a role that wasn’t specified by race.

    What disappoints me most is that this took place in a theatre with a strong reputation for progressive ideas in a hugely diverse part of South London.

    Get it together folks. There is no more a default race than there is a default gender, height, religion, shoe size etc.

    • Eric Scoles

      I’m curious — have you ever tried altering the narrative by correcting the speakers reference to the name of the actor? E.g….

      QUESTIONER: When the black character went into the shop —
      DIRECTOR: You mean, Donna’s character, yes?

      It could help to reinforce your message about characters not being boxed by their actors’ race. Not a solution, obviously, but really I’m wondering if you’ve seen that, or if it had any impact.

  • Eric Scoles

    As authorial, “objective” voice, amen.

    But as character voice, some of these things are essential. Realistic characters will be racist/sexist/ableist/etc. to varying degrees, & our readers have no way of understanding that without us demonstrating it through dialogue or other expressions of attitude. (& narrators are often characters, & when they ‘speak’ to us we need to hear their attitudes expressed.)

    That said, I think Christine Ro is most likely assuming we understand this. She can correct me if she’s looking.

    But of course the character voice, the ‘illustration’, can be used as an excuse, as a mode of pandering. The book racks of the world are littered with stories where the author uses ‘character voice’ as an excuse to pander to racist/sexist/etc. readers. When & why & how we choose to give voice to characters who are racist/sexist/etc. is still a question we have to deal with as writers.

    That’s where it gets hard. It’s not supposed to be easy, after all. So much of the anti-PC rhetoric focuses on readers needing to do work. Writers need to be expected to do work, too. If we’re honest about our work being an “exploration” of something, we have to be willing to learn from what the work teaches us – and we have to accept that people’s reaction to it is the main way we get that data.

  • Eric Scoles

    One of the first things you’re going to hear if you ever workshop is that you need to listen to what other people have to say.

    Yes, it’s your story. But it’s almost certainly not going to be as good as it can be if you don’t listen to how other people interpret it. You really can’t be a good writer if you can’t take suggestions and respond appropriately.

  • SJR

    I find this post: 1. Highly offensive to white people. 2. Condescending to black people. 3. Ridiculously smug. I believe in diversity, and celebrating our ethnicity. If I want to describe a character as having a personality trait common to their ethnicity, what is wrong with describing that? I thought that diversity was a good thing. Geez, don’t tell people how to describe their characters. If you don’t like a book because of the character descriptions, then: 1. return it. 2. Throw it away. Articles like this remind me that we are not all the same, and I as a writer, am thrilled with diversity, I love cultures and traditions that are different from mine, and I will continue to describe that in my characters. Grow up. We’re not all the same, and that’s what makes life wonderful.

  • mikeishiring

    I’ll be honest, I thought I would be rolling my eyes at this article as I tend to do, but it was actually spot on! Really great read!