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Dianne Salerni : Writer of Teen and Middle Grade Fiction | Writing About Race

Writing About Race


WeNeedDiverseBooksA few months ago, during the planning of my current WIP, my protagonist was calling all the shots—as usual. She told me her name and age: Jadie Summers, 12. I mentioned I preferred a boy MC for this story, and she told me, “Too bad.” She also declared she was biracial, and she lived with adoptive parents who were white and an adopted brother who was Latino.

That was fine by me, and when #WeNeedDiverseBooks lit up the social media scene a few weeks later, it seemed a good choice and what readers wanted.

However, I hadn’t anticipated how hard it was going to be to identify a main character’s race without awkwardly pointing it out.

Race isn’t an issue in my WIP. It’s an MG adventure story, along the lines of The Eighth Day, except it’s science fiction instead of fantasy. Jadie’s race is a minor plot point that’s only briefly important when she accidentally encounters her birth family. So, while it needs to be mentioned—and mentioned early on—it doesn’t really matter to Jadie, her family, her friends, or the action. Which is how it should be, I think. In my experience as a fifth grade teacher, most kids don’t care two beans what race their friends are.

Maybe I’m over-thinking this, but I’ve had a hard time figuring out how to identify Jadie’s race in the story and make it sound natural. I’m writing in close third person, which means I’m viewing the world from Jadie’s perspective, and no one goes around thinking, “Hey, I’m biracial.”

Somebody else could mention it, but how does that work? At first, I had an unpleasant woman make a derogatory comment, but I don’t want racism in my book, so I took it out. Someone meeting Jadie’s family for the first time might remark on their diversity, but I have no role for such a person in my story and I don’t need an extra character stuffed in there just to point out Jadie’s race. Everything I’ve thought of is stilted and awkward and obviously contrived to give this information.

Because, let’s face it. In American literature, we don’t usually mention the race of the character unless they’re not white.

And detailed character descriptions aren’t part of my style, especially in my MG books. Writing from close third person, I stick pretty much to what my MC might notice and remark on. For example, from The Eighth Day

“Nice to meet you.” She was tall, perhaps in her early thirties, with dark caramel skin and smiling light-brown eyes. She lifted her left hand in what looked like a wave, but Jax knew she was showing him her mark. “My name’s Melinda Farrow, but that’s my married name. I’m a Llewelyn by birth and talent. Come in.”

That’s it. What else is a 13 year old boy going to notice? And this is Jax meeting and describing someone else.  Jax never describes himself. In fact, descriptions of Jax all come from an alternate POV character.

So, how do I include a passage where my MC Jadie thinks about her own race in a natural way that gets it included in the narration?

Suggestions? Anyone? Bueller?



15 Responses to Writing About Race

  1. I have one book where the MC’s best friend is biracial. My MC is envious of her friend’s perfect tanned skin tone because of it. That was a simple way for me to mention it without any racism or anything that stood out too much. Good luck! It’s a tricky thing to tackle in a WIP.

  2. I’ve thought a lot about this myself because my books take place in NYC (or some version of NYC) and my characters are all different races. But because race isn’t an issue in my stories or for my characters it seemed silly to point it out in an obvious way. Could she recollect a moment in her life when someone questioned whether she was related to her parents because of her skin color? When I was a kid two little girls lived across the street. One was much darker skinned. Her sister was lighter skinned and her parents were white. I asked why that was. Not in a mean way, just because I didn’t understand. She very proudly told me she and her sister were both adopted but from different countries. I thought it was cool and I actually asked my parents why they didn’t adopt me because I wanted to be adopted too! I think it’s common for kids to wonder about those things and get asked those questions in a way that isn’t hurtful or racist. Kids can be curious in a kind way.

  3. That’s a tricky one. I think race is most often communicated through culture, so if you’ve got some kind of memento or ritual the character adheres to because of heritage, I think that’s the least invasive way to share.

  4. Crystal has a good point about race and culture.
    Racism did play a part in my last book (also science fiction with eleven different races) so pointing out differences wasn’t difficult. But when you’re not dealing with racism, that’s tougher to do.

  5. Julia Tomiak says:

    Wow, that’s tough, especially because describing physical traits in general is hard to do without sounding “info dumpy”. I like Melissa’s idea- kids often ask blunt questions without necessarily trying to be mean. Or, could Jadie have a thought about it, like she wishes her skin matched her mom’s or wonders why it doesn’t? Good luck!

  6. J E Oneil says:

    I suggest reading some other books with POC main characters and see how they go about doing it. Just make sure it’s not written by a clueless white person trying to act like they know what it’s like not to be white. I read one of those recently and it was very much not good.

  7. mshatch says:

    One thought that occurs to me is how she might compare herself to her birth family. Does she look like any of them? Have the same shade of skin, same eye color, hair?

  8. This post couldn’t come at a better time. Yep, I have the exact same problem. My MC did about the same thing – went 12 yr. old girl and African American on me. It’s also an inter-racial family, but the mother was adopted. I’ve been struggling to ease the differences in because the characters in my book don’t care and don’t even see it (at least, not for awhile). Still, for the story it needs to come across right away. Poke me when you figure it out ;)Please.

  9. I ran into the same problem when I was working on Wish You Weren’t. The main character is mixed race, but his race wasn’t an issue, it wasn’t the point of the book. So it’s only mentioned very subtly. In fact, probably too subtly because I don’t think most people realize. It’s something I’m making a bit more clear in the next book, but I’ll probably end up going back and adding in something to clarify in the first book as well.

  10. I wish I had some good advice from you. I can understand the problem, but I don’t have an easy solution. It does sound like people have given some good advice about culture. Or maybe something she thinks something about how lucky she is to have so many different cultural influences in her life- besides her own background she has her brother, and her adoptive parents- their differences make life exciting. Or something like that. Good luck!

  11. Lexa Cain says:

    That’s a hard one. I’d suggest having her think about something that hints at her race, like she’s broken another barrette because of her thick, kinky hair, or have her like to wear African print T-shirts, or have a friend nickname her Cocoa Bean, or give her a black idol like Halle Berry or Whoopi Goldberg that she wants to be as lovely or as funny as. Sorry, that’s all I got. 😉

  12. I am no help whatsoever, as this is something that I struggle w/too. I shall read the comments quite thoroughly! =) Also, Jax! You mentioned Jax! I’m rereading TED right now, and enjoying it even more this time around, if possible.

  13. Tonja says:

    I am having a similar problem with my novel. Can you put a picture of her on the cover – maybe blue eyes but darker skin? I actually like the fact it doesn’t play in until she meets her parents. But I wonder if that would be her reality. She doesn’t wonder why her parents are adopting children that don’t look like them?

    (BTW – if I click on the comment link from your home page, it doesn’t do anything, so it took me a minute to figure out I had to click on the title of the post to get to the comments.)

  14. Hilary says:

    Hi Dianne .. I don’t know – but the post was interesting to read and obviously worked for you in The Eighth Day …

    I can’t help .. but I wonder if other authors within the blogosphere could … good luck with working it out though .. cheers Hilary

  15. Robin says:

    I think you have some good suggestions here.

    My says that when I was very young (a year and a half maybe???) I saw my first black man. I asked my mom why he didn’t take a bath. It wasn’t racist, but it was the only logical explanation my brain could fathom. I am sure my mother tried to explain at length after that about how people are all different colors.

    The thing about kids is that if they don’t understand something they will ask. And not in a mean way. So, maybe you can work this conversation in very organically when a friend visits your MC’s house for the first time. The question wouldn’t be why do you look like YOU do, but why do your parents look different?