I was toodling around on the internet, as I often do, when I came across a discussion about ethnicity and unspecified characters. It was interesting, so I followed the thread for a little while.
The discussion was about how readers imagine characters when the author didn’t specify which ethnicity the characters were. One of the participants said that they imagined all the characters as white if they weren’t specified, and one of the others argued that this was racist, and that they imagined the characters as they were described by the author.
It is true that Western society as a whole has been socialized to see white as the default ethnicity. This is how our society was constructed, and it’s a hard mindset to get out of. When I was younger, I also imagined unidentified characters as white, and not First Nations, which is my ethnic background, because I didn’t see myself as a default, I had been trained to view myself as an anomaly. Sometimes it was even difficult to imagine characters that were described as non-white as such because it was so ingrained in my head that in order to be important, characters had to be white.
As an off-shoot discussion, this is why diversity in visual media is so important, because I didn’t start to realize that not all characters had to be white until I started seeing media branching out. Shows like Avatar: the Last Airbender, The Proud Family, shows in which a lot of the main characters and not just a token character were POC.
What that person in the conversation said was ultimately true, it is racist, but it’s racist in an insidious way, because it’s not intentional, it’s been hard-wired into people’s heads to think that way. Overwriting our social coding is really difficult to do. Society is inherently racist, and many people ignore it, because we’ve been taught that people who are racist are intentionally racist. That is a very harmful fallacy that removes responsibility from all of us to try and change how society functions.
It took me years to recognize how much I had been brain-washed into only seeing white people as important enough to have a place in a narrative. I had to train myself to not only see other writer’s characters as POC when described as such or possibly POC when left undescribed either way, but I also had to train myself into writing POC characters.
I have written numerous POC characters. All of my Shui-long characters in Across Borders are Chinese. Silveira and her family from Insanity Girls are Indian. Stella from Rangers over Regulus is black. Every character in Hakusan Angel is East Asian, and most of them are specifically Japanese. Maira from Love Rampage is Brazilian. I’m listing them off, not so I can say “look how diverse my characters are, look at how inclusive I am, give me a gold star,” but to tell any readers that might have had the same problems as I did that yes, these are all people of colour.
Now, for the characters I didn’t specify, because there are a few. I didn’t think it was necessary or important, but that might have been an oversight.
I didn’t specify the ethnicity of anybody in Envy’s band or their manager. Personally, in my head, I saw Jae as Korean, but since it’s not in canon, that will remain unspecified. The city from Insanity Girls is based on Vancouver, which is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in Canada. I didn’t specify the ethnicity of Liberty in Rangers over Regulus. In my background notes, Liberty himself isn’t entirely sure either. But it should be noted that he was born during the “cowboy and indian” days of the United States, so there’s a possibility of him being a mix. I also didn’t specify almost anyone in Sky Knights. A lot of them are probably Eastern European, but it also should be recognized that Russia spans an entire continent, and people living in the far east of Russia have a closer resemblance to Eastern Asian people than to anyone in Eastern Europe.
I’m not asking for miracles. This is a hard paradigm shift to acclimatize to. It needs to be acknowledged that changing the way you think is not an easy task and it won’t happen overnight. But it is important to try, even if it is difficult.
Just something to think about.
One thought on “Ethnicity and Unspecified Characters”
And actually creating characters of colour prevents that jarring moment when a character with a gratuitously non-European name turns out to have been Whitey McWhiteperson all along. (eg. Yuki or Jasmin or Lakeisha etc.)