Why White Guilt Is The Least Important Consideration In My Work

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  • Bethan

    Brilliant article, read it three times. I have a question, how do you feel about the portrayal of black people in predominately white books? I’m sure there are exceptions, but it seems to me that skin colour is always the character’s first defining feature and is usually described in terms of food/drink e.g. caramel, chocolate, coffee. Whereas this is not the case for white characters, despite many different “hues”. Even if they’re described as particularly pale, milky, translucent, tanned etc this is never the first trait attributed to them and so what defines them physically, it’s always eye colour, hair colour, size, stance, personality. Conversely, how do you feel when skin colour isn’t mentioned at all yet alluded to, like in Harry Potter 1 when literally the only non-white character in the entire book is described as having “dreadlocks”, thereby playing into ingrained cultural associations and assumptions. Then later in the series the only Asian characters are given distinctly Asian names so we can identify them so. Yes, it’s 1990s rural Scotland, and 2010s rural Scotland is just as diverse as it was then, but it begins in London and the students are supposed to come from all over Britain by way of genetic selection that transcends class, race, sexual orientation, or any other factor to do with identity. This seems to epitomise a trend in books by white authors in which all characters are assumed to be white unless indicated otherwise. Do you think a “colour-blind” approach would be more desirable in contemporary literary fiction, in which skin colour doesn’t even come into it and so the reader “casts” the characters in their head as whatever race they happen to imagine for whatever reason? Or do you think disassociating identity from social context would be impossible? If the latter, should the solution then be for more authors to write more diverse books regardless of their own race? Or do you think white authors would be unable to write “real” non-white characters because they just can’t fully identify with treatment and experiences they’ve never been the direct object of? If not, to what extent do you object to the rhetoric of race? Is it always problematic or does it just depend on that particular author’s mindset and style of expression? Moreover, what about books out with the genre of literary/realist fiction e.g. sci-fi/fantasy, in which entirely new humanoid worlds and histories are created. Surely the lack of BAME characters here is downright racist? Would you want an explanation for why a certain character or race in a created world looked a certain way or is suspension of disbelief enough? Would diversity in the race of characters then seem problematic, like “token” races thrown into the story to make it more diverse and therefore directly dependent upon the race, persuasion, political agenda of the author? Or would “over-explanation” seem equally “self-conscious”? Sorry this single question turned into such a tangled web of musings but as a prolific reader/writer I’m just really interested in different perspectives on this! Thanks