Tag Archives: writing about characters of color

Writing Without Using Labels

In the October 2010 issue of The Writer Magazine, Lynn Capehart writes a powerful article, entitled “The importance of inclusionary writing.” Before Capehart even begins her article, she asks a question that might stop any writer in his or her tracks:

Are you unwittingly saying more than you mean to in your treatment of characters of other races?

She doesn’t write about whether or not characters of color appear in our stories. She draws attention to the way some writers describe those characters when they do play a role. A description – or lack of description – of a character of color may fuel a sense of inequality. Capehart says that often  “[white] writers…will not mention race unless the character they are writing about isn’t white” (p. 34).

When I read that quote, I immediately thought of one example where I did just that. And, like Capehart points out, I did it without thinking. My choice, to include the race of a particular character in a story I wrote, never sat well with me. But, I had considered and re-considered my use of language. I thought I had a good reason for using that description. And, I never pinpointed the real source of my discomfort.

Capehart’s article suggests that I didn’t need to mention race at all. She does admit that sometimes “[a] writer will find it…constructive to the story, to simply mention a character’s race up front” (p. 34). But often, as proven by the writing samples Capehart analyzes in her article, the mention of race does little more than add a label to the character; it rarely adds texture.

The solution Capehart offers, in lieu of identifying race, is a technique writers turn to all the time when constructing narrative or dialogue — Show, don’t tell. Capehart says:

If a writer does a professional job constructing a character, readers will know the race without being told directly (p. 34).

She also highlights several benefits of using inclusionary language in our writing:

  • Inclusionary writing helps a reader see a character beyond their race, as an “individual with a unique set of talents and tics” (p. 34), and breathes much more life into that character.
  • Inclusionary writing shows respect for readers of color and, in doing so, broadens a writer’s audience.
  • Inclusionary writing gives each character the weight they deserve in the story, whether they play a major or minor role. As Capehart says, “[e]xclusionary writing diminishes any character who is not white” (p. 35).
  • Inclusionary writing supports equality, because “it treats all races alike” (p. 35).

To be fair, Capehart doesn’t let Writers of color off the hook, saying they must do their part to avoid labels as well and give white characters “the same relevance as nonwhite characters” (p. 35).

Capehart’s message throughout her article remains powerful, yet simple: a character is a character, no matter their gender or race. If I, as a writer, make an honest effort to study and describe each character as an individual, I am more likely to find myself writing inclusively.

*****

Capehart, Lynn. “The importance of inclusionary writing,” The Writer. October 2010: 34-35. Print.

You can also read Capehart’s article online here.