Of Race and Character

From the interwebz - Artist Unknown (but gifted)
Rue and Katniss from “Hunger Games: Take from the interwebz – Artist Unknown (but gifted)

I’ve been reading articles all afternoon on the dearth of minority characters in books. I find that amusing, as I’ve written 4 books and a short story collection rife with minority (and non-minority) characters. Rather, I think, the articles should consider why books with minority characters don’t garner anyone’s attention.

I remember reading the horrified comments left by moviegoers after discovering that The Hunger Games’ character, Rue, was “made black” in the movie. “Oh, my god, she’s, like, totally black.” (Dear racists: LEARN TO F**KING READ!) It amused me, because of how obvious it was that she and the other District (was it 11?) tribute were black. (I spent most of my time assuming her district was ATL.) In fact, the author did everything but name them Shaniqua and DeJuan. The amusing part was that few seemed to notice that Katniss Everdeen is described in the book as having an olive complexion, with words to purposefully leave her ethnicity ambiguous.  The author’s message, in my opinion?

Race is nonsense. Some people are black, some white, some other, most people are mixed … who cares?

I agree, wholeheartedly. Which is, oddly, why I am so adamant I’d never want the race of any of my characters to change.

Charlie Patterson – he likes being biracial, but would Hollywood like it?

Race doesn’t matter, except in the real world. I think it’s imperative that writers create a palette of characters that reflects reality. While I pick my characters randomly, including their ethnicity, once it’s selected, I try to weave it into the story. After all, in the real world, race, at a personal level, means family, and family means histories. We are all the result of our personal and familial histories. To change one, as so often happens in Hollywood, trivializes what is beautiful about ethnicity, while subtly encouraging what is ugly. It’s probably fortunate no one is offering to turn my work to movies – I’d never sign the contract they’d want. (“Robin LeBeaux is a Mexindirishfrenchican girl, dammit!”)

We watch characters change race, so the movie-going audience can more readily relate to them, instead of allowing audiences to learn the characters and discover the differences and similarities on their own. We promote divisiveness for the sake of marketability, well-intentioned or not. In so doing, we don’t learn how a character’s Norwegian, or English, or German heritage affects them. We don’t learn whether being a Nuyorican affects the businesswoman’s outlook significantly. We don’t get to revel in the differences that bond a group; we are too busy watching the similarities that often tear them asunder.

Differences do not make for weakness. If you think they do, allow me to point you to Darwin and genetic science.

But I wonder, as I create characters of specific racial, ethnic, or religious heritage – must they be perfect? If I want a female lead to be flawed – to have improper boundaries, substance abuse problems, to be weak or imperfect – must I make her my race so as to not be called “insensitive?” Must she, in fact, be male? After all, I as a black male couldn’t possibly know what being a Native American female is like, can I?

We, as a world society, have painted ourselves in these monochrome corners, and the only way out is for us to paint multicolored exits. I’m writing a serial/book, with a flawed, non-black-male character and wondering if society will believe it to be a good thing or simply another reason to throw bricks. We must be willing to take chances, I think, and hope that we achieve enough of a balance that at the end, the characters’ redeeming qualities are what are remembered and the flaws what allow us to fall in love with them.

In the meantime, I will continue to hope for a world in which Katniss Everdeen looks like the dark-hair ethnic girl you wish you’d been brave enough to ask to the prom.

7 thoughts on “Of Race and Character

  1. moclaylady1@gmail.com says:

    Don’t know if I’ve mentioned this, but I just LOVE it when you get all fired up! Keep writing Bill, I’m still reading.

  2. Carissa says:

    I grew up in very odd place: Hawaii. It’s all mixed up and beautiful there so as a white-woman-who-still-feels-like-a-local-girl living on the mainland, I feel so out of place. My childhood and high school years were just about who liked you and who you liked. Skin color was just like hair color. And we loved the multicultural paradise we lived in.

    1. Bill Jones, Jr. says:

      That’s much like MD where I live. There are no majorities – it’s like 33%, 25%, 20%, 20% one “race” or the other. As a result, you deal with people because you like them. Good people and jerks come in all shades.

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