This week, the Debs are discussing the ethics of writing marginalized characters, and let’s be honest: it’s a little awkward, ‘cause this year, the Debs are all white chicks. No one intended that — the initial selection for this year’s set included two WOC, but both ended up having to decline — and it’s definitely something we’re all aware of and that we’ve tried to correct for by making sure our guest posts represent the wonderful diversity of the writing community. But it’s still a Thing. So buckle up, and be prepared: this topic is too important for me to doll it up with my usual sardonic gif use.
There’s a lot to wrestle with here. I’m a member of several marginalized communities myself, but with the exception of my female-ness, my marginalizations (religious, sexual, and neural) are largely invisible. And I’m white. So white. Descended-from-Plantagenets white. So whatever challenges and micro-aggressions I’ve dealt with as a result of my other marginalizations, I’ve still had the privilege throughout my life of not really having to think about race.
Like white folk everywhere, I’ve had a lot to learn and unlearn. I grew up thinking of myself as totally not racist. Of course I’m not! Everyone’s equal! We all bleed red! Skin color doesn’t matter! Growing up in Virginia in the 90s, this was the “right” way to be, as a white person. That’s what you got taught. We were supposed to be colorblind. It’s much more recently that I’ve learned how problematic that is. Erasing the issue doesn’t solve it; it just lets us white folk call it solved, brush off our hands, and move on to thinking about less uncomfortable things. And that its, itself, racist.
My childhood thoughts and beliefs on race came with the best of intents, but I grew up in a predominantly white community, and so for many years, I never really encountered any pushback on them. Thank the gods for the internet. My high school and college were a little more diverse, and I started having more friends who made me rethink the assumptions I’d grown up with, but so much of that unlearning happened online. Various communities on LJ, Tumblr, and Twitter exposed me to viewpoints I had never really thought about before, made me question things it had never before occurred to me to interrogate. I’m a better person for it (though certainly still far from perfect). I now make it a point to follow a lot of writers of color, to listen to what they have to say, not to inject myself into conversations that aren’t about me, but to amplify the voices of the marginalized whenever I can. I’m trying to learn, and I’m trying to do better. I get no cookies for this; it’s just necessary.
My approach to these issues in From Unseen Fire is a little unusual because of the world I’m writing in. Two thousand years ago, the concept of race had nothing to do with your skin color and had more to do with where you came from, where you’d moved to, and how long you’d been there. Immigrants and slaves came from all over the empire, and in just a generation or two, a family could jump from the lowest to the highest tiers of society. There were African- and Spanish-born Roman emperors; Septimius Severus and his son Caracalla were almost certainly what we would now call black. People had plenty of problems with both of them, but the color of their skin doesn’t seem to have been an issue. During the Imperial period, citizens from Britain to Morocco, from France to Syria all called themselves Romans. They might call themselves other things, too, and those things weren’t mutually exclusive from being Roman. Race and nationality didn’t mean the same things then as they do now.
I’ve striven to show what a diverse world ancient Rome was, both in my cast of characters and in the “extras” that we see in crowd scenes. Two prominent side characters are a pair of soldiers from North Africa. They call themselves Mauretanian immigrants to Aven; we would certainly call them black. The High Priestess of Venus is mixed race, part what-we-would-call-Italian and part what-we-would-call-Turkish. Another mage is a dark-skinned Numidian, daughter of a freedman. Two prominent ex-slaves are fair-skinned: one what-we-would-call-Slavic and one what-we-would-call-French or -Swiss. The Iberians are mostly brown-skinned and russet-toned. I want to show the spectrum at all levels of society. There are rich and poor, powerful and marginalized in every skin tone. (And the system of who had what kinds of power in the ancient world was ridiculously complex — I’ve written about that before on my personal blog) Prejudices between cultures certainly still existed — historically, pretty much everyone looks down on everyone else as in some way inferior — but they were different than the prejudices in modern society.
Furthermore, pretty much none of the peoples who occupied those territories in Europe and around the Mediterranean two thousand years ago are the same as the peoples who occupy them today. There have been too many mass migrations, too many conquests. The people who are Italians and Greeks and Egyptians now are not the people who were Italians and Greeks and Egyptians then. If I misrepresent something about Celt-Iberian culture, there are no Celt-Iberians to call me out on it.
But that doesn’t let me off the hook.
The cultures I’m writing about may no longer exist, but their descendants may, and people who look like them certainly do, so I still have to be thoughtful and sensitive as I describe them. I want to make sure I show lots of different kinds of people as having their own agency and their own strength. I want to make sure I code many different kinds of people as beautiful, admirable, desirable, but without doing so in a way that’s problematic or, well, icky. This isn’t just about skin color or other racial markers, nor is it just about geographic origin — I also want to make sure I’m coding people of different body types, abilities, etc in those ways. But those physical markers have so much wrapped up in them that they require due consideration.
A few years ago, there was a big conversation on Tumblr about how to describe POCs in writing, specifically about not using food words or other commodities (think: cocoa, cinnamon, ebony) to describe skin-tone. At first, I was confused. A lot of the voices contributing to that conversation said things like, “We never describe white people this way!” when… well, yeah, we do. We talk about a peaches and cream complexion, or milky skin, or ivory, or alabaster, or porcelain. And since those descriptions almost exclusively get applied to female characters, if the problem is the issue of commodifying bodies, that would seem to be problematic in similar ways. It took me a while to wrap my head around just what the problem was, much less how to solve it.
What I landed on, though, is that my feelings on this? Don’t fucking matter. I’m not the one hurt by it. I don’t get to decide if those descriptions are problematic or not. My responsibility is to listen to the folk who are affected by it. And even though not all writers of color agree on this or avoid those terms — I had a black writing teacher once who absolutely loved describing “caramel” skin — it bothers enough readers that it’s worth far more to be aware of it and try to adjust than to shrug it off. It makes me a better writer to think of less-cliched ways to describe a character’s appearance anyway!
(If you’re interested, this is the best guide I’ve found to describing skin tone while avoiding problematic metaphors; it also goes into some of the “borderline” potentially offensive terms, like those related to wood or metals.).
The thing is… I’m gonna screw something up. I’m trying to learn to be better and do better, but I have no doubt there are still many things I haven’t considered in the right ways, simply because my privilege has insulated me from having to think about them. As much education on these topics as I’ve sought out, there’s still going to be something I miss. Sometimes, I’m going to screw up because, hey! marginalized groups aren’t in of themselves monoliths, and people don’t all think the same way about things just because they share a skin tone or a common heritage, so there’s a good chance that I might write in a way that pleases some and displeases others. Hell, there’s a good chance I’ve misstepped somewhere in writing this blog post. The best I can do is be aware of that likelihood and the blind spots my privilege has given me, not get my back up in haughty defense when it happens, and learn to do better every time I can.
And — I can encourage my fellow white women to do the same. We don’t call ourselves and each other out enough. The responsibility of doing that shouldn’t be on those who are already burdened with so much. We need to talk to each other about race, about how privilege shields us from so much, and about how we can choose to expose ourselves to life experiences that don’t match our own. We need to read diversely and encourage others to do so. We need to seek out sensitivity readers (and here’s a great article by Dhonielle Clayton about what that means). We need to talk to each other about how we can help without being patronizing, without speaking over others, without making it about us.
We have to do better.