Why is it so hard to figure out the cultural and ethnic background of so many characters in books? Authors will describe what a character is wearing, right down to their jewelry, but avoid describing their skin colour. Worse still, there are authors who only describe skin colour when the person is not white. This results in the reader seeing all characters as white unless explicitly told otherwise.
Suzanne Collins is known for writing The Hunger Games series. Many people have pointed out the way she takes care to describe the skin colour of characters who are definitely not meant to be read as white but otherwise avoids these descriptions. A lesser-known series written by Collins, Gregor the Overlander, is an even better example. This became clear to me as I discussed the book with my sister, brother, and dad.
The conversation started out simply enough. We were talking about people of colour as the main characters of stories. After a while, we got more specific by focusing on Young Adult novels. I mentioned how much I like Gregor, in the Overlander series. I was met with blank expressions. At that moment, it hit me that none of them thought of Gregor as a POC. My dad, who doesn’t always have a filter between his mouth and brain, made an offensive comment about Gregor’s dad being a professor as if that was legitimate evidence to prove my perception incorrect. I love you Dad, but what the hell were you thinking when you let that slip out of your mouth? Don’t get me wrong: Dad and I had an immediate discussion about why this was such a messed up logic.
I decided to go through the first book with a specific eye to why I thought Gregor was a person of colour. It turned out to be like an Easter egg hunt. Gregor’s sister, Boots, is referred to at one point as brown. He is called tanned. There is a description of Gregor and his Dad’s hair is different than the people of the Underland, but the way it’s different isn’t specified. Since their hair is generally described as light coloured and straight, the impression is that Gregor’s hair is completely opposite.
That’s it. There aren’t any other significant physical descriptions, as opposed to the mountains of descriptions of the way the Underlanders look.
After this discussion, I began a Google search and found a thread on Goodreads.
My dad, brother, and sister appear to not be in the minority when it comes to seeing Gregor and his family as white. Some people were adamant on this point, while others were offended it was even a question anyone would dare to discuss. They said things like:
He’s a great character no matter what ethnicity he is.
Ethnicity is irrelevant. Either he has a story, or he doesn’t.
Suzanne Collins didn’t mean to offend anyone.
Why were these people offended by the topic? Is there something wrong with a character’s ethnicity being clearly described?
Their offence made me examine the problem of why authors like Collins, or Rowling with Hermione, go out of their way to be vague with descriptions of certain central characters. Maybe it comes down to knowing that for a segment of our society, a character loses value when revealed to be anything other than white. Tragically, there are authors and publishers who care about keeping this market more than they’ll ever consciously admit.
Ethnicity isn’t irrelevant. People of colour aren’t just white people with darker skin. I realize this sounds like a ridiculous statement. My point: People aren’t just a collection of differently shaped and coloured features, with varying abilities and gifts. Culture exists.
In both Canada and America, the word melting pot is used too often as a positive term. What is a melting pot? It’s literally a big pot where you throw in metals of different types to put over a fire until they melt together and become indistinguishable from each other.
Why is this seen as a good thing when used as a metaphor for culture? Why is it considered positive to create a default setting for a culture that essentially ruins the cultures of everyone involved?
There is no white culture. The thing white nationalists point to is a myth. It came out of a whole bunch of cultures coming together on a stolen piece of land, trying to figure out how to live together, but ultimately destroying their original cultures to do it. They are trying to hold up the messy goop on the bottom of the melting pot as superior, and we’re supposed to help them do it by creating white default in our writing?
I don’t think so.