Monday, May 14, 2012

Racial Identity in Your Writing

Is it a good idea to describe someone who looks like me as “Asian-American” in your novels?  The usual answer is yes, and anyone who uses the term “Oriental” is ignorant.  But let’s consider: 

When I was in one of those politically correct workshops that employees are forced to attend about diversity (which is just a way an employer has of checking off a box about sensitivity, so if any employee makes a bigoted statement, they’ve covered themselves), one black woman laughed at the term “colored person.”  She said, “When I hear the term ‘colored,’ I feel like asking ‘What color’?  I’m not a ‘colored person.’  I am a ‘person of color.’” 

I felt like asking, “What color?”  But I didn’t want to get in trouble. 

You might tell from that comment that this particular workshop was several years ago.  Those color terms didn’t last long.  The main terms for black people within recent memory have been “Negroe,” “black,” and “African-American.” 

Before we go on, here’s a picture of my favorite African-American actress: 

Charlize Theron
photo by John Harrison

For my review of her movie Young Adult, click here

Here’s my second favorite African-American actress: 
Musetta Vander 
photo by MadMarlin

She’s had guest roles in Star Trek and Xena, but I liked her small role in the movie version of The Wild Wild West

And here’s my favorite African-American news anchor: 

(Sorry, no non-copyright pictures, so click on the link for Google's pictures)

She’s recently written a book about heart disease for spouses, after her husband had quadruple bypass surgery. 

What’s my game here?  Well, Charlize Theron and Musetta Vander are both from South Africa.  Jamie Colby has South African ancestry.  They are all African-Americans. 

It’s a long story, but some intellectuals and civil rights leaders decided that young black people didn’t feel any significant ties to Africa, so they came up with the term “African-American.”  To follow suit, almost all minorities were given some hyphenated –American name to match.  So people who look like me are currently called “Asian-American.” 

I hate this term.  Who else are “Asian-Americans”?  People from the Indian subcontinent, for one.  The people I’ve known with Indian ancestry do not resemble me racially; they are actually more closely related to Europeans, but with different skin tones.  That area is sometimes called South Asia now.  Also, a lot of Arab people could be called the same.  They are said to be from Southwest Asia. 

(The exceptions were Hispanics.  The term Latin-American was already in use, and it meant someone living outside the U.S.A.  The old term was Chicano, and it was going to be brought back.  But then Sotomayor became a Supreme Court justice, and the terms Latino and Latina have been making a comeback, but the terminology for that ethnic group is in a state of flux.) 

So, what is my point?  Just as a novel that uses terms like Negro, colored person, and person of color for a black person looks dated today, so will all those hyphenated –American terms look silly about ten years from now.  Many people today (like me) already think they’re silly, and poke holes in those terms.  There’s nothing wrong with describing what a person looks like, or what the person’s exact ancestry is. 

I don’t mind it if a person who looks like me is described as having almond-shaped eyes.  Be creative.  You might even write, “He preferred being called Oriental, because he disliked the term Asian, since that includes a number of races.”  Is there a possibility that someone with a screw too tight will get offended by one of your descriptions?  Yes.  But that will happen no matter what.  Go for an innocent description of the person’s appearance or specific ancestry.  


Jess said...

Great post. :)

LTM said...

Hey! this is a great post! If these topics aren't discussed, how will anyone ever know what people prefer?

So not Oriental, eh? ;p j/k

Mark Murata said...

Thank you for your comments. I wasn't sure I wanted to post on something controversial, but I'm glad I did.


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