Kate (kate_nepveu) wrote,

WisCon: How To Describe Nonwhite Characters Sans Fail

This panel took place late Saturday afternoon, after my "Vigorous Debate or Harassment?" panel, but I am posting it out of order because I will be referring to it in the set of panel reports that "Vigorous Debate" belongs to.


How do we get beyond "Her skin was the color of a delicious Coca-Cola?" What metaphors, similes, techniques, and descriptors are less problematic when describing nonwhite characters' physical bodies? (Starter link: http://www.kith.org/journals/jed/2009/06/12/12163.html)

M: Mary Doria Russell. K. Tempest Bradford, Moondancer Drake, Amal El-Mohtar, Sumana Harihareswara

Everyone on the panel but Mary Doria Russell was a person of color. I would estimate that K. Tempest Bradford, Amal El-Mohtar, and Sumana Harihareswara are all of roughly the same twenties-early-thirties generation; Moondancer Drake is maybe a half-generation older; and Mary Doria Russell is about sixty (per Wikipedia).

This report will be in three parts: an accuracy/nomenclature preface; notes on what was said at the panel; and follow-up thoughts.

First, the accuracy/nomenclature preface:

I took notes on a netbook. I type and process fast, so everything is a close paraphrase unless otherwise noted, either by quotation marks which indicates that I believe I am reporting verbatim, or by a qualifying statement. Corrections, additions, and requests for clarification are welcome.

After much thought, I have decided to refer to everyone on a panel by their first names after the first mention. I personally have difficulty parsing con reports that refer to panelists by initials, and since I think of most people on these panels by their first name and 95% of the time they referred to each other by first name, I thought it better to go for consistency: I did not want any meaning attached to any slips I might make into first names.

Second, the panel notes:

Mary Doria Russell opened the introductions by reading two lists. First:

  • little women
  • little old women
  • little old gray-haired women
  • little old gray-haired Asian women

Question: when did it change? L.M. Alcott to Amy Tan

Another list:

  • caramel
  • oil
  • leather
  • peat
  • honey
  • apple-pie
  • vanilla
  • molasses
  • cinnamon
  • coffee
  • toffee
  • tea
  • walnut
  • cloves
  • sesame
  • coconut
  • cream soda (giggles from audience)
  • butterscotch

These were words used to describe liquors—so it's not the words themselves but the cliches being used

Sumana Harihareswara: replacement for Rachel Virginia Swirsky; proposed this panel

K. Tempest Bradford: read a story describing skin as "cafe au lait." Grew up in Ohio so didn't have anyplace to get, but eventually figured out it meant her. Adopted usage as young writer but then stopped: so if take away easy metaphors, what do you do next? Also previously tweeted something about having skin so like chocolate that has to restrain self from gnawing own arm.

Moondancer Drake: writes multicultural fiction, feels obligation to convey that is multicultural so has to do a lot of description without being squicky, repetitive, etc.

Amal El-Mohtar: "I really like food." (audience laughter) "I confess that when I'm around Tempest I often have to restrain myself from wanting to gnaw on her arm." Wants senses to be implicated in her writing, does use food a lot and is sensitive to issue because is aware that can be squicky. One story opened with comparison to cinnamon. Note: this is "And Their Lips Rang with the Sun" at Strange Horizons, which I like a lot and recommend:

Look at them! Are they not beautiful? Had cinnamon been ground and rubbed into their skin, they could not have been more brown, more fragrant, more beloved of the wine-bright sky.

Mary asks for examples of apt, non-cliched, useful for reader examples

Tempest: find often people afraid to say, "her skin was brown," need to stop that. Nothing wrong with reaching for poetry, but. Catherynne M. Valente's Orphan's Tales, 1st book, Sigrid meets someone not human with literally black skin, remarks that "hey, unlike me who is called black, this person actually is"--from herself, avoid awkwardness of self-description

Moondancer: "brown" doesn't always suffice if multiple characters and want to convey lighter/darker, isn't sufficient gradation

Amal: one of difficulties here is have to talk about these examples in vacuum, in a story text it's not (panel makes jokes about SF scenarios). Story that used "cinnamon" was doing a lot of landscape comparison, at one point used frankincense bark for comparison for pallor. If story describes everything in terms of food, "equal opportunity cannibalism", perhaps removes commodified/objectified/exoticized effect

Sumana: but one of problems is everything get commodified

Tempest: "skin was the shiny silver of an iPad"

Sumana: food very familiar, Weird Al didn't realize had so many food songs until label wanted to do anthology; so food familiar, as are cliches about minerals and wood and such, but are people really spending time in nature? references are to commodified versions. Contrast with N.K. Jemisin's Hundred Thousand Kingdoms:

I am not very interesting to look at. It might have been different if I had gotten the traits of my two peoples in a better combination—Amn height with Darre curves, perhaps, or thick straight Darre hair colored Amn-pale. I have Amn eyes: faded green in color, more unnerving than pretty. Otherwise, I am short and flat and brown as forestwood, and my hair is a curled mess. Because I find it unmanageable otherwise, I wear it short. I am sometimes mistaken for a boy.

Uses wood as flat and boring and non-exotic-y, not male gaze.

Tempest: that's a problem faced more, not that words are wrong but that gaze is wrong, exoticizing gaze. One way to combat: how do people of color describe each other? One of her stories had POV character who spends lot of time coveting other girls' looks, including someone "light-skinned" which means specific things among black people (or "high yellow"? not sure heard properly). Lots of problematicness in that phrase, which was trying to convey. Editor suggested change to "fair-skinned," no, term used about white women

Sumana: move beyond skin color: no pimples, hair length, textures

Tempest: "no more hair like wool"

(someone else, I think) though Bible does describe Jesus's hair like wool

Tempest: there you go, people will say "well it's in the Bible"

Mary: "They say a lot of shit in the Bible, I would not go there."

audience: question re: using other characters to provide reactions to convey description (said had been told needed to make clear that POV character was a girl right away. Sumana: "What, we have to warn for that?" Tempest, in booming voice: "Lady parts!")

Mary: think other characters' reactions are economical way of building world in which character has to survive and getting information to reader about character's identity--not just visual image but society. Is anthropologist, her skin tone is seriously "swine-pink" (anthropologists used to go out with paint chips). Useful to do contrasts/comparison. Gives comparison example she wrote about herself (ETA: as she is now), going into urban high school, feeling tiny around strapping 6' confident black girls who grew up on hormone-fed beef (ETA: possibly "hamburgers") and who had elaborate tattoos.

(Other people have told me that they remembered hearing "Amazons"; it's not in my notes but it's plausible. I also recall "surrounded," but I'm not sure that if that's a quote or an inference from the feel of the description.)

audience: asks for suggestions for writer who literally has never seen POC (I infer from context and later comments that referring to self)

Moondancer: has a POV character who is blind: uses regional accent, perfume, relationship with touch, skin feel

Mary: asks audience member how solved herself

same audience member: is a synaesthete, but difficulty is from sighted person POV

Mary: beta readers, lots of them

audience member: can't have one black friend stand for everyone

Tempest: shouldn't always focus just on looks, what else marks them from specific time, place, culture? ties back into "just say brown," that is the least of your worries in building up character who is real and comes across to reader

Sumana: if people are going to assume that unmarked character looks like the majority, part of answer is not just what writers do, but illustrators and translators do; what is state of illustration?

(there is a digression into covers and perceptions of publishers/buyers, which I do not take notes on because it is a digression and because I have my hand up)

me: asked writers to please specify white if also specifying non-white; important that white not be unmarked state, also helps me calibrate descriptions (that is, otherwise I wonder if you're using Harlequin-style descriptions where "dark" means "southern Italian"). Then I asked about descriptions differing depending on distance of POV, e.g., omniscient or tight-third a la Bujold. In Mary's description, I felt like it was conveying that character was feeling threatened a bit with the tall and tattoos. I ended on plea to stop first-person mirror scenes.

Mary: (quick response before someone else follows up) no! just little

Sumana: Babysitters Club books, those told from Jessi's POV will have somewhere in early chapter, "I'm black and I have to tell you that because otherwise you won't think it" (possibly with mirror), go Ann Martin breaking the 4th wall!

Mary: she writes in not quite omni, inflicts narration with character POV. Nuances (I think, of that narration) very important; not a visual/image thinker

Amal: from her academic side, called free indirect speech (Google is a wonderful thing; I heard this as "free and direct speech"), i.e., not dialogue, third person narration, yet narration inflected by character's personality: Emma, Dubliners.

Amal con't: going back to Mary's description [*], had a twinge, moment of wondering if own self or new character: something to be unpacked, not necessarily about what character is feeling in that moment but how other people will perceive, so one of things to be aware, readers bring different experiences

[*] I am using "Mary's description" here because I did not write down specifically when panelists or audience members said "you" or "Ms. Russell." However, I distinctly remember that several times from this point on panelists addressed her as "Ms. Russell," and perhaps even exclusively. I did not, but I had to fight my instinct to. More on this later.

Mary: and as story develops will become clear what character feels

Moondancer: adds to importance to not relying on just visual descriptions

audience member: puts in further plea for specificity about visual description for "white" beyond hair color, eye color

Sumana: refers to Mary Anne Mohanraj's guest post on Scalzi's blog in which she regretted had fleshed out South Asian character way more than white character who was from a single heritage--Sumana: "wow, that sounds like a malt" (I don't see that specific comment in the post, but maybe it was in comments) (ETA: see comments)

Tempest: (hugely paraphrased) if put as much effort into describing white characters as characters of color, find strategies and ways to avoid fail

audience (Florian): one of problems with description is types of characters that get written: white young thin gender-conforming able-bodied. Goes back to Mary's description, cultural narrative being tapped into of fragile white woman, never see black people described as fragile, tapping into stereotypes of big black women, so should diversify characters that we write about

Tempest: yes, thin able-bodied is another assumed default; how does character move, etc. Re: Mary's description: "urban" pinged her, stereotypical shorthand, need to stop using; felt like looking down from class POV

Mary: isn't that funny, was thinking about looking up at women who were taking up space in way that made them powerful and confident, more awestruck than frightened, so surprised by reaction

(I think here is where she mentioned as an anthropologist thinking about differences in nutrition. I know she mentioned it at some point and this is the logical one, but I am not entirely sure.)

Tempest: coming from different cultural perspectives

Mary: yes absolutely!

Sumana: we're your beta-readers on this!

audience: Jacqueline Carey, Neil Gaiman both wrote books only describing skin color of "white" people; seconds ideas about perspective, doesn't just want to get appearance right and not anything else

Amal: awkward to recommend because read before grew social conscience, but really liked No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency because main character is fat, doesn't seem to be an issue

Sumana: is issue later in series though character stays happy with self as is

(I am told by people who have read them more recently that they portray a very romanticized Africa with "wisdom of simple folk" kind of overtones. They are written by a white Scottish guy.)

audience: is worried about being too subtle and audiences missing

Moondancer, Tempest: there will always be things that people miss

Mary: go subtle, then if betas missing, push it more until comes across without beating over head

audience: references movie? called El Dago? re: Mexican Revolution, learned how to make mole to be like awesome character Petra

audience (different): may be helpful to think of ethnicity rather than race, because ties into to cultural references; as reader, appreciate when stories use those because can look up (to convey skin colors, might not get into X sorority but would get into Y--which Tempest loved, and I hope she or someone else who got the reference will explain)

audience (different): something about reimagining character and becoming more real/attached as writing

Third, the follow-up thoughts:

I want to preface this by saying that I spent a lot of time at the con talking about this panel and frequently said that I thought that it was very instructive. Which I do, but I fear that comment may have minimized or dismissed how offensive Mary Doria Russell's description was and how upsetting other people found it, whether because its offensive stereotypes hit closer to home or for other reasons. (As a woman of Asian ancestry, I get a pretty dissimilar set of stereotypes.) It wasn't my intention, but it may easily have had that effect. I apologize for being thoughtless in the way I spoke.

Here are the ways (many!) in which I think the panel was instructive.

The description itself.

I can see how it started out; Mary said that she found it useful to describe things by contrast, and clearly she went for maximum contrast. Which gets you extremes of height and skin color and age. But pretty much everything else in the description was not required for that purpose, and instead reveals non-conscious stereotypical associations. Put another way, tall black and young doesn't get you "urban," doesn't get you "hormone-fed beef," doesn't get you "elaborate tattoos," doesn't get you the word or implication of "surrounded."

Which reveal the aforementioned stereotypical associations, most of which were discussed during the panel, but one that came up after was the "hormone-fed beef." This undercuts the stated conscious consideration of differences in nutrition because it implies an external unnatural modern influence on the teenagers' bodies. Further, it evokes the idea of the oversexed black woman.

Because I always have to say this: I am not saying that Mary Doria Russell is a bad person or had bad intentions. I am saying that racist attitudes are pervasive in society and sink down into people's worldviews and if they aren't noticed and examined and questioned, they enter into writing exercises (and many other things!) and are hurtful and offensive and reinforce structures of oppression. So people need to be aware of the existence of these stereotypes, rigorously question their own words and actions when they approach areas of stereotype, and listen to other people's critique--especially when preparing for a panel on avoiding fail, oh my goodness. To do otherwise is irresponsible and entirely worthy of critique.

The response.

This is now Exhibit A for "it is so not true that mean brown people are just waiting to pounce on any little thing and tear people to shreds." Every single damn person in that room bent over backwards to be polite and respectful and non-confrontational. I mean, panelists were calling her "Ms. Russell!" When was the last time you heard one panelist accord another an honorific? People were incredibly careful to phrase things in terms of the writing and not the person who wrote them—I did it myself when I said it sounded like "her character" was feeling threatened, when she'd explicitly said she was describing herself.

Which shows two related things in turn. As we discussed on the FAIL! panel later, it's the people who are privileged and powerful who fail. (On the relevant axis, that is. Mary Doria Russell doesn't have privilege when talking about gender, but she does about race.) As a result it is hard to speak up against offensive and oppressive statements. I have been getting more practice in these things and I still had to psych myself up and plan it out and brace against a hostile response. (No cookies, please.) And I was in the audience and have no career aspirations in the SFF industry. (One of the reasons I raised my hand is that I could tell at least some of the panelists had reactions to that description and I thought, whether rightly or wrongly I do not know, that it might be easier for them if the subject had been raised first by an audience member.)

And this is an example of how not to escalate the situation when your actions are challenged as problematic. Mary didn't apologize. But she didn't say that people were wrong/ignorant/racist/(personal insult here) for criticizing her description, or walk out of the panel, or declare her massive personal offense, or any of the other horrible things I was imagining and I'm sure many other people were too. I realize that this is sad, that "listening to criticism with apparent good humor and responding calmly" is surprising. But just as it's hard to give criticism, it's hard to receive it too, especially in real time, and especially when it's about race. She could have handled it better. But she also could have handled it much worse.

ETA: a bit more discussion about "better" in comments.

Finally, this is now my example for why it is not intrinsically easier to have conversations about race in person rather than online. It was harder for me to speak in the panel than it would have been to comment online. It was probably harder for Mary to hear things and process them in real-time than to read them and have the luxury of time to think before responding. These things may be offset by other factors, but that (1) is another set of panels and (2) does not change that it was not easier by virtue of being in person.

Also, the rest of the panel was interesting and useful as well, and I hope it doesn't get overshadowed.

ETA 6/2/11: Mary Doria Russell has commented via a friend and apologized.

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Tags: cons, cons: wiscon, cons: wiscon: 2011, race

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