There has been a ton of great conversation lately on race in writing--the editing of Huckleberry Finn to remove a derogatory descriptive word, the casting of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss in the movie version of Hunger Games, plenty of other fab blog posts and discussions spurred by these and other events.
First, a pair of opinions. Yes, I think it's lame that someone felt the need to edit the "n" word out of Huck Finn, and would only be ok with this if they had put in something completely ludicrous that would draw even more attention, like "bubblegum sparkle ostrich feathers," so that you were reminded of their idiocy as you read. And no, I don't think it was bad casting unlesss Lawrence turns out to butcher the role, as, yes, I think Katniss is white. Historically, Appalachia is a predominantly white area, and is in fact often cited as one of the few regions where white people have poor access to health care, education, and other opportunities, making it somewhat of a rural inner city in terms of access. I could really digress here, but I won't.
But what is it about race and books that has such a propensity for setting us off?
Well, race is sensitive and books are often ambiguous. Unlike in movies, you might not know a character's race right away in a book. Take Katniss and the other residents of the Seam in Hunger Games as an example--I assumed they were white because of my understanding of the setting and how I applied the descriptions. To me, olive skin and grey eyes are white descriptors, because my father has olive skin and I see grey eyes on white friends of mine (and not on black friends). But they could easily be perceived as features of a mixed racial background, as well. So be bring our prejudices--and yes, we're all prejudiced by our experiences, I'm not using that term in a negative way, but a realistic one--to the book we're reading. If this was just about whether a character was tall or short, it would be a funny happenstance--"Oh, you thought Katniss was short? I totally read her as tall! How funny." But race is such a charged subject that we have a tendency to go on the defensive, or just get really uncomfortable.
Plus, let's be honest, race has a nasty history. It takes a skilled and sensitive writer to balance honesty about how characters might feel about race with how the reader will react to the character and a world in which race may appear in different ways than it does in our experience. This is especially true in stories that take place in the past, where racism was often much more open, in an imagined future where race might take a starring role in class-making, or be eliminated or undiscussed.
In stories set in the past, some stories set today, and many stories set in imagined worlds, we have to accept that characters will be racist. Not all, perhaps, and possibly at varying levels of horrifying opinions, but nothing peeves me more than when writers--especially in historical fiction in times and places where we know the average person was a blazing racist--ignore the race question in places it needs to be addressed, or have perfect, enlightened Mary Sue characters who all have lovely outlooks on the futility of defining a person by race. Yeah, right. In our past, even white individuals who didn't personally perpetuate horrors like slavery, the Trail of Tears, or internment camps still didn't usually view other races as "equal" to them. In the present or in imagined futures or other worlds, you can avoid race--but only if it makes sense for the story. When race comes up in the story a writer has to deal with it with an honest but sensitive outlook. You have to be able to write compelling, even (gasp) likeable characters who are racists if we're going to write about times and places where racism was rampant. Hard? Yes. Even harder when readers aren't open to it? Definitely. Acceptable to ignore the hard truths about racism in favor of puppies and sunshine? Nope.
What this might boil down to, even more than race, is what we expect from our characters. We don't want to touch icky stuff with our characters--racism, sexism, religious intolerance, moral ambiguity--because it makes us look for these things in ourselves, as readers and writers. But isn't that the point of books? To provide new outlooks, safe spaces for exploring ourselves, and provocation and questions?
Sorry if this was a ramble--but it's something I'm having to look at it my own writing. I wrote one story set in a time and place when slavery was normal, and it simply wouldn't have worked to have modern-thinking characters. They accepted the black people their families owned as normal, and I didn't delve into it much beyond that. I question if this was the right attitude to take in the writing, or if it would have appeared to a modern reader to ignore the problem, even though it was an honest portrayal of history and of the characters I imagined. I'm now working on a story set in a speculated future in which my little pocket of characters is all white (not me whitewashing, but a completely legitimate circumstance). When they encounter people of other races, it's tied up with culture shock as well. How can I deal with this sensitively--yet still maintain the strangeness for my characters of people who simply look so different?
How does race crop up in your writing? What about favorite books that deal with race--how did they approach telling a story fraught with potential pitfalls?