Literary Setting: Default to White
photo credit: flikr: /biernack
I took several creative writing courses in grad school, mainly because I loved the workshops. This was where other writers ripped your pieces to shreds and helped you take the tattered portions and stitch them back into something wonderful. It was the greatest part of grad school, in my opinion, until it wasn’t. One semester, I took a writing class with a professor who made me look at the ethnicity of my characters.
“Why don’t you tell us what they look like?” He asked me, before turning to the class and following up with, “Do any of you know what the characters look like? What race they are?”
“Well, I thought the main character was Black.” One student responded.
“Why?” I asked, and they looked at me, and I looked at them, and we all knew it was because of the color of my skin. But if they couldn’t see me, if they didn’t know what I looked like, would they have still seen my characters as Black?
This conversation, and its subsequent questions, stuck with me, causing me to investigate my own choice in characterization. Was I writing white characters? I had always prided myself on writing ambiguously, because I wanted any and everyone to be able to see themselves in my stories, but would they?
The answer to that question is no.
As science-fiction author, N. K. Jemison, states that it is an “inescapable fact that in any Western society, no matter how multicultural it might be in actuality, most people in it will assume that any character who’s not described otherwise is white.” In the literary world (and other places, but let’s focus on books), “white as default,” is a known term. This is when whiteness is considered the foundation of normalcy and is one of the reasons that many readers default to believing that a character is white, or why publishers sometimes present brown characters as white on their book covers. White as default is easier. It doesn’t require descriptors or clarification. It just is, even when it is not.
We all remember the scene in The Five Heartbeats where the white album cover is presented to the group as the best way to sell the album. Even though this movie was representative of the 1960s, white as default representation of characters still happens, particularly in literature. It was 2009 when Bloomsbury published Justine Larbalestier’s book, Liar, with a White girl on the cover, even though the main character is Black, and 2015 when Rick Riordan finally managed to get all of the covers of his fantasy series, The Kane Chronicles, changed to represent the biracial ethnicity of his characters. Finally, the very next year, in 2016, the world was shocked to find out that Hermione just might have been Black the whole time. J.K. Rowling never gave this character a race, but white as default had reared its ugly head, in all of our minds.
The concept of white as default is so pervasive that even the word “ethnic” has been removed from referencing whiteness, which is just not true. Ethnic does not mean “not white”. An ethnic group is just a category of people who identify with each other. This can be something as simple as American versus European, or as complex as the difference between Ashkenazi and Sephardim Jews. In the case of minority ethnic groups, such as Black or Hispanic, the “minority” portion of this is the differentiation. White is not a race, but a concept, a construct that has slowly swallowed and assimilated all other “white” races. As S. Jae-Jones stated in her blog post with Publishing Crawl, “White” is the absence of race. “White” erases all traces of Other.” So, why then is white the default?
Such a complex question has a very simple answer: dominant culture creates the narrative of normalcy, and in Western culture, that concept of normal is whiteness. When reading, we often only see minority ethnic characters portrayed as their ethnicity, i.e. “his brown skin” or “that Nigerian girl.” This is part of the reason for the literary default to white. If the main character’s best friend is “a Hindu girl with a flair for fashion,” and her chemistry teacher is described as “a Chinese man with bad breath,” but the protagonist is not provided with a distinguishing race, the reader will automatically assume that the character is white. Which brings us to the next question: how do we stop reading white as default?
Part of the answer has been stated over and over again, and is one of the main reasons that Fuzzy Afro Logic exists: If you want to stop defaulting to white, you have to read more diverse books. If all a person ever reads is whiteness, how will they ever not see whiteness as the default “race” in their literature? This is easy to say, but difficult to do. As we all know, white as default is persistent, and even when minorities are characterized by the dominant authors in the publishing field, who are, of course, white (definitely an upcoming blog post), these characters are portrayed as their stereotype rather than as fully autonomous, developed personalities. With that said, stating, “Read more diverse books” cannot be an end all be all. This journey is up to the reader, not just to follow up on recommendations, but to continue to seek diversity in their selections.
Unlearning “default to white” must be intentional.
Reading N. K. Jemison’s The Fifth Season, Octavia Butler’s Kindred, or Edward P Jones’ The Known World is not enough. For every dominant culture book you read, there should be one of other ethnic voices coming up next. After all, even though “White” is the largest ethnic group, even within its subgroups are a series of ethnicities and people whose voices deserve to be heard. When you step outside of the dominant culture, though, there are so many authors to be discovered: Jose Saramago, Chitra Divakaruni, Tomi Adeyemi, Kiley Reid, Julia Alvarez, Haruki Murakami, and many, many others, just to name a few, whose voices open a world of perspective that cannot be told from a white default bias. These perspectives allow for a broadened worldview, which in turn enhances critical thinking, empathy, and so much more. So get reading. Be intentional. Normalize minority ethnic representation.