• Color My Words

    Posted Posted by Guest Writer in Rants & Raves     Comments 21 comments

    Here are some labels I never want associated with my name, or with my writing: minority, black, African-American. Not because I’m not happy to be those things, but because I’m so much more. When I write, I’m not telling black stories: I’m telling human stories. Labels lead to marginalization.

    Recently I read the excellent essay “Literature and Democracy,” in which Pablo explores his concerns over labels, especially the ethnic kind. “Suddenly,” Medina writes, “the person’s worth as a writer is of secondary importance to the social labels we, as critics and readers, are able to tag on her.” Even though, as he says, “What matters about truly great literature is the totality of its human content.”

    Lately I’ve been thinking about the color my words take on. In my vision, the characters I write often look similar to me, which I take as a reaction to the fact that in what I read, the majority of the characters do not look like me.

    What I’ve been trying to deal with in my writing is how I can create a fully-fleshed character without describing superficial physicalities like facial features, or hair—or skin color. I want a reader to love my character, to see him/herself in my character’s shoes before finding out she doesn’t look anything like them.

    It’s not that I want to create some kind of twist or “Aha!” moment. It’s just that for all my life I’ve felt like a chameleon: but instead of me changing skin colors to fit into my surroundings, the people around me choose my ethnic background to suit their tastes.

    I don’t know what it is about me, but the brave and curious people who question me about my background do so because they don’t know what to label me. I don’t fit any of their preconceived notions. In one situation I was even asked if I was adopted … because I spoke well and was attending college.

    Perhaps this is why I write my characters with ambiguous descriptions. Before readers are able to identify the character as foreign to them, they’re in the foreigner’s skin and experiencing things through the foreigner’s eyes—and hopefully finding that, apart from the normal variations from one person to another, there are common threads that weave through all of humanity.

    Does it truly matter if a person—including a fictional one—is one color or another? In the grand scheme of things the fact that some characters have a little more melanin in them shouldn’t make them any less identifiable.


    Jacqui Bryant’s love for reading, ability to create adventure, and general curiosity for all things unconventional in life may outweigh her ability to write well. But she hopes not. 

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    Laura Roberts

    You know, I have always wondered why “white” is the assumed color of all characters, unless described otherwise. And then when you start to write a story and need to describe your characters physically, why must you start using weird adjectives like “toffee” and “caramel” and “mocha” to express their skin tone? Isn’t it about who they are as people that matters more than their color or race? Equally, I think it’s a bit weird that people assume female writers write about female characters, and male writers about male characters, but sometimes there is that disconnect when you say “Oh,… Read more »

    Jacqui Bryant

    I agree, although I’m less worried about being labelled as a female for a few reasons, the main one being that females read (or at least according to data in 2009 buy) more fiction.

    I also agree with the descriptors and want to add one: mahogany.


    […] just read a thought-provoking piece about color and race by Jacqui Bryant on the WriteByNight blog, I thought of Winterson, who most […]


    Hey Jacqui! This is my first time to this site (by way of YouTube, searching writing tips), and yours is the first post I read. First I wanted to thank you for writing this and sharing your experiences. While I don’t agree with your stance completely, I still respect the thought behind it. Not to say that my view is “correct”, it’s just my perspective. I’m a woman (a human, most days ;), African-American/Black, etc, 29 years old. Live on the east coast, parents from the South. I love seafood. All these things, make up parts of who I am.… Read more »

    Ashley Ford

    The last two paragraphs of this comment are pretty everything I wanted to say. Thank you.

    Jacqui Bryant

    Hey Daki, Thank you for commenting. I agree about the general close-mindedness of readers, which is why I generally don’t describe what the characters look like, at least at first. I also don’t mind the term colorblind if it means you’re willing to give my work a shot. Plus what you describe is what I thought the spirit behind what term was: someone who is racially colorblind doesn’t let race influence their opinion on you. Saying you’re colorblind does give the impression that you’re ignoring the uniquity in each person instead of embracing it, but we’re all wordsmiths here, perhaps… Read more »

    Ursula P. in Austin

    I was reminded of this blog post while at a conference today where a Chicana author said 50% of the book buying public is “minority” yet 90% of the protagonists in the books they are buying are white. Writers have to clarify the ethnicity of their characters or, as Laura pointed out, it will be assumed that they are white. Because most of them are! I am an American Indian and try to clarify the ethnicity of my characters, especially when they are American Indians because except for Sherman Alexie books, I never see them (us) in stories. And I… Read more »

    Jacqui Bryant

    That’s an interesting statistic about minority readers I hadn’t heard, thank you for sharing.

    Whenever someone describes skin color using food, I end up getting up to grab a snack. If I hadn’t read “The Hunger Games” so fast, I probably would have gained ten pounds.

    Christopher Savage

    It’s so difficult to remove ourselves from the hegemonic ideal of an non-described character. Because of pop culture, it seems most people assume a person is white unless specified otherwise. This is obviously too bad because sometimes it’s the utility of being a human being that sells the story.

    Leah Kaminsky

    Really thought provoking post, Jacqui, as are these comments. Out of curiosity, does the same assumption of whiteness bias exist in cultures that are predominately non-white? Does an Indian living in India assume the characters they’re reading are Indian, or do those biases change based on the author’s last name (i.e. what country they’re assumed to be coming from)? And, do these assumptions vary based on colonial influence? For instance, would someone in a place like the Dominican Republic, where the European colonial influence was strong, be more likely to assume a character is white than someone in China, which… Read more »

    Jacqui Bryant

    I haven’t and I feel silly polling my friends from other countries and pronouncing some kind of results from that as conclusive, however you bring up an excellent point and it’s something that is definitely worth looking into.

    Leah Kaminsky

    Yeah, that would be awkward, for sure. :) Bet there’s research out there somewhere! Will have a search myself.

    Jacqui Bryant

    After I posted this I remembered this TED talk by Chimamanda Adichie where she talks about growing up in Nigeria, on a university campus, and how all the books she read at an early age were British and American and when she started to write stories she thought that they could only be about people who didn’t look like her because every book she’d ever read involved characters that didn’t look like her. Here’s a link to the talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html However that is a single story of one woman from Nigeria and the point of Adichie’s talk is the danger… Read more »

    Leah Kaminsky

    Oh yes, I remember that one! Great talk. But you’re right – just one story, and with bias entering into any curation, it’s hard to know how global the experience is. Thanks for reminding me of this one.

    Charity Kountz

    Well said and I definitely agree! I believe it’s too easy to get carried away with various labels when at the end of the day, we’re all human, we’re all in this big world together, and we need to accept and make the best of it by celebrating the less obvious things that make us different from each other and celebrate just being humans. The obvious exterior differences don’t matter, it’s what inside that makes us all unique. Awesome post and I hope we start seeing societal changes toward this level of acceptance.


    Very interesting read. Thanks for posting, Dave.

    […] a (somewhat) related piece, our own Jacqui Bryant writes here about having labels ("minority, black, African-American") associated with her […]

    […] “Color My Words,” in which Jacqui Bryant discusses racial labels and authorship. […]

    […] “Color My Words,” in which Jacqui Bryant discusses racial labels and authorship. […]

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