Thursday, March 29, 2012

Racial and Ethnic Diversity in AS THE WORLD DIES

The recent racist rants on Twitter about the casting of Rue in The Hunger Games as a young black girl not only infuriated me, but also gave me pause about my own characters that are not traditionally "white."

People of many different races, ethnicity, languages and cultures fill my daily life. When I look out my front window, I see children of all colors walking past on their way home from school. When I open my door to hand out candy on Halloween, I see faces of varying hues smiling up at me. In my own extended family, there are various races and ethnic backgrounds. My own genetic background is comprised of bloodlines from Great Britain, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, and some native blood. Spanish, Italian, and English are spoken by different members of my family. My husband's own background is German and Irish and he has a great-great grandmother that was full-blooded Cherokee. Everywhere I look in my life, from my mirror, to my family, to my neighbors, to my community, there is a diversity that enriches my life. (My hubby and I lament that we only know English and vow to one day learn Spanish)

I am aware that my own multi-ethnic appearance affects how people regard me. I have been taken for a variety of ethnic groups (Gypsy, Spanish, Italian, dark Irish, Indian, Pakistani, Israeli, Turkish, Mexican, Arabic, etc..etc..)and I have been racially profiled after 9-11 more times than I care to think about. Despite my funky colored hair, I am often pegged as being an Arab. I already know that I will always be pulled out of line at the airport. Sometimes I have hostile reactions to the fact I can't speak the language of the culture I have been mistaken to be a part of and have encountered downright angry looks for being with my "white" husband. One Indian woman in our old neighborhood made a point of shaking her head at me whenever she saw me with my husband.

So I have encountered (to some degree)prejudice and also the joys of living in a multi-cultural society.

How could I not translate that reality into my fictional worlds?

 Yet, writing characters of varying ethnicity and race has opened my eyes to the reality of "white washing" in books and stereotypes that are very hard to shake. As I wrote in a previous post, my character of Jenni Blakely is half Mexican-American and half Irish-American. She speaks fluent Spanish and has no issue with her bi-ethnic background. It's just a part of who she is. Her appearance matches that of many Mexi-Irish people I have known with her dark hair and eyes, and pale skin.  Yet, when people suggest actresses to play her role, they often suggest actresses that are not even a part Latina.

At first I wondered about this, then I slowly realized that a lot of people do not live in the multi-cultural melting pot that I do.  Dark hair and eyes could translate into being "Latina" in their eyes.

Common recommendations for Jenni are:
Mira Kirshner
Summer Glau

My own personal pick is Oddette Annable, who is half Latina.

I do try to vividly describe my characters so that the reader can envision them close to how I see them on the movie screen in my head.  The two leading picks for Jenni do have the dark hair and pale skin, but usually not her dark eyes and her Latina background.  I've had a few readers send me emails asking why Jenni was speaking Spanish.  They had obviously missed where she tells Katie her mother was Mexican-American.

Another strange stereotype of Jenni, is a few people who are shocked by the idea of her being so young and beautiful. Though her beauty is touched on several times in the books and her background is that of an abused trophy wife, a few fans had pictured her being older, fatter, and dumpy.  One reader had added a narrative in their head that she had slowly grown beautiful over the course of the books.

But sometimes, no matter how hard I try to paint a vivid image of the character, a reader will default to the stereotype in their head.  And its not the reader's fault.  The media is very good at depicting certain ethnic groups in just one certain way and choose the same actors over and over again to fulfill that role.

For example, Lou Diamond Philips is not Mexican-American. He is of Native American/Irish and Filipino of Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, and Hawaiian descent.  Yet if Hollywood needed a Mexican character in the late 80's and 90's, they usually cast Lou Diamond Philips.  He didn't know Spanish, so he had to learn to say his lines phonetically.  He was also called upon to play Native American roles, which did not cause a protest because he did have native blood.

Lou Diamond Philips became the face of Mexican-American males despite not sharing that heritage.  I have had a few people tell me they imagined a young version of the actor for my character of Juan De La Torre.

Robert Rodriguez
Juan De La Torre is described as a very tall, deeply tanned man in his late 20's with long curly dark hair and green eyes.  He speaks with a thick West Texan accent (he sounds like a good ol' boy), but is also fluent in Spanish.  Visually, in my head, he greatly resembled director Robert Rodriquez who have I have seen around Austin on a few occasions.  He is very striking (he's so tall!) and really freakin' good looking.

Yet, when I asked people who they would suggest for Juan De La Torre, an unusual number picked an actor who is nearly twenty years Juan's senior and not of Mexican-American descent, but actually Puerto Rican.

David Zayas

David Zayas is a great actor. I have enjoyed him immensely on one of my favorite TV shows Dexter.  Yet, he in no way resembles a construction worker in his late twenties with long tousled curls, green eyes, and a boyish grin.  When I pointed this out to a fan, his response that in his mind Juan was a tired, middle-aged man looking for love and found it in (SPOILER) Jenni's arms.

I pointed out the description of Juan in the book, but David Zayas was the only Latino male actor the reader knew so he had altered the story in his head to fit around his visual of David Zayas as Juan.

Lenore doesn't get white-washed, but she does get crammed into the
Amber Riley
negative stereotypes associated with black women.  She's been called "painfully ghetto", "an angry black woman", and "sassy and sexy."


The two friends were complete opposites of each other: Lenore homely, chubby, a bit sloppy, and always grumpy while Ken was cute, fit, immaculately dressed and always in a good mood. 

Lenore basically believes that everyone in the world is pretty much stupid.  She's also a wallflower and doesn't say much, but when she does it is usually pretty funny and a delivered in a monotone.  I describe her as Eeyore to Ken's Tigger, and that sums up Lenore perfectly.  She is not an angry black woman.  And she is not helplessly ghetto (whatever that means) and she is not sassy and sexy.  One reader (and friend) told me she loved how Lenore was  always "snapping her fingers and being sassy." Lenore would rather break off her own fingers than snap them.

Gabourey Sidibe
On Goodreads, one reader was infuriated when Lenore's first assignment outside of the fort was joining the crew who went out to pick the last of the peaches from Ed's orchard.  The reader was incensed the the "angry black woman" was going to pick "peaches" for a white man.  Actually, Lenore's role outside the fort was clearly defined as that as a guard with a crossbow.  And she was freakin' awesome at her job.  And why was this person describing Lenore as angry?  Her barbed comments were not nearly as explosive as Jenni's angry tirades, or Peggy's, or Blanche Mann's.  In fact, Lenore is one of the calmest of all the characters.  While I was being accused of being insensitive, this reader had painted Lenore in stereotypes. Furthermore, even if she picked a peach, who cares?  The fort was multi-ethnic and multi-racial. Everyone is trying to survive.  If people of all colors are in an orchard salvaging peaches for food, does it matter who owned it before the zombies?

Fans often suggest Amber Riley of Glee for the role.  She's a lovely girl and a great actress, but she seems to have become the default "big black girl."  I saw Lenore more along the lines of Gabourey Sidibe. A few fans even suggested girls with a more bombshell look, sexy and sassy. When I pointed out to a fan that Lenore was a big girl, the reader said that was never mentioned. I pointed out a few scenes where Lenore's size encumbered her when trying to escape zombies.  Yet, Lenore was able to escape and was an asset to the fort. Her size didn't matter in the end.

Neville as Lenore
That is one of the reasons I really wanted to depict Lenore on the cover of UNTOLD TALES VOLUME 2.  A friend of mine has a really cute daughter who is also a bit of an Eeyore at times who agreed to pose for Lenore. Neville is prettier and slimmer than Lenore, so she went without makeup and dressed as Lenore does in the book. Her mother took a slew of pictures and I found one that really captured Lenore perfectly.  I then sent the picture to Philip Rogers who was doing the cover artwork.  When I saw the first version of the cover, I loved it, but asked him to change two things. Ken had to have his spiky hair and Lenore needed to be a bigger girl.

Philip's final version of the cover perfectly captures Lenore.

I was very pleased with the picture and happy to have a representation of how I saw Lenore in my head.  Lenore is one of my favorite characters.

"Ken is white?" a shocked fan emailed me.

With a sigh, I realized that because Lenore was black the assumption by a few was that her best friend was also black though he is described as looking Latino.

Sadly, I have realized that until there is more diversity in visual entertainment like TV and film, people will be stuck with the stereotypes that have been fed to them.  This doesn't excuse the sometimes blatant racism of The Hunger Games fiasco, but it does cast some clarity as to why people sometimes overwrite the writer's depictions of their characters of color with their own translations.

This will not deter me from continuing to write diverse characters or attempting to portray them as something other than stereotypes.

So whenever someone asks me why I insist on clarifying the ethnicity/race of a character, my answer will be "Because the default is white and that is not realistic."

What are your thoughts, dear readers?


  1. I have to admit, I didn't expect Ken to be so fair-skinned, but I do remember reading that he was latino. I'm not sure you're correct in saying "the default is white", however. I think it can tend be what ever race/ethnicity the reader is. Do we not imagine characters are the same race/ethnicity as we ourselves are? I'm guilty of this for sure, which is why I so much appreciate your writing style and that you so deeply and passionately describe your characters down to the smallest detail. It helps me build them up in my mind.

  2. Jess,

    Thank you for your comment and compliment! I appreciate it.

    There are some people who say that we self-insert our own ethnicity/race into a character, but I have heard from so many people that thank me for creating characters that reflect them I have to truly wonder.

    Some of the nasty comments about Rue's casting were coming from people of color, so that also gives me pause.

    Take into account the infamous Doll Test that has been redone several times that shows children of color picking the white dolls as the pretty, smart, good ones and the dolls that match their own skin color as the bad, ugly ones.

    I was affected growing up by the "all-American girl" that was on TV. All the beautiful women in TV and movies were blond and blue eyed. They did not look similar to me in anyway. I felt ugly and gross. My mother (smart woman that she is) took me to see a Sophia Loren movie at the local library. Seeing a dark skinned women that was considered beautiful was an eye opener for me. My mother also showed me photos in a magazine from Italy where I saw variations of my own features. That has always stayed with me. I suppose I'm trying to do the same thing my mother did for me.

    In the end I don't want to create characters that are empty shells for the reader to fill, I want to create dynamic characters that people will love.


  3. LOVE this post! Even though I laughed through a lot of it (mostly to the people's surprised and stupid comments) I completely agree that stereotypes will always take over. Especially if the reader missed the part that described a character (which happens - we're so caught up in the plot that it doesn't register). But it's always been one of the parts I enjoyed about this series, I could picture these people, race, color - everything. I thought it really gave it a Texan feel as well since I know it's very diverse there compared to where I live. It also definitely makes them more realistic.

    I also get that if someone has only seen 1 Mexican person ever (in an extreme case), they may divert to them if they read that a character is Mexican. So it makes sense that they would take the most known actor to take their place. But if a character is described as good looking, some of these picks are just... wrong! But yeah, luckily, even though we're not diverse at ALL around here, I can take a stereotype Latina face and modify it in my head to fit a character.

    You just gotta face it, some readers just aren't able to visualize what they don't know, and other are just plain stupid and ignorant. You'll always get people who will perceive their own way and complain when they're told (or see in the case of Rue), what has actually been clear in the books. To me Rue was always black - I remember picturing her in the trees.

    Wow this is long! Ha <--- #1 fan!

    No matter what, your characters are THE most realistic characters in books that I have EVER read which is why I love them so much. And Lenore rocks my socks off! "Lenore basically believes that everyone in the world is pretty much stupid." <-- That is SO me!

  4. @Giselle,

    I do understand when people insert actors into roles. I think that is why I'm also asked who I imagined in those roles. The thing is...I just see the characters as my characters in my head. They don't usually even resemble any actors on TV or in the movies. Odette Annable surprisingly looks a lot how I imagined Jenni.

    Lenore's last line in Siege had me rolling on the ground just about. I love her! Thanks for commenting, Giselle!

  5. I think the natural tendency is to insert one's own race/ethnicity onto a character but when you're a minority who's grown up in a society where almost all forms of media reflect the majority, it screws with that natural tendency.

    As a kid almost all the scenarios and stories I wrote or imagined featured all-american protagonists with wavy blond hair (even the ones starring myself (insert sadface here)), Its only after reading African and Indian literature, and being introduced to world cinema in middle school that I was able to break that out of that morass.

    Most writers put what they know into the books they write, and most writers sadly seem to come from homogenous backgrounds,or are tied to genre conventions (King Arthuritis in fantasy, where the only people of colour are visitors from thee south or the east)

    Most days, the best I can hope for are some ambiguous descriptions that allow me to take some liberties with 'casting', but once in a while writers from diverse backgrounds are able to reflect that in their work, and I don't have to work so hard to see something of me reflected in their characters. Maybe that's why a lot of us end up thanking you.

  6. @Anon,

    I totally agree with you. I definitely went through a period where I know my self-worth was greatly diminished because everyone that was "pretty" was blond and blue eyed. My grandmother, aunts, and some of my cousins fit this ideal of beauty and I felt so ugly compared to them. Only after my mother made a concerted effort to show me beauty of an ethnic color did I finally accept myself.

    Just to show how bad it was during my childhood, my mother had to special order my baby dolls because I wanted black, Asian, and dark-haired babies. (I was Angelina Jolie in my childhood, LOL). My first baby doll (and my favorite) was a little black baby girl I named Daisy. When I was older, I wanted a dark-haired Barbie. My mother searched high and low, but came up empty. She finally found a Spanish Barbie that was a special edition in a catalog and bought her for me. Though her features were exactly like the blond barbie, just having a dark haired, dark-eyed Barbie was the most exciting thing in the world to me.

    When I write, I always remember how I felt when I could find little (or no representation) of me in my books, TV, movies or toys.

    Thank you for your comment, insight, and very kind words.

  7. Hmmm... how does one get labeled a 'gypsy'? I must admit that this intrigues me!!! I want to be a gypsy!!!!!

    Okay... I think that chick is awesome for Jenni, but she needs darker hair! Lol uuuum Lou Diamond Philips would've been a PERFECT Juan even if he is technically Native American!!! Whoever suggested the ugly, fat guy to be JUAN- needs serious HELP!

    We've had so many character "wrong" discussions... you know how I feel about it!

  8. @Bookish Brunette,

    Ashley, I love you, but absolutely NO on Lou Diamond Philips. LOL. He looks nothing like Juan. Don't make me smack you. :P



Thanks for commenting!