Some examples from my own writing, submitted for your consideration. Not a claim of correctness or The Best Way or anything of the sort. Just my way. And yeah, this is in part inspired by a certain very lengthy discussion of race, representation, and respect in the SF/F community that took place recently in the blogosphere. But I also just felt like sharing.
ETA: And because this post continues to get hits months later, folks might be interested in Part 2, which was posted at the Magic District.
Some of this is published, some forthcoming, some is not pub’d and never shall be. Taken from shorts and novels.
Across the park’s wide avenue stood a new figure. He had depicted himself as a tall middle-aged male, Shanghainese and dignified, dressed in an outdated business suit.
Meroe stared at the girl, not liking what he was seeing. The avatar was just too well-designed, too detailed. Her features and coloring matched that of some variety of Latina; probably Central or South American given the noticeable indigenous traits. Most of their kind created Caucasian avatars to start — a human minority who for some reason comprised the majority of images available for sampling…
To protect himself, Meroe adopted his default avatar: a lean, bald human male clad only in black skin and silver tattoos. Zo became a human female, dainty and pale and demurely gowned from neck to ankle to complement Meroe’s appearance.
He was a thin brown man with a quiet manner and a noticeable slouch.
He watched the blackeyes of my nipples rise and fall…
I sat on the riverbank, twisting my hair into rows along my scalp. It would dry overnight and then I could let it loose to dangle in spirals like a cloud-dragon’s neck.
His skin was darker than any glancing touch of the sun could produce, a color that reminded Jinn of a warm late-autumn day.
She would never have taken up jogging if there’d still been people around to watch her, maybe point and laugh at the jiggly big-boned sistah trying to be FloJo. Before the prolif she’d only just begun to shed her self-consciousness around the Japanese. They rarely stared when she could see them, and her students had gotten used to her by then, but on the street she’d always felt the pressure of the neighbors’ gazes against her back, skittering away from her peripheral vision when she turned. The days of Sambo dolls at the corner store were mostly over, but not a lot of Japanese had seen black people anywhere except on television.
Wealthy men had commissioned sculptures with lips less lush, bones less graceful; sugared currants were not as temptingly black as her skin.
Instead he had only Anai herself to contemplate: a plain-faced female of distressingly common mien, whose thin frame at the moment was adorned by a stained burku wrap and a magnificent black eye. Anai could guess the old bastard’s thoughts from his face. This is the Shadow? he was doubtless ranting to himself. This gutter scum, the color of tea dregs? She’s not even pretty enough to be a whore.
He had no skill at gauging human ages, but she seemed only two, maybe three decades old, not even halfway to death yet. Lean as an alley cat, equally quick and graceful in her motions; brown-skinned and white-toothed and clever-eyed.
He wore very little, trusting the darkness of his skin for camouflage as he crept along the tower’s wall guided by the sounds of the city.
He had strange eyes — a clear, pale brown, like amber from the tall forests across the sea. Amazing that these Gujaareen had allowed even their royal line to be diluted by northern stock.(Note: this is from a novel in which nearly all the characters are southerners, who are generally black in varying shades; context makes it clear that “northern” = “white”.)
Where they were shades of brown and red-gold, his skin was a matte deepness of black, hinting at blue in the Hall’s variegated light.
Up close, he saw that despite the masculine dress she was pretty in a lowcaste sort of way: small but sturdy-built, her face broad and high-boned, with skin the warm ocher of ripe pears.
She had no idea of the Banbarra’s origins, but they had clearly mixed themselves less widely than Hanani’s folk. Though she caught the occasional glimpse of hazel eyes or paler skin, for the most part they were brown of hair and skin and eye, with sharp features that seemed naturally fierce to Hanani.
She’d ornamented her natural attributes carefully: gold and topaz to emphasize the shading of her flesh, sapphire to offset her black hair.
I got the crown of his head at first, and marvelled as always at the feel of hair like my own — soft-curled, dense but yielding, thick enough to lose my fingers in. The first time I’d touched him I’d thought he was one of my people, because only Maroneh had such hair.
Men praise parts of me endlessly — always the parts, mind you, never the whole. They love my long legs, my graceful neck, my storm of hair, my breasts. (Especially my breasts.) Most of the men in Shadow are Amn, so they also comment on my smooth near-black Maro skin even though I tell them there are half a million other women in the world with the same feature. Half a million is not so many measured against the whole world, I suppose, so that always gets included in their qualified, fragmentary admiration.
My hair, which someone had tied back into a puff in an effort to control it, broke the tie and clouded loose behind me.
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.
Observations after looking at this:
- I frequently write stories in which all or most of the characters are PoC, and thus I describe them only in contrast to each other. (e.g., one is old, the other is young…) In such stories brown becomes the default, so the only characters I describe explicitly are the white ones.
- Am also surprised to realize that I write a lot of stories in which appearance isn’t described at all, though race is obvious from context — e.g., “Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters”, which takes place in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina. There’s a handful of white, Latino, etc. folks in the Ninth Ward, but I took the risk of assuming that anyone who’s watched Katrina coverage on TV will default to assuming that the characters are all black (they are). So again, I only described them in relation to each other. Also, since I lived in NOLA for several years, I took care to use the particular city dialect used by black New Orleanians vs. white New Orleanians (actually there are several variations of each, but I picked the black NO dialect I was most familiar with, which actually may not be accurate because I mostly hung out with people from NO East, not the Ninth Ward, but anyway), but I suspect that’s too esoteric for most people to pick up on.
- Am also surprised at how often I describe white people. Going to have to come up with some new words for them, though… I overuse “pallid”.
- I often use names to convey ethnicity. In “Commission on the Establishment of Extrasolar Trade:
Evaluation” (unpub’d), the two viewpoint characters are named Paul Srinivasan and Thandiwe Solomon, and later it’s noted that Thandiwe is from South Africa (it’s a Xhosa name). Stole Srinivasan’s name from a friend’s Indian husband. The same story has a Gilberto (Brazilian), a Wei (who is the only one explicitly identified in the story as Han Chinese), a Principe (Puerto Rican), a Wheton (could be anyone in any Commonwealth/Western-colonized country, but I intended her to be British, and white), and a Rafkind (ditto, but intended to be American, and white).
- I also use a lot of indirection that’s unfortunately easy to misinterpret. In “The You Train”, I never mention that the viewpoint character is black. Her dialect hints at it, as does her mention of a blonde co-worker. But she could just be Southern; a lot of white Southern (and for some reason, Midwestern) women talk the same way. And maybe she’s a brunette. But anyway.
ETA: Whoops, forgot one from The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. That last quote is a description of the protagonist there.
I’m curious to see others’ descriptions. Anybody reading who’s a writer — would you be willing to post some of yours, in the comments?