I hope I've articulated all this correctly and not offended anybody...
Today in my Contemporary Women's Literature class we discussed Toni Morrison's story "Recitatif." It's the kind of story I'm not very good at reading -- it's very literary, doesn't have a linear plot line, and it's full of obscure symbolism and literary devices you study in English classes.
When I read it by myself this week, I wasn't really sure what to make of it. I was a little confused, but discussing it in class made a world of difference, and it made me start thinking about the issue of race in fiction.
In "Recitatif," two young girls, Twyla and Roberta, meet in a kind of orphanage, and then again ten years later, and they basically have an encounter every ten years after that. One of the girls is African-American and the other is caucasian, and there are a lot of racial tensions between them that affect the way they see the world.
The thing is, though, that we don't know which girl is black and which is white.
There are hints dropped all over the place, but they are very contradictory. On the second page Twyla refers to Roberta's enormous hair -- could this mean that she has big, curly, African-American hair? Or could it just be that she has a perm, since it takes place in the 70s? Later on, the two women are picketing on either side of a debate related to segregation in schools, but we don't know who is on which side! We don't know who is opposing segregation and who is supporting it; all we get is the way the women interact from either side of the issue.
It's really a remarkable story. ANYWAY, the point of this post was something that my prof brought up: since we get a contradictory physical description of both Twyla and Roberta, so we don't know who looks like what, what does that show us about the way people of different races are depicted in fiction?
In my experience, and this happens often in YA, if the main character isn't specifically described as belonging to a certain ethnicity, he/she is assumed to be white. If the description we get of our female lead character is that she has dark hair and dark eyes, couldn't she technically be African-American, or Asian, or Hispanic, or European, or Black Irish, or anything? And if she is supposed to be a certain ethnicity, it's mentioned right away, using semi-offensive terms like "coffee-coloured skin" or something. She's labelled right away as being THIS type of person.
This is really making me think about how my own writing could be more diverse and inclusionary. But at the same time, I don't want to make it so multicultural that it's unrealistic!
It's a slippery slope. But I'd definitely like to fill my novels with lots of different types of people. Isn't variety the spice of life?