As a brown woman, I’m constantly struck by the ways in which nonwhite characters are exoticized and othered in works of writing. It’s really, really difficult to read a supposedly #diverse book only to have the only character that looks like you set apart and deemed “less of a normal human being” than all the other characters. I definitely don’t speak for all people of color in writing this post (we’re diverse individuals!), and this certainly isn’t the biggest issue facing communities of color. But reading and writing diverse fiction undoubtedly influences our Western-centric culture and our attitudes toward people of color in every day life.
Here are five tropes I’ve noticed in many books that exoticize or other people of color.
1) Describing a nonwhite character’s skin as the color of x food. Usually chocolate. Nonwhite people are not food. Comparing nonwhite people to food just emphasizes the fact that writers often can’t be bothered to normalize the idea that some people have brown or black skin. Colette explains this much more eloquently on her blog, Writing with Color, which also offers some suggestions for writers struggling to describe nonwhite characters (and to not compare them to food).
2) “She looked so exotic.” or “She was pretty, for a [insert racial/ethnic group].” I’ve actually seen this in many books, some of them YA. When there’s a nonwhite love interest, she is often described as “exotic,” which is I think the most blatant way of exoticizing a character. This reinforces the idea that nonwhite people don’t truly “belong” here and are extremely rare, even though you can literally go to any major city and see thousands of nonwhite people. The idea that someone is “pretty, for a [racial/ethnic group]” essentially says that we’re somehow inferior to white people because nonwhite people do not always conform to Eurocentric beauty standards. Nonwhite people are beautiful, and you don’t need to distinguish us from white people when you say it.
3) Representing all nonwhite characters as foreigners. There is a huge population, especially in the United States, of nonwhite individuals who were born and raised in Western countries. We aren’t foreigners in any sense of the word, even if our parents were immigrants. When nonwhite characters are constantly represented as literally from India, China, Mexico, or an African country, it serves to enforce the idea that all Americans/Westerners are white, which is simply untrue. In addition, it erases the hyphenated-American experience, which is very different from the immigrant experience.
I have often had people ask me (non-maliciously), “What part of India are you from?” or, when I tell them I’m American, “No, but where are you really from?” Representing American nonwhite characters in books can help to combat the “perpetual foreigner” stereotype faced by many nonwhite people.
4) Giving nonwhite characters arcs that are only and completely about race. Growing up, I was always frustrated by the fact that when I did find a book about people of color (and there were very few), they were almost always about race. While race does play a huge role in the everyday lives of people of color, and its impacts absolutely should be discussed in books, we are more than the color of our skin. We are capable of being superheroes and investigators and aliens (just throwing this one in there because of the awesome SNL skit) and Chosen Ones and so much more, and we should be represented as such. No one should ever be defined solely by their race.
5) Writing stereotypes. I think this should go without saying, but I’ve often found that many authors don’t do their research on specific ethnic/racial groups and the stereotypes surrounding them before writing a character. If you’re not a certain race or ethnicity and want to write a character of that race or ethnicity, just do some Googling before you start writing! Many of these stereotypes are subconscious, so it’s important to be aware of them before you begin. For example, you may know to avoid the stereotype of smart Asian-Americans, but you may not be aware of the model minority myth, which erases Asian-American experiences of racism, leads to increased mental health issues among Asian American and Pacific Islanders, and is anti-Black. Do your research.