Black Lives Matter. Martin Luther King’s Birthday observed. Race is a biological fiction but an ever-changing social reality. Shifts in culture, not DNA, transformed Jewish-Americans and Italian-Americans from non-white a century ago to white today.
How do we speak of race in our writing? Click here for helpful suggestions. There’s a slowly growing discomfort with assuming people are white unless otherwise stated. Workable alternatives can be tricky.
Fantasy: Cinderella or Santa Claus can be any color or none. Martians can be green.
Journalism: Associated Press style is to specify race or ethnicity only when pertinent, as in a racially motivated crime. Race could be part of a fuller description to identify a missing person or a suspect at large, but it’s meaningless without more detail.
History: Public figures in non-race-related U.S. history have been so consistently white that when they aren’t, race is part of the story. Stating that Barack Obama is African American doesn’t oblige you to specify that Millard Fillmore was white.
Fiction: Context and context clues--dreadlocks, igloos, or tortillas—may be all you need. Race may be irrelevant to your story. To clarify interracial interactions, provide indicators for everyone involved. Another way besides physical description is to put words in another character’s mouth: “What’s a nice Irish girl like you . . .?”
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.