Writing About Race in America, a beginner’s primer

With this year’s presidential race, much is being said and argued and bantered about concerning another race: that is, race as cultural and ethnic distinction. As a writer who has written extensively about race (in my novel Soul Catcher), I often cringe at our candidates’ discussion (or lack thereof) of the subject of race in America.

I was recently reminded of an essay I came across many years ago regarding writing about race, an essay that in its simplicity challenged many of my own assumptions as a writer and teacher of writing. The essayist was a fiction writer and instructor talking about a single line from one of his or her students’ stories. The student had described something as being “flesh-colored.” A simple enough and seemingly self-explanatory description. But think about that for a moment. Flesh colored. We see such a term in many places, and in many contexts. On TV, in various ads. I’ve seen it even in works of literature. I myself have used this or a similar term—something being called “flesh-colored.” How many of you have used such an expression in your writing, used it without batting an eye, without in the least thinking you were making a political, social, cultural, or racial statement, one grounded in a certain world- and cultural-view? You might respond to this by saying what’s the big deal? That one’s use of the term “flesh-colored” in a piece of writing speaks as much about the writer-reader context, that is, the shared assumptions a writer is making about his assumed reader’s experience as it does any racial prejudice or lack of cultural sensitivity on the writer’s part. But of course, this is complete and utter nonsense. At best such a choice of phrases speaks of the ignorance or at least laziness of the writer; at worst it suggests a not-so-subtle prejudice. Is there any writer who would not acknowledge that using the term “flesh-colored” is making an erroneous assumption which either a) excludes any reader whose flesh is not my particular skin color (i.e. white, or actually, depending on how much whisky I’ve had, a ruddy Dickensian pink); or b) and more to our purpose as writers, suggests we are being imprecise or, simply, a bad writer?soulcatcher