Does casual mention of a person's race bother you?

A few have mentioned books, this sort of speaks to a dilemma I’m having. A little writing project I’m working on is a sort of travel adventure about an 18th century sailor, written in the form of a period journal. The trouble is, the 18th c. European’s view of the world would be considered decidedly un-PC today. Just about anyone who wasn’t a Protestant Englishman was pointed out, among other things.

On one hand, I can’t have him arriving “…in a sloop belonging to Mr. Simpson, of New York, a Jew merchant, of which sloop he was then quarter-master.” or “…not regard whom they chose as a commander, provided he was not a Papist, for he had conceived a mortal hatred to Papists.” or mention “The cook was a young Guinea negro, with a pleasant countenance…”. Even though those would be true to the period, I’d be branded a racist for sure.*

On the other hand, renaming everything with modern terminology would be out of place. Describing the cook as “…a young gentleman from the west coast of Africa, with a pleasant countenance…” isn’t true to the material, they just wouldn’t have used that terminology then. There’s little that grates me more than modern sensibilities imposed on a period piece. Nothing takes me out of a story faster than reading a passage and thinking “There’s no way they would say that, people just didn’t think that way back then.”

Any suggestions? How do you feel about such references in literature set in time periods where such casual racism was a given? I’ve been skirting the issue right now because I haven’t gotten very far yet. Some things would be easy to avoid (I don’t have to say he hates Papists, or note every Jew he meets) but to do this for the entire voyage would be severely limiting because I would have to generally avoid any place with largely non-English populations.

[sub]* All those quotes are taken from period sources, BTW.[/sub]

If it is obviously a period piece, I don’t think the style above is that bad. I would replace “Jewish merchant” for “Jew Merchant” and maybe slight modifications to tone it down where you have some discretion and can still make it seem accurate enough. Saying nigger every third paragraph wouldn’t be good but Negro isn’t that offensive to many people and it is still in limited use today.

Only if it was unnecessary. If I’m trying to point out a person, I might say, “Go ask Bill-he’s the tall black man standing over by the door.”

However, if it’s not relevant, who gives a shit? Why bring it up?

Don’t skirt it. Embrace it.

Make your protagonist both the POV character and a somewhat redeemable bigot who happens to see everyone and everything in racial/religious terms. Embrace that character’s worldview: he thinks he’s better than everyone else just because he’s a white man. This might be ripe for skewering, or you could show how he’s the product of his times where white supremacy and widespread institutional racism tended to support that attitude. More tellingly you might try inverting this and try doing the same thing with with a privileged Chinese immigrant or black slaveowning character, subtly showing how socioeconomic status helps define racist views, too. Read how Kipling, Hemingway, Marcus Garvey and Anais Nin handled race. Check out Alan Moore’s two volumes of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Read slave narratives and see how racist attitudes were so ingrained that even blacks themselves referred to each other as niggers.

Above all, try to have fun with it. Think: what would Al Swearengen say/do? Aim to fascinate with ugly words and noble actions and the long-suffering of those not in the privilege caste of gender, class and race.

Keep in mind that every diehard bigoted and racist writer whose works I’ve ever had (sometimes) the misfortune to read has a multitude of creative and casual slurs at hand to describe the lesser races. Find a few within and without your comfort zone and use them well. You might discover your main character thinks calling blacks “those damned monkey darkies” is genteel and charming.

You will have readers who will take offense and this is unfortunate. Be true to your work; with luck, you’ll find your audience.

Says who?

Yes, this bothers me. I grew up in North Carolina, but my parents were from California. To this day, my mother insists on including “black” whenever she refers to people she knows who aren’t white, but I get the impression that she feels she is doing it as a way to show that she wants to be considered race-blind, as in “I have a friend who happens to be black.”

I oppose this so much that I have a hard time including race in even a basic description of people, without feeling guilty about appearing prejudiced. I truly do not want my kids to believe that there is any inherent difference in race or culture among their classmates, other than how they look.

However, it’s pretty common even in the media. When there’s a news story about a wanted criminal, the description will often read something like “5-foot, 6, male, black hair, mustache” for a white suspect, but “5-foot, 6, black male, black hair, mustache” for a black suspect.

In other words, there are lots of instances in our culture where you are expected to assume that the person is white unless otherwise specified. Keep your eyes and ears open for it.

Ditto’d. Although I do find it amusing watching people struggle through the “Oh, you want to talk to the manager? He’s the, uh, guy, over there, dark hair, brown eyes… um, darker, you know, skin…” when “The manager? He’s the East Indian fellow over there” would suffice. Pointing out that someone is East Indian is not racist. If you did so while making fun of his accent or something, that would be bad.

However, referring to people from Japan, the Phillipines, Laos, Thailand, etc. etc., as “Chinese”? Not good. Unless you enjoy looking like an idiot.

Mixed feelings, here.

From the OP’s description, it sounds, at the very best, the verbal shorthand of someone who’s taking the easiest way to describe people. And it’s not unreasonable, with a larger sample size, for people to come to the conclusion that it may indicate racist attitudes.

But, visual cues are the ones that humans most often triage with. So, it can be perfectly innocent, too. (Plenty of examples in this thread.)

As many others have said - in books, it bothers me when white characters’ race aren’t mentioned, because they’re “normal” but other characters’ races are. I also tend to put down any book that goes on and on over “coffee-colored,” “caramel colored”…etc. First, it’s a horrible description and doesn’t convey any useful information, and second, it comes across as colorstruck to me.

In speech - I do notice somewhat negatively when people use racial descriptions when they aren’t necessary. A lot of the time it’s a lot less innocent than the speaker wants to admit.

No, I wouldn’t say that, but I might say “this jock guy” or “this blonde lady” or “this cowboy-lookin’ dude” or something. If there was a characteristic that made the person stand out from just “the generic human someone would mentally picture if given zero details” then I might mention it, just for the distinguishment. I would do this ESPECIALLY in a case such as the OP. I mean, she’s a teacher. She sees these kids every day. Chances are, she’ll talk about them more than once. It would be fairly unrealistic to expect other people to remember her student’s names, but if she gave them more details than just “this girl” or “that boy” then future references to the same child might stick out a little more. Or if the story was about more than one child, the detail could help differentiate them in the narrative. Unless there is some implied judgement or assumption tied in with the descriptive used, then I just don’t see a reason to get upset. Most people, when describing one person, will name the most notable difference between that person and other likely people (in that group or story or the listener’s imagination or whatever). Sometimes it’s race. Sometimes it’s gender. Sometimes it’s height or weight. Sometimes it’s hair color. Sometimes it’s “the guy in the red shirt”. You use whatever makes that person stand out.

My brother put me into what was for me an unnecessarily awkward situation some years ago. He’d told me about a man that went to his church and said we thought alike, he reminded him of me, etc. and I must meet him. Let’s say his name was Alex. So, there I am at the end of the service (it was a house church by the way, so we were meeting in a school hall) and this black man comes up to me and says, “You must be Roger”. “Yes,” I said, “um…I don’t think we’ve met”. He said, “I’m Alex - your brother told me a lot about you.” I almost did a double-take, such was my surprise. I could have killed my brother for this…

I think that for large parts of the country* this is a valid assumption. If you turn on the tv and flip through most of the channels, the vast majority of the people you see will be white. So when describing a character on a tv show to someone who has never seen the show, the person probably will assume the character is white unless you specify otherwise. This would be a logical and valid assumption and not something sinister. Likewise, when I go out in my neighborhood, most of the people are white. Not all, but most. When I travel by air, most of the people on the plane are white. When I’m driving down I-75 through the middle of Atlanta, most of the other drivers are white. It’s the default for “generic America” because…it’s true. And yes, minorities (they’re called minorities because they’re in the minority, btw) make up a healthy chunk of our population, but that chunk is subdivided into many different racial groups. I think (please if someone has the actual statistics, feel free to jump in) something like 80% of the US population is white.

I guess my point is just that yes, people do see white as the default. But there is nothing wrong with that. It may not be “politically correct” to acknowledge the racial makeup of the country, but that doesn’t change the actual math.

I want to note that while I don’t know if I can call myself 100% not racist, (because I’m not sure that it is possible to never develop any racially-based opinions/observations,) but I am not a racist by any reasonable definition of the word. Racism disgusts me. I have friends of virtually every racial makeup, religious background, and to a lesser degree, socio-economic background (admittedly, very few of my friends are mega-rich. In fact, only one comes to mind) and I have also met people from most of these groups who I dislike. shrug I tend to come to conclusions about people on an individual basis, and have raised my son to do the same–and so far, so good. Dominic has never seemed to show any kind of preference to any race over another, or to see it as anything more distinguishing than hair color or other identifying features. Heck he was “engaged” to a black girl for two years, from grades 1-3! But I digress. I am not a racist, but I am a very visually-oriented person, as well as someone who really likes adjectives, and will give visual descriptives of any kind more often than most would, probably.

I think that it’s very hard in our (our=generic American) culture to find a comfortable line to walk when it comes to “race stuff”. On the one hand, race is a fact of the world. There are races, and no amount of PC posturing is ever going to change that. Maybe thousands of years from now after we’ve all boinked around the globe, we will become more homogenous, but right now, there are all the colors of the…well not the rainbow, but you know what I mean. On the other hand, race is still a very emotionally charged element in our society. Bringing up race automatically raises the question of motive (as evidenced by this thread). Acknowledging observable trends in racially-based cultures is often seen as bigotted even when it’s not. Proclaiming one’s innocent motives is often seen as making excuses or covering up or backpedalling. I think the backlash of PC overkill has created a big, muddy, confused mess regarding this issue (it isn’t the only factor to blame, but it’s a big one). I’m victim to it myself. I recently decided against telling a group of people, in a completely relevant conversation, that I had once been “chased through the desert by a drunk Mexican” because I worried that someone would take it as a slur against hispanics. On the contrary, it’s just that I only know two things about the guy. One, he was drunk. Two, he both looked Mexican and was driving a car with Mexico plates. (This was in Tucson, AZ.) It is just in my nature to try to give a visual description of something when relating a story, and I think I’m not alone in that. “I was chased through the desert by a drunk person” just doesn’t conjure up the same mental image–nor is it likely to conjure up one that is very accurate to the actual event. I think it is sad that I not only hesitated, but decided against mentioning it because of the way people might react to it.

Do you also put down books that refer to someone’s complexion as “milky white” or “peaches and cream”? I’m not a fan of completely excessive descriptive exposition, but I do like to have a non-generic mental picture of the characters I am reading about. Is he tall? Short? Big boned? Scrawny? Does he have freckles? Acne? Short hair? Red hair? Dirty fingernails? Baggy pants? These are all things that I enjoy when sprinkled into character development. I think that “coffee colored” and “caramel colored” are quite different skin tones, and if the author’s mental picture of a character is “coffee colored” rather than “caramel colored” I don’t see any reason at all not to mention it, and give the reader a chance to share the “same”*** mental picture, any more than I’d get annoyed by being told a character’s eye color or body type.

Besides the visual, racial descriptions also give us a little bit of insight into character as well. A man walks in to a job interview for a position at a car dealership. You put yourself into the character and imagine…ok…little nervous, probably took extra care getting dressed and grooming that morning…maybe excited, too…whatever. You imagine a lot more about the character than just what is written. (If a character’s girlfriend dies, you don’t need the author to tell you that the character is sad). Ok, now let’s change it a little: An attractive, tall, blonde man with dazzling and perfectly straight, white teeth walks in to a job interview for a position at a car dealership. You may have a slightly different mental picture… maybe you imagine he’s more confident than if you hadn’t had any description, for example. Ok. Nix the white guy and make him a black character. Do you have a different sense of the character’s emotional motivations and so on if I describe the man as being “caramel” versus if I described him as being the color of mahogany? I would. I would imagine the backgrounds of the men would have probably been different. Unfortunate as it is, a very dark black man has probably experienced more racial “stuff” than a light-skinned black man would have. He might be more nervous about getting the job, he might be concerned that the person doing the hiring was prejudiced, etc. In other words, the character is more fleshed out, and more real. Your impressions of the mental/emotional state (regarding self-confidence, past relationships, outlook toward the opposite sex, etc) of a female character would be very different if she were described as tall, thin, blonde, with a tiny waist and big boobs versus if she was described as obese with thick glasses, greasy hair, and bad teeth. It’s the same thing. Character development.

Um. This got way longer than I expected. Sorry about that.

*the US
**I know this is the oft-trotted-out defense of actual racists, I know… I know…
***obviously unless there are illustrations the picture won’t actually be the same, but it will be closer. I love footnotes!

If it’s part of the description I don’t have a problem. If it’s part of the story, I don’t have a problem. If the speaker is someone who says “the little black girl” and “the little blonde girl” simply as a way to label things in her mind, I don’t have a real problem (otoh, “the little blonde girl with the real cute pink dress with all the bows” really gets on my nerves, but it would do so even if the dress was green).
There’s a book that you’d probably love, if you can find it. I don’t know if it’s ever been translated into English; I think someone told me it has but even so it might be unfindable. Its original Catalan title is “Mecanoscripte del segon origin”, “Typescript of the second origin”. Apocalyptic situation, the book is the story of a girl and a younger boy as they make their way through the carnage and become the new Adam and Eve. She narrates.

At the end, they get stoned by a group of survivors who are calling them degenerates and yelling racist insults. My own reaction was “uh?” - and then I realized that yes, waaaaay back in the first chapter, the girl has mentioned that this boy was coffee-with-milk. Since it wasn’t important to survival, it hadn’t been mentioned again.
Getting that reaction is, of course, one of the “points” of the story.

Graduate school in the US, first day of class. I get back home and my roommates (all of them International Studies) ask about my day. I say there’s about 20 new grads in my school, including 2 Koreans, 9 Chinese…

Poinky-boingy (my nickname for her), who is sort of a Legally Blonde wannabe without the brain or the money, interrupts: “I can’t believe you said THAT! That is such an insulting word! You must noooot say Chinese, you must say Orieeeeental.” Last sentence total Sesame Street.

“Well, my apologies, but I don’t see how ‘chinese’ would be insulting to someone who is from the People’s Republic of China. 6 of them are from Shangai U, 2 from Peking and I didn’t catch the name of the other one’s town. I did mention Koreans, too, I do know the difference.”
“Oriental” for “far east but I don’t exactly know where or I know he’s not from China”? Ok - but like anything else, the sin is in the abuse.

I had someone in a chat room several years ago try to rip me a new asshole for referring to the Mexicans who sold tamales in front of the grocery stores when I used to live in Tucson. She ranted and raved that “Mexican” was a slur and you had to say “hispanic”. I stood my ground though. I mean these were Mexicans. They weren’t even Americans-of-Mexican-descent. They were Mexicans from Mexico. Who still LIVED in Mexico, if you are to believe the “Sonora, Mexico” license plates on their cars. I just don’t get how this girl could argue that calling a citizen of Mexico a “Mexican” was a slur. I was totally bewildered. She refused to give even an inch, and no progress was ever made. She insisted to the end that I was 100% wrong, and racist besides. :rolleyes:

Heh, reading the papers or (especially) watching the TV news here, you can always tell if the perpetrator of a crime was Japanese because they won’t mention race. If it’s a non-Japanese, then every third word for the entire report will be “gaikokujin” (foreigner). Seriously, in a 5-minute story, the number of times the suspect/perp’s non-Japaneseness gets mentioned will easily hit double digits.

Depends on the context. I use racial descriptors a lot, including “white”. I don’t use it a lot, since my neighbourhood is mostly white but every now and then I’ll say things like “The fat Indian bank teller was chatting to an obnoxious middle-aged white couple about cars and wine instead of helping me set up my fucking account.” I had two people jump on me for my use of “Indian” in that sentence, but none for my use of “white” :rolleyes:

This post is not meant to inflame or upset anyone, is it a legitimate question I have regarding this issue. I will simplify it to blacks and whites. What I don’t understand is why some whites seem to get very upset in posts like this at the thought of other whites being racist toward blacks. I wonder, if the average who claims to feel this way actually feels this way, or if they just feel it is PC to say they are against any form racism. For example, I am white, and feel racism is wrong, but I don’t have strong reaction when I see other whites exhibit it towards blacks or vice versa. A previous post regarding offensive jokes had many white people stating they could stand any jokes except racist ones, especially if they felt the racism in the joke was heartfelt. What I am trying to say is, what type of whites are really outraged and offended when they see other whites exhibiting racist tendencies? For example, if the white guy beside me at work hated blacks, I wouldn’t agree, but I wouldn’t be offended or outraged. I wouldn’t feel the need to educate him, nor would I ostracize him for that reason alone. Why does one care what someone else thinks?

Because a person who says “a guy cut me off” is equally likely to say “a woman cut me off”. But it is not the case that a person who says “a black guy cut me off” is equally likely to say “a white guy cut me off.”

If it were the case that every description of a white person were likely to mention their race, in the same way that nearly every casual mention of a specific person is likely to mention their gender, then it would be acceptable to refer to the race of a nonwhite person in the same fashion. It’s just a matter of equal treatment.

Indeed, we are dropping excessive references to gender in contexts where it’s irrelevant, or when a male’s gender is unlikely to be mentioned, such as “woman doctor,” or, conversely, “male nurse” (by the same logic, as a female nurse is unlikely to be mentioned as such).

For the same reason that I want heterosexual people to speak up when they hear someone being audibly homophobic: because it’s the right thing to do, and because it’s the way I think they would want to be treated if someone were discriminating against them for another reason.