The Problematic Approach of Colorblind Writing

In her last post (It’s the Skull, Stupid), Naima raised the question, “If in my brain the two main characters of my book look East Asian and Black, but it isn’t relevant to the story, does it matter if these details don’t make it to the reader?” Naima’s post focused more on how to describe a character of color in fiction, particularly when writing a fantastical world that might not have the same historical and cultural shorthand that exists in our world. For this post, though, I wanted to get back to that question of why those kinds of details matter in the first place.

Sometimes I hear other writers (almost always white folks like myself) mention how they try to be “colorblind” in their writing—in other words, purposefully not describing a character’s skin color so that readers are free to picture the characters however they want. There was a time when I naively thought that was a good way of striving for inclusivity in fiction. Unfortunately, while colorblind writing generally comes from a place of good intentions, it’s ultimately a flawed approach.

The first problem with colorblind writing is the underlying assumption that, if a character’s skin color is not described, readers will default to imagining characters who look like them, thereby making the story inherently more inclusive and diverse. Sadly, that assumption just doesn’t hold up. My wake up call to that fact occurred several years ago when the concept of colorblind writing came up during a discussion I was having with some other writers. It surprised me when two of the writers, both people of color, said no, they actually didn’t default to picturing characters who looked like them. They had grown up in a world where white was the societal default and where they were frequently bombarded with the message that their skin color was not ideal or, worse yet, a sign of inferiority. So when reading a book, they assumed a character was white unless told otherwise. Because that was what dominated the society around them.

Another major problem with colorblind writing is that you’re not just erasing skin color; you’re erasing all of the culture, identity, and history that comes with that skin color. What we look like and where we come from plays a significant role in shaping who we are, so let’s not ignore that by embracing this Pollyanna-ish “I don’t see race, I see people!” idea of equality. Equality doesn’t mean being oblivious to differences in race; it means not hating or discriminating against people based on those differences.

Of course, some people will make the argument that, if you’re creating a fictional fantasy world, that world need not be saddled by the same racial dynamics and tensions that exist in the real world. True. But in order for me to lose myself in a fantastical world, it needs to have a sense of realism to it, and racial homogeneity isn’t something I find to be realistic (unless you’re writing about an engineered society or something like that). I think one of the best ways to achieve a realistic fantasy world is to create one that, like our own, has a rich diversity of races and cultures and people who have been shaped by those backgrounds. Those cultures can be different than what we have in the real world, and they can have a different history with each other (though there are still plenty of Save the Pearls-style pitfalls you can stumble into with that approach, but that’s another post). But even in a fictional world where people aren’t judged by skin color, I imagine people would still notice skin color in the same way we notice hair color or eye color. That’s the thing—noticing skin color doesn’t have to be negative or combative or racist. It can just be one element among many that makes up a full person.

Anyway, that’s enough babbling from me. Here’s what some other folks have had to say on colorblind writing and reading:

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