Thursday, March 8, 2012

Hair, Henney...Holla!

(Re: the title of this post, I couldn't come up with another "h" word. So holla back, Reader!)

There are lots of things knocking around in my head today. I'll just try and touch on a couple because I'm running late and it's so beautiful out today and I keep getting distracted. That's my little public service announcement to say that these idea cookies are not fully baked so please eat with caution.

This is all going to revolve around issues of race and storytelling, I'll just say that upfront.

Thought 1: Daniel Henney's Career:
So on Saturday I was writing all day and when I needed a break I decided to watch a Korean show called Spring Waltz because one of the stars is my beloved Daniel Henney and also it is streaming on Netflix. I was so excited. I honestly don't get all crushy on stars that often. I really need to know the person's personality before I can truly find them attractive.

Daniel Henney is my one major exception. He is...gorgeous. His charm oozes out of every photo. It's insane how beautiful he is.
"Oh, hey. My name is Daniel."
Anyway, I'm watching this show and I find that I don't really like Daniel in it all that much. I like the other male lead better (who, as it so happens, is ALSO SUPER HOT). And, come to think of it, in the Korean movie I watched in chunks on YouTube (a testament to my Daniel Devotion), I didn't really like Daniel all that much either despite him being the original motivation for me watching it at all.
Dear. Lord.
I think I know what my problem is: Daniel is AMERICAN. And it's so obvious. He really is American. For those of you who don't know, Daniel was born in Michigan to a Korean American mother and British American father. Yet despite a few blips in the US (aka him being the only good thing about Wolverine), his career is firmly entrenched in South Korea.

But he is American. He is completely and totally American. It's so obvious to me. In the few Korean shows/ movies in which I've seen him, he always seems inexplicably out of place. He seems SO cocky, arrogant even. Yet in interviews and photos he is nothing but irresistibly charming.

And I think the reason is that he should be cast as the lead in American films, playing an American. Of course, that is unlikely to happen right now because unless a character is written to be Asian American, a Caucasian gets cast. White is the default. And it sucks. It's not fair, it's stupid, it's narrow-minded, and it's depriving women across the country from more Daniel Henney.

When will casting directors start casting minorities in non-racially specific roles?? I wish they'd start yesterday.

Thought 2: Diversity in YA

There is an ongoing dialogue regarding race and stories, particularly in YA at the moment.

[Ello Oh blogged about it yesterday, click here to catch up on the conversation]

Basically what this boils down to is there is not enough diversity in YA (we'll narrow the field to YA for the sake of sanity), whether in the characters themselves or in the way non-racially-specific characters are depicted, that being white. And then of course there's cover whitewashing, when books specifically featuring nonwhite protagonists STILL end up with a cover image that depicts a Caucasian person instead.

Cover whitewashing is the simplest issue because it's just blatantly stupid. There's no argument here in favor of whitewashing. This is a problem that needs to change but it WILL change, as long as you and me and him keep speaking out against it.

It's the lack of diversity that gets more complicated. One of the suggested solutions to this knotted mess is that white writers include more racially diverse characters in their books. Great. Awesome! I want to do this. I AM doing this. I don't feel the need to advertise it because it seems pretty simple and natural to me.

Interestingly enough, I do not and have not specified the race of my protagonist, Maggie. I want her to be a mashup, a mutt. I don't want to define her. Will I be penalized for that?

Thought 3: The Dangerous Language of Hair

What I find myself struggling with often is HOW to suggest that a character is not white without being super awkward like "She looked Asian American." Um, that's weird and distracting. But I could say, "he had glossy black hair and pale skin," and be describing an Asian American. Then again, the character could just be a white person with black hair, like my husband.

Sometimes I think this is the problem, too. That people jump to the assumption that a character is white unless it's otherwise specified but then they get uncomfortable when told the character's race. And the thing is, my characters who are racially diverse are diverse just BECAUSE. There's no better reason for it than I pictured them that way. That's okay, isn't it? Shouldn't that be encouraged?

So what do you do? And more importantly to me, how do you describe the hair?

I have a character in my novel who has an afro. I picture her very much like this actress, Yara Shahidi.

Actress Yara Shahidi with her beautiful hair

My character has what you might describe as "nappy hair." But can I say that in my story? Nappy can be seen as a negative word. You can read a brief, interesting article about the history of the word by a professor of Sociology at Boston College here.

But IS there another word to describe that type of hair? Kinky doesn't seem like an appropriate word either. If there's no language to describe it, then how can we talk and write about it, even in a positive way, just to say, this is what a character looks like?

Pertinent Side Story: the other night in kickboxing class, I was complimenting a fellow kickboxer on her gorgeous curly hair. It's usually straight. Of course she has to straighten it. She looks like she's either part African American or maybe Dominican. She has that texture in her hair. Anyway, I complimented her on the curls (She had it pulled up with a purple headband to work out. If the headband had been gold, she seriously would have looked like a goddess. Effortlessly beautiful).

She mentioned that she usually straightens it and that straightening can last a week, which didn't faze me at all but she hastened to add a little defensively, "My hair's not like your hair. Your hair gets oily after a couple days but mine gets too dry if I wash it too much."

I didn't know how to respond. Of course I knew this already. I also know that I am half Italian, half mishmash European and my hair can go at least three days without being washed as long as I don't go for a run while my twin sister has to wash hers every night. So personally I was a little frustrated that she assumed all Caucasian hair was the same. I was also sad that she felt she had to explain herself, as if I was going to assume that she was dirty for not washing her hair as often as some girls with finer hair.

Anyway all this has been knocking around my head because I want to know what words describe hair textures that are acceptable? Nnedi Okorafor uses words like dada to describe dreads in her books and other descriptive terms for other types of African hair. But those are African words. I can't use that, can I? No one would know what I was talking about.

ARE there any safe words for hair? Hair is so tangled (PUN INTENDED high five!) in racial ideas of beauty. Maybe if we had the words to identify the beautiful differences, it would be a step in the right direction. It would certainly make it easier for me as a writer to tell readers that I picture a certain character as African American or South Asian or whatever.

And while we're on the subject, is "almond eyes" enough of a hint that a character is Asian? Is it insulting? Because one of my main characters is half Japanese and I want him to be pictured that way. But what are the words I can use and should use?

It's easy to get so scared of using the wrong words, that I don't want to use any at all. But you know what happens then?

Then everyone will assume that Adder and Anise and King Azuralious are all white. And they aren't. They just aren't.


  1. some notes--

    just put Spring Waltz in my streaming queue. don't know if you meant this to be a rec or not, but it was.

    i personally think saying "Asian" (or "black" or whatever) is less clunky (both artistically and politically) than describing features and having the audience draw a conclusion--the latter actually simplifies even more than race labeling does (what percentage of Asian people actually have "almond-shaped eyes"? what the hell does that even mean, anyway?! wait, don't we ALL have almond-shaped eyes? WHY does EVERYONE use it when they mean "Asian"?!). Ok, I'm done with that. But I think it's instructive to look closely at how writers of color describe characters of color--often with boldness and nuance that, if white authors felt comfortable taking heart in, could help us all, I think. I wish I had time to look for examples to cross-reference here, but I just don't. And I don't want to make up any examples lest they not appear thoughtful and get offensive. But--and this is extremely anecdotal--I think it's interesting that white writers often write "She was African American" when describing a black character, whereas black writers often use more specific descriptions, like "She was a medium-skinned black woman" etc.

    And I know this isn't the first time I've recommended Beverly Daniel Tatum's work for these conversations, but I'll do it again. I was lucky in that I took a seminar on nomenclature many years ago but I know many people--often but not always white--struggle with these questions.

  2. 1. I am definitely recommending Spring Waltz.

    2. I agree about "almond eyes." After I wrote the post, I looked up images. I was like WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN? And then I was like "Am I the only idiot who doesn't know what it means?"

    3. I agree with you about looking to writers of color to see how they describe characters within their own race etc.

    3.5 I find "of color" to be a really shitty phrase. I have color too, don't I? Don't we ALL?

    4. I wonder how, say, an Asian writer would describe someone who was South Asian. Also I wonder if looking outside the US to international writers would be helpful.

  3. Ooo, the "of color" thing--interesting point! I adopted this nomenclature after the above-mentioned seminar and since that time have questioned it less as I go along.

    It is indeed not an objective racial indicator--there are caucasians with more melanin than members/groups who identify as other races, and vice versa. But like most (all?) of racializing conversation, the origin of nomenclature is not in science. The thought process being that people of color are thought of as something besides white (identified as such by society at large and/or themselves), but "non-white" is not an ideal or friendly label because it defines people as not part of the default. Also, according to the materials we received in the seminar (wish I could quote the origin), it is the descriptor the greatest number of people of color surveyed felt comfortable being identified as. Of course labeling is always troubling--in that it's labeling, period. But it's hard to have dialogue when you don't even know what words to try to use.

    Does that help at all?

    Also, thanks for talking about this and for asking these questions. I know you must feel like you're exposing yourself by opening the conversation, but (per Ello's original post) without people being willing to put themselves in a discomfort zone we can never make any progress.