Waiting for the Day That Characters Don’t Default to White
Deena ElGenaidi Grapples with the Politics of Representation
When I started working on my novel in 2015, I knew it needed to be be about Egyptians. I wanted the book to follow Egyptians like me, who were raised in America, their family’s culture often clashing with American values. Up to that point, I hadn’t read too many stories like that—and none about Egyptians, specifically. So I sat down and began to brainstorm, taking what I knew from my own upbringing and background and setting it to paper.
A majority of the stories I’d read in my lifetime featured white characters or characters presumed to be white. Growing up, I think I’d always wanted to be white. My Barbies with their long, blonde hair were white, the characters I watched on TV were white, and, unfortunately, most of my friends were white. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this ever-present whiteness seeped into my mind so deeply that for me, a brown girl from Egypt, white became the default, and I was the other. I devoured books as a kid, starting with The Babysitter’s Club until I graduated to Nancy Drew novels, then by middle school Agatha Christie books, onto Harry Potter, and the list keeps going. In my mind, I pictured the characters as pale-skinned, looking nothing like me.
In my defense, the book covers of The Babysitter’s Club and Nancy Drew featured white girls, and The Babysitter’s Club made a point of Claudia Kishi’s Japanese-American identity, unlike the rest of the girls in the group. In the other texts, though, the whiteness was all of my own making. Nowhere in Harry Potter does J.K. Rowling define Hermione as a white girl, and in fact, Noma Dumezweni, a Black girl, was cast as Hermione in the original 2016 performance of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.Fiction written by and about people of color is often political, and the work itself becomes about the characters’ identities as minorities.
But growing up, I never thought once that I could be the star of an adventure or mystery series because my skin was too dark and my background too “other.” I told a friend of this phenomenon—the default of whiteness—and as a white person outside of the writing world, she slowly nodded.
“You’re right,” she said. “I never realized that. Like in Harry Potter, I always pictured them as white, even before the movies came out.”
“Right, but they don’t have to be,” I said.
My friend never thought about it because she didn’t need to.
Fiction written by and about people of color is often political, and the work itself becomes about the characters’ identities as minorities. For instance, reading Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage led me to reflect on the grief and violence inflicted on Black bodies in America. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah brought about conversations on issues of race and Blackness. This is a phenomenon that spans genres and that some authors of personal essays have discussed publicly. In a piece for Buzzfeed, Tajja Isen examined the types of stories we ask writers of color to tell and the ways that those stories perform suffering and racial trauma. “You offer your pain up once, and if an editor asks you to do it again, to work that angle a bit harder, it seems disingenuous to deny them,” she wrote. “It’s still true, isn’t it?”
Other times, writers are explicit about the race of a character, but readers—and in many cases Hollywood casting directors—either forget or don’t care. In writing The Hunger Games, author Suzanne Collins describes Katniss Everdeen as olive-skinned, with black hair and grey eyes. Perhaps because the character’s ethnicity or skin tone is not a subplot in itself, the film falls back on whiteness as a default, with Jennifer Lawrence playing the role. It seems, then, that in order for a character to be perceived as any race other than white, racial identity must become a part of the story. In starting my own novel, I knew that if I wanted to see Egyptian characters, my story had to be about that. And so I sat down and wrote, outlining a plot that dealt heavily in culture and identity.
Not all of my writing deals with identity, though. I’ve written plenty of short stories that make no mention of the writer’s race or ethnicity, leaving the reader to imagine what they wish. In some of my short fiction, I didn’t think to add any information about the character’s race because that had nothing to do with the story, but in my own mind, the characters have tan skin like mine.
But what good does it do for me to picture my own characters that way if it’s not written on paper? How can I write stories with Arab representation if I don’t explicitly state it in the text? And if I state it in the text, does the story then become about that?How can I write stories with Arab representation if I don’t explicitly state it in the text? And if I state it in the text, does the story then become about that?
White writers don’t need to think about these ideas, their racial identity silently imprinted onto every page. Whiteness has the privilege of not having to define itself.
While working on my novel, I also began writing a TV script with my old roommate. Beginning as a series of inside jokes in our apartment, we hatched the plan to write a TV comedy. “One of the characters will be Egyptian,” I said to my roommate as we sat in our living room, outlining the episode.
We haven’t yet written any scenes that deal specifically with identity or with the characters’ ethnicities. Rather, we made mention of it towards the beginning of the episode we wrote and will likely make mention of it again in the future. Completing our first draft felt liberating in many ways; we’d written an Egyptian character who was simply living life like any other American.
“Let’s have an episode called ‘What Are You?’” my roommate said one day, suggesting our first foray into making the characters’ ethnicities a part of the story.
I laughed because it’s a question often asked of both of us, and I knew that we had to include that line somewhere—while simultaneously avoiding any subplot of racial or ethnic trauma. We’d fight against the default of whiteness by pointing out the need for minorities to define themselves, allowing our characters to thrive on their own terms.