White Unless Otherwise Specified

I have decided to spare everyone the epic, hugely pretentious “Harry Potter” analysis I spent the past couple of days penning, although it has prompted some other thoughts that I’ll be doling out in smaller portions.  One issue I included in that overlong post was my consternation at the casting of Robert Pattinson as Cedric Diggory in the “Harry Potter” films – not because I had anything against the guy in particular, but because when I read the books, I had envisioned Cedric Diggory as black.  In my head, he looked just like Nick Cannon, and I could not understand why a suitable British version of Nick Cannon had not been found to portray a role that I was absolutely certain had been stated as African-American.  I actually went through the entire fourth book after the movie came out, searching for textual support, and found none; Cedric Diggory’s ethnic background was never described in any particular fashion, and as usual, that meant he defaulted to whiteness.


I don’t think this is a particular fault of JK Rowling – the white = default equation has been in place for much longer than she’s been writing, or even alive – but it’s been troubling me anew lately, and for reasons unrelated to Pottermania.  In 2007 I began penning a novel, which I abandoned within the year, only to recently rediscover.  As a novel, it’s shitty, but after some hacking and chopping and artful pruning, it turns out to have just enough meat to make a decent short story.  However, the process of cutting away so much narrative detritus has also led to the sacrifice of certain details – namely, the revelation of numerous characters’ ethnic backgrounds.  Gone is an entire backstory about somebody’s Korean grandmother, or a discussion about U2 that leads a black character to remark on another character’s whiteness, and the historical fact of Irish collaboration in the Spanish settlement of South America (the two Catholic nations bonded in the name of pissing off the British) that explained a redhead named Perez has been excised in the name of brevity.  (She’s Chilean.  They got hella gingers there.)


My question to you, dear readers, is: does this matter?  Do you read whiteness unless otherwise specified by the author?  Does a group of young college graduates in Cleveland (a city which, if my constant explanations to the contrary to those who have never visited are any measure, is perceived to be very, very white) need to have its diversity made explicit in order for it to register?  Is it more obnoxious to have those details inserted inorganically, just for the sake of clarity, or is it necessary to establish who’s who?  And, ultimately, are writers wholly responsible for the diversity of their characters, or can we trust readers to impute non-whiteness just because, you know, life is non-white too?


I’m genuinely curious about people’s reactions.  Leave comments.  Talk to me.

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