Dismantling the White Default
Updated: Feb 6
Here's a sensitivity reader riddle for you: what is a major point of feedback I give to about 80% of manuscripts I sensitivity read for but is so ingrained and ubiquitous in our culture that most writers have no idea they're even doing it?
Answer: Constructing and perpetuating a "white as default" in your narrative.
"White as default" is when whiteness is the litmus test for what is considered normal behavior, culture, and appearance .
Through media, books, visual media, politics...etc. we are socialized to think it's normal to be white and everyone else is defined by their proximity to whiteness. Think about how difficult it is to find "nude" shoes and lipstick for most shades darker than tan. Or even try to find a non-white main character in a book or movie that isn't specifically about race or is a biography.
A common problem I see is the disparity between the description of the white vs. non white characters. Almost all stories will have some kind physical description of (at least) the major characters. How detailed the description will differ based on the writing style of the author and the character itself (not all characters require physical descriptions).
Non white characters always have some form of description to make sure their non whiteness is made clear, usually via a description of skin tone. It becomes problematic, however, when there isn't be a comparable descriptor for any of the white characters. The absence of that description (really the absence of race) IS the trigger for the reader to understand of the character is white.
When authors avoid physically describing a character's whiteness but put effort into to pointing out non-whiteness what you're doing is increasing the invisibility of whiteness, standardizing it, making white the norm and making everyone else the "other." When you do this you are are helping to increase the privilege of being the standard that everyone else is compared to and judged by.
It's really important for me to point out that race isn't the only category where this happens. When we write about different marginalized identities the non-marginalized side of that category is always the default. A character's non-hetero sexuality is overtly made known where all others are assumed straight. The same goes for physical disabilities, gender binaries, citizenship...etc.
We know representation matters so de-centering whiteness in literature is important and it isn't difficult to address. Here some things to think about as you're working on your story:
- As you think about your characters, and how you describe them, be equitable. If you have a reason why pointing out a character is brown or black than you also have a reason to point out that another character is not.