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My novel is developed in an East Asian environment (specifically Japan) and my main character is not Asian, she is from Central América and is Mixed Race. Now, my main character is going to refer to a new Caucasian character who is a girl from Germany and I don't know what to use to refer to her. Should I use something like "Caucasian Girl" or "White Girl" or "European girl"?


Extra notes:

My main character doesn't know where the other character is from, the only most noticeable thing about the other character is that she is Caucasian.

My Main Character is fluent in English like the new Character

The new Character is introduced in the Main Character thoughts

  • 7
    It is important where exactly this "Asian environment" is located. The answer will be different if it is an Asian country, or an Asian community in one of the Western countries. – Alexander Feb 12 '18 at 18:20
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    Is there any issue with describing the color of their skin in descriptive terms rather than specifically racial (note: not racist) terms; terms such as alabaster, pale, coffee, ebony, espresso? Moreso as in "she had pale skin, akin to cream" rather than "she was a white woman". Does the actual race matter versus the color of the skin? – Anoplexian Feb 12 '18 at 18:30
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    Does Asia mean here the pacific, the subcontinent, the Middle East, Central Asia, continental China, central and east Russia or some specific country not included in these definitions? – Nobilis Feb 13 '18 at 10:32
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    Presumably you're writing this in English, but in-universe, are the characters speaking in English? And if they're not speaking in English in-universe, what's your convention for translating their words into English? For example, if your characters were speaking Chinese and you wrote their dialog up using literal English translations, then their speech patterns may sound non-native, and they may use literally translated Chinese idioms. But if you're doing an intentional translation, then they may use your voice. – Nat Feb 13 '18 at 18:40
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    @Marian-Danny In that case, you can use other descriptive adjectives to describe her actual skin color, and point out other features of her in the same way. "She had pale skin with ringlets of platinum hair that swept down around her shoulders, her eyes shining like miniature sapphires; the shape of which seemed different, but I couldn't put my finger on why." In the example, its being more descriptive of features and colors using imagery, but your characters suspicions are there as well. Is your main character unaware of other cultures? If she's not unaware, then she might already know right? – Anoplexian Mar 16 '18 at 15:59

11 Answers 11

3

I would say use stereotypes to your advantage with this, and be descriptive more about colors and features rather than specify race. This is dependent on your character however, and the context is important, @FraEnrico has a good answer on that.

I would use imagery with these stereotypes to provide a general region for where she's from. For example:

I looked at her with a sideways glace, her straight hair as black as a crow with a jaw as sharp as its beak. She glanced over, her almond colored eyes with the same shape seemed to stare into my soul.

I quickly averted my gaze, no longer interested in the pale beauty next to me.

In the example, I show that my character doesn't necessarily relate the woman to someone of East Asian descent, but it's made clear in the text that they may be from that region (allowing that the character knows that the world is bigger than their country). I use stereotypes of certain groups of people to help describe my characters based on my readers, and adding in dialogue descriptions can clear up any of the remaining confusion.

She spoke with a slight lilt, as though this wasn't her first language.

"Excuse me for just a moment", she said as a ringing could be heard from her pocket. She answered quickly and harshly yet with a seeming familiarity, as if she had known this person for a long time.

Definitely not from around here, I thought as she continued in the jarring conversation. I heard a silence and noticed she had finished her conversation.

"Sorry about that, my mom wanted to check on me."

This can be used for any look or race of person, and lends ambiguity to the character you're describing. At any point you can continue to add details to the story that help clarify the portrait of this person, so that even if your character knows them well, the description doesn't seem forced. Given this ambiguity you can further use the details to develop the story, adding physical abilities as well as demeanor and even their "presence" (intimidating, open, etc.).

48

You need to be coherent with your context, so you need to use the words that your characters would use. Your language needs to match, or adhere to, the world setting you create.

I will make a very lame example, over-simplified: if my characters were in modern Europe, I would call asians "Asians", but if my characters are racists, I would call them "chinks" or "yellows".

So don't look for the "right" way to name them, or worse, don't go for the "political correct": use the word your characters would use, the one realistic in your setting.

  • In my context, the character is described in someone's thought, just like: "At that time, one person caught Dahlia's attention; She was a girl who was clearly not Asian ..." My character is not racist, but the thing i want to emphatize is that a new character was evidently of another ethnicity. – Marian-Danny Feb 17 '18 at 17:34
29

When I was in Asia the locals referred to them as westerners.

  • 4
    Asia's a big place, which part(s)? – Nobilis Feb 13 '18 at 10:30
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    China, korea, mongolia. – TCAT117 Feb 13 '18 at 14:31
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I read from your other question that it was going to be in Japan? If so, anyone not from Japan (or anyone that doesn't look Japanese) is Gaijin. Literally meaning outlander (expatriate), but translates to 'strange person', more or less. It is generally accepted that gaijins don't understand the culture and locals tend to be more lenient and understanding because of this, if in bigger cities, of course. Remember, in their culture 'the nail that sticks up must be hammered down', because they are a culture of conformity and uniformity, but generally they accept gaijins don't understand this.

Be warned that in rural areas, Japanese people, especially the elder generation, can still be quite prejudice to what they perceive as Americans (white people) because of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (atomic bombs towards the end of World War II). After all, those weren't military bases bombed, they were just regular cities, filled with civilians. How that wasn't considered a war crime is beyond me.

  • 3
    @RedSonja and Fayth85, the difference between gaijin and gaikokujin seems fuzzy. One is "foreign person" and the other is "foreign-country person". Here's a thread in jp.SE about the difference: japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/4131/… – ANeves Feb 12 '18 at 18:16
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    Are the Koreans and Chinese similarly prejudiced towards the Japanese for their attacks on civilians and enslavement of them? – Don Branson Feb 12 '18 at 18:16
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    What does the last sentence have to do with the rest of the explanation? – CGCampbell Feb 12 '18 at 19:21
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    @CGCampbell That there are things to keep in mind, and if you aren't aware of those things you could write a scene that anyone that's been to Japan (specifically rural areas) would know is inaccurate and it could break their immersion in the story. I don't like giving half a story. – Fayth85 Feb 12 '18 at 19:23
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    @Fayth85 But it has nothing to do with how a rural Japanese person would react, nor does it explain anything (which is why I didn't complain about any of the rest of your narrative). It is a personal subjective opinion. If you reworded to state something like "the average rural Japanese elder wonders why no American generals faced war crimes," as long as you could back it up, it fits with your descriptive. What you said, was YOU don't understand why it is not a wc. Or are you, in fact, a Japanese elder, from a rural area? – CGCampbell Feb 12 '18 at 19:27
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It depends largely on context. White girl can definitely be seen as a derogatory term, and is quite often used as such.

No one, outside of bad American police drama, refers to people in conversation as "Caucasian".

It's also a problem that is solved the first time the characters have a conversation, or indeed the other character opens their mouth and talks. When travelling, or meeting someone who is also foreign, or indeed talking to someone for the first time who has a different accent (or even just talking to someone for the first time in a social settings), on of the first questions people ask is "Where are you from?" - or at the very least, words to that effect.

That said, it is also dependent on what the other character looks like and where she is from. People from different countries also look (to a degree) different and sound very different. It's stereotyping to a point, but they are sterotypes for a reason.

It's damned near impossible to confuse an English accent, for example, with an American twang, or an Irish lilt. And for Europeans for whom English is not their first language, their accent determines the inflection and pronunciation of different words.

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    No-one, outside of American police drama. "Caucasian" hardly exists in British English, except to refer to the actual Caucasus, which isn't exactly an everyday subject of conversation. – David Richerby Feb 12 '18 at 14:25
  • @DavidRicherby - absolutely correct, will edit as soon as I get to a PC – Thomo Feb 12 '18 at 21:43
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    Does the average Japanese person find it impossible to confuse an English accent with an American or Irish? As an American with little experience of the far east, I doubt I could distinguish Japanese from Chinese from Korean, never mind dialects within any of those. I wouldn't be at all surprised if a Japanese person thought that all white people look alike. – Jay Feb 12 '18 at 23:15
  • @Jay - the MC isn't Japanese though – Thomo Feb 12 '18 at 23:38
  • Thanks for the tip! My MC is not Japanese but can't distinguish where is the other girl from. It's the first time she has seen her and the only thing my MC knows is that the girl in question is not Asian and may be from Europe. – Marian-Danny Feb 17 '18 at 18:02
7

If your main character is Caucasian, then she would call the new girl whatever the Asians have been calling them, concerning race.

If your MC is NOT Caucasian, and doesn't know the word, then typically what people have done historically is pick some prominent different physical feature about a new race and use that. "Negro" is just "black" in other languages. Your character, compared to Asians, may have brown or yellow hair, or curly hair, a thin face, light pink skin, a large bust. Blue or green eyes. A wrinkle in her eye lids.

Your MC should use the language those around them use. If in an interaction with the new character, the new character reveals she is "Caucasian", the MC can use that thereafter, but would more likely use the girl's name!

As to whether the narrator uses "Caucasian", I personally would not. The way I write (3rd person limited) my narrator may understand my MC's emotions better than the MC herself does, and my narrator is more eloquent in description than the MC, but my narrator doesn't know anything the MC does not know.

So if I were writing, my narrator may describe the girl as seen by my MC, three or four outstanding differences my MC would quickly notice about the new girl (with fresh language to avoid scientific or racist terms), and then my MC would pick one of these prominent features, or if she was Caucasian the feature she herself was known by, and use that.

"Oh my gosh," Alice said. "You're another blue!"

The new girl looked confused. "What's a blue?"

Alice pointed to her right eye, with a grin. "Our eyes are blue! I'm Alice, but everybody calls me Blue, after my eyes, and now there are two of us!"

"Oh. I'm from Norway. Very far north. You're probably from the far north, too, blue eyes are very common."

  • Thanks for the tip, my MC is from Central América, so its mixed race (very mixed) and the new character that is a German girl, but i didn't know how to introduce her in a non dialougue paragraph. The MC is describing the new girl in her thoughts. – Marian-Danny Feb 17 '18 at 17:41
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    I see. It depends on the German. Many are blond and light skinned; I'd expect she (your MC) focuses on the features most unusual to her, perhaps different than her own. To accomplish the physical description in her mind without just giving a list of facts, attach emotional content. She could be jealous of the new girl's features, or romantically attracted to her, or see them as a disability (too easily sunburned, too delicate), or implying some haughtiness in the new girl due to being born with such film star features. Put some conflict in her thoughts, a strong feeling, positive or negative. – Amadeus Feb 17 '18 at 18:13
3

One thing you should take into consideration is how has Asia influenced your character. Also, where in Asia? Asia is massively diverse and complex, so your character might use different language depending on who they are talking to.

Example:

  • If your character is talking to a Thai local, they might use the word "Farang"
  • If your character is talking to an Indonesian local, they might use the word "Bule"
  • You might have to generalize and just use American or European. You don't have to say white. If it's someone of African decent (or any other non-caucasian background), then usually you have to explain. Many Asians think people of color are all from Africa (of course it's a blanket statement), unless they actually care to understand more about cultures than their own.

Basically, the way your character refers to someone all depends on how integrated and familiar your character is with the local culture. Of course, it all depends on who they are talking to as well.

If you are talking to someone who speaks very little English, if your character is empathetic enough, they might use simplified or even broken English just so they can communicate.

Lastly, if you haven't been to the country in which your character is in, maybe visit an expat forum and ask about people's experiences with communicating with locals, and how they might have to change they way the speak. I know I've had to do it many times.

  • Thanks for the tip. The place where the story happens is in japan and my Main character is not Caucasian but mixed (very mixed) race, from Central América; she speaks fluent English, Spanish and Japanese and the new character also speaks fluent English. – Marian-Danny Feb 17 '18 at 17:46
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You can have her describe herself in an indirect manner, like

My colleagues label me as a "caucasian" or "white"... Sometimes they use even more derogatory terms when they think I'm out of earshot.

Use terms used for white people matching the locale. It has the added bonus that it doubles as a description of the protagonist's relationship to her surroundings, especially to other characters. Then, you can add a 'neutral' description for the reader's benefit, maybe as a continuation of her narration.

Sure, at a gathering I'd definitely stand out with my paler skin and my large, round eyes missing the fold. That is if you look that close and don't stop at noticing that I usually tower over the crowd.

2

From the viewpoint of a native speaker of UK English.......

We would never say "Caucasian" in this context, other than possibly when trying to be humorous.

We would say "European" to mean one of the following:

  1. from the continent of Europe, but not from Britain
  2. from either the continent or from Britain, but not from the Americas, Australia etc.

If we didn't know where the person was from, we would most likely say "White". I don't know anybody who would consider this derogatory or racist.

The use of the word "girl" may be seen by some people as disrespectful when talking about an adult. "White woman" would be safe. "White lady" would be safe, but old-fashioned, and would be more likely to be used if either the speaker or the person being spoken of were elderly.

The word "Asian" tends to be used in Britain to mean what might be more precisely called "South Asian", that is to say, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Sri Lankan. The sentence "I've invited an Asian friend and a Japanese friend" does not sound odd in British English.

Just returning to the word "White", and the use of colour words to denote ethnicity. "White" is not derogatory. "Black people" is not derogatory, but "Blacks" often is. "Yellow" is definitely highly derogatory. "Brown" just sounds very odd - it is more likely to mean "white person with a suntan".

I hope some of that helps.

  • Thanks for helping! My main Character is from Central América and her age is 15 years, the new character i want to introduce is between 14 and 17 years, so it's not an adult, it's more like a teen. Also, she is Heterocromatic and German. The context of my history/novel is located in Japan. – Marian-Danny Feb 17 '18 at 17:53
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    ¡Hola Marian-Danny! En inglés, escribimos "America" sin tilde... I'm sure you knew that really! In your novel, "Girl" will be fine for a 15-year-old. Heterocromatic is spelt heterochromatic in English, but is a scientific word that I've never heard applied to a person. Do you perhaps mean mixed-race? – Retired Writing Code for Fun Feb 19 '18 at 9:13
  • When i said heterochromatic i meant that her eyes are each of different color. Thanks for the corrections! – Marian-Danny Feb 23 '18 at 14:32
0

You can use "long nose" too for a funny one, as after the skin colour, this is the first thing than usually come to mind.

-3

I've heard shape of the eyes being used as an indicator, don't remember the term anymore, it was something like round eye:

https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=round%20eye

  • 1
    Firstly, a white person would never refer to another white person as "round-eye". Secondly, "round-eyed" as opposed to what? "Slit-eyed"? Quite frankly, I find this a ridiculous suggestion. – F1Krazy Feb 13 '18 at 12:41
  • @F1Krazy I agree a white person wouldn't say that, but it is actually a fairly common term I've heard a lot (and yes squinty-eyed, and slit-eyed, are terms that are used by certain demographics. I literally JUST heard someone say that today, funny (read: sadly) enough) – user27611 Feb 13 '18 at 22:09

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