So I’m going about my business, having a good time reading with this story, and then the author introduces us to an Asian character. Great, yay for not having all white characters!
Then this Asian character is promptly described as having “almond shaped eyes,” and I facepalmed so hard.
Off the top of my head, I can think of at least one other fantasy book I’ve read in the past year that uses this exact description. That’s two too many.
I get where this comes from. Especially as people in SFF are pushing more loudly for diversity, authors want to make sure readers know that they have non-white characters. And so the thought process goes something like, ‘How can I clearly mark this person as Asian? Physical characteristics. What do Asian people look like? Well, they can be pale, so that’s not obviously helpful, and white people have dark hair too… I know, eye shape!’
Do you see how quickly that already slippery slope went totally off the deep end? Let me unpack this a bit, because it was actually totally off already by the “clearly mark this person as Asian” point.
By deliberately marking non-white characters as having a separate, racial-wide set of physical characteristics, we literally mark them as others.
First, I hope I don’t need to point out that among ALL THE PEOPLE IN ASIA, there is a wide variety in eye shape beyond almond?
Second, I’m not trying to say that white writers are the only ones who do this. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to be pulling examples from English-language SFF to illustrate my point. I’m also not addressing all forms of diversity that people get wrong. Okay?
Pressing right along then. Human brains fall easily into categorization and patterning. In writing, this can lead to a form of laziness, and a harmful one. How many times have you read a fictional black (especially female) character described as having “a warm, chocolate brown skin tone”?
In fact, think about female characters. This is one reason authors, when introducing women in their stories, will start out with references to their breasts or their beauty: to differentiate from the male default. But in drawing reader attention there in our very first impression, they mark those characteristics as the most important, the most notable feature of those characters.
This is where trouble is. If a character’s possession of a pair of breasts is worthy of note, that marks the trait as abnormal. By clearly marking a character’s eyes as almond-shaped, the implication is that “normal” eyes are not.
When have you seen a white character described by the shape of their eyes? Characters’ eyes may widen in surprise, narrow in suspicion, bulge out, etc., but I have never read of a white person’s eye shape as a defining characteristic. Nor their skin tone: if they’re pale, maybe they have a computer job; if they’re tan, maybe they can afford expensive vacations. But there are reasons the reader is learning any of those physical characteristics, because they tell us something about the character, about their life or disposition or how they act. Whiteness doesn’t tell us anything about a character. You know what? NEITHER DOES BEING ASIAN.
What “almond shaped eyes” tell me is that the author wanted to make sure that I immediately knew this person was not the default white, which assumes that white is the default. That if you don’t tell me a character is female, I will assume they’re male. Because those are the people who get to be in stories.
So I appreciate the effort to include diverse characters. I really do. And as the market is not exactly flooded with stories that don’t center around white cis male characters, it’s important to bear the need for diverse stories in mind.
But authors also need to make an effort to be aware of the implications of these descriptions, how they can actually work totally against the authors’ intentions and otherize where the author was trying for inclusion.
We all get shit wrong sometimes; no one can be perfectly aware of all of our own biases. But it matters that we try, and that we make a conscious effort to not mark people as “others” by accident.
So please, please. Find other ways to describe your Asian characters than with a quick marker of “almond shaped eyes.” We can do better than that.