Themes in Novel Writing ~ Theme 3 ~ Racism

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If you glance no further than the first few lines of this blog, then I can recommend reading Jodie Picoult’s Small Great ThingsNever to be shy of controversy in her writing, Jodie hits racism head on (all types described below). I’ve only read about a quarter of the book so far and in it are subtle forms of racism right to what I perceive as downright ignorant, depressing and dangerous behaviour. The most distressing of all is that some of the characters believe implicitly that they are in the right! See challenge your own perceptions below.

How do you write a novel, highlighting racist attitudes without glorifying or trivialising them?

In my novel I didn’t set out to highlight racist attitudes, I wrote from experience, the personality of each character led to conversations which hopefully raised awareness or set alarm bells ringing with the reader, or maybe not, dependent on the reader’s own path of life, their upbringing and their values.

To challenge these values, sometimes so built into a person that it is almost inherent, you need to understand that there are different types of racism.

What are the different types of racism?

I’m no expert but I have been a teacher for most of my adult life, in schools with pupils of many cultural, religious, ethnic and economic backgrounds?  (and yes, the latter induces prejudice too of a different sort, albeit not directly racism ~ see posts on homelessness for the extreme cases) I taught from reception up, but after a change in direction I have even taught 16 to 19 year olds at a college of further education, where each class represented up to ten different racial backgrounds. Challenging but rewarding. I’ve witnessed, or even seen first hand, racism in many different forms. I’ve tried to handle each situation sensitively, firmly if necessary, and with the older students as a learning experience in their development as young adults.

There’s overt racism

~ the kind that makes most people squirm, extremely angry or very sad when you hear about it. This type is usually driven by prejudiced attitudes learnt from birth to the grave, unless that is we can break the pattern. Hopefully, seeing the police treatment of George Floyd on video which galvanised the world into condemnation has been an example of doing just that.

There’s institutional racism

~ where people from varied backgrounds have different opportunities in life, at school, college, in the work place and in their daily lives.

There’s subtle forms of racism

~ these are the moments that can pass unnoticed; a comment given without malice, a joke, a generalisation made or even a throw-away remark. The perpetrator, and it could be you and I, is not even aware of it. In a way this goes even deeper than overt racism because each ‘hit’ (virtual) on an individual undermines their confidence and sense of worth. That’s not to say that all of us shouldn’t be able to laugh at ourselves from time to time, along with others or on our own. It takes a really good teacher to pick up on these remarks and to turn them into a positive, highlighting their danger without undermining either the speaker or the person being spoken to or talked about.

And racism between races

It is not just a case of Black and White.

One area hardly touched on is racism between different African backgrounds, different Asian backgrounds, black against white or even white against white.

A black American lady, with whom I am connected on Twitter, gave a thoughtful tweet, ‘Is racism something we are taught about from birth. My parents would go ballistic if I took home a white boyfriend.’

A lovely Scottish friend once remarked, ‘I don’t think of you both as English. You are just Roger and Diana.’ I laughed. She is a dear friend and had no idea what she had said.

Back to Novel Writing

What type of racism?

I chose to go for a more subtle approach in my novel. The story was not about racism, but it happened to be a theme where issues of racism popped up quite naturally. It is something I feel strongly about but I’m not into writing about overt racism. (See Jodie Picoult)

Asking questions ~ cause and effect

Once I had decided on my characters I began by asking questions.

  • Dot and Gerald were about to foster children. What would happen if they were Syrian, Muslim refugees?
  • Orla and her sister were Irish Roman Catholics. What would happen if Orla fell in love with Jamal, Dot’s foster son?
  • The farmers wife is eastern European. How would such a conservative farmer cope with their different backgrounds?
  • And then finally, (see last post on mixed marriage) what effect would Dot’s view of the world be if she, of Jewish background had married Gerald a Church of England attender?

Letting the characters speak for themselves

Now,  let the words flow from your experience and knowledge. The characters, in my experience of writing, tend to speak for themselves and they certainly challenge my own misconceptions at times.

Challenge your own perceptions

It is probably best not to write about it if you can think of nothing relevant here, but if your upbringing has been of a monoculture for most of your life, then I challenge you to widen your experiences; not by a sanitised holiday abroad (if you could have one at this moment in time) but even by research on the internet or getting to know people on Twitter etc, however superficial that may be. Widen your scope for reading material.

I’m just beginning to read Small Great Things by Jodie Picoult, an author adept at challenging our prejudices and preconceptions. A must read in my opinion!


I’ve just finished Beneath an Indian Sky by RenitaD’Silva. An Excellent book! A period in history, not highlighting racism, but seeped in a cultural background with which I was unfamiliar, with its own tensions, prejudices and values.

This will be my June book review.



1 Comment

Filed under MISSING Past and Present, Planning a novel, Research, Writing, Writing a novel

One response to “Themes in Novel Writing ~ Theme 3 ~ Racism

  1. Pingback: Light Bulb Moment of inspiration ~ Just a Sentence ~ then a Story Plan | Diana Jackson's Muse, Views and Reviews

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