Anna Tambour presents 


The virtuous medlar circle
thoroughly bletted
    In the rabbit hole
a monthly column by A.C.E. Bauer

July 2008

It’s not like choosing the color of her hair

by A.C.E. Bauer


The other day I heard a writer read a work in progress. As we listened to the travails of the main character, we were told in passing that her skin was the color of cocoa. I listened some more. And everything I heard made her sound just like the other prominent character in the book—sure there were distinct personality quirks, but every word she spoke, every motion she took, every bite she ate, every item in her home, everything sounded white.

When I mentioned that this troubled me, I was told, well, she was like the white character she met—she lived in the same neighborhood and had the same socio-economic background. Why should she be any different? Should the author have included some racist stereotype? Or insisted that the white character have some racist reaction? Why couldn’t a white author chose an African-American character to write about?

And, I thought, of course a white author can write about an African-American character. But you shouldn’t make her white.

For good or ill, each person’s upbringing shapes the way they are—in every detail. By personal inclination I live a secular life, Judaism being something my spouse embraces more strongly and that my children are trying to identify in themselves. Yet there is no question that all of us are Jewish.

My kids speak in the same slang, with the same intonation, about the same subjects as their peers. Yet all the knick-knacks in our house are called tchotchkes. And, much too early in the morning, they shlep to school. And among the myriad songs they listen to, very occasionally a Klezmer tune will creep in. In a cabinet in our house are candles of different sizes that fit (a) the various menorahs that are stored haphazardly on top, (b) the several pairs of candlesticks stored with the menorahs, and (c) the Jack-o’-lanterns we carve at Halloween. In a corner is a small ceramic plaque with the artist’s name printed in Hebrew, and in another, behind a door, is an old tin Passover plate. Among our multitude of books are the Books of Moses, a Tanakh, a book about Jewish ritual art, several histories of the Jews, and a beautifully decorated prayer book received at a B’nai Mitzvah. Once or twice a year we eat potato kugel. My kids always ask me if we’ll make hamentaschen this year. An opened jar of gefilte fish sits in our fridge. Ever so often, much to everyone’s joy, I bake challah on a Friday. I shrug my shoulders in a certain way. I think of fate and ill-will the way my parents did. My family carries certain fears, handed down generation to generation for hundreds of years. We belong to a synagogue. And I volunteer for one of their committees.

This long list tells you only a tiny fraction of who I am. If you look around our home you will also see tables, chairs, sofas, beds, desks, lamps, rugs, posters, paintings, prints, plants, and tchotchkes that are just like everyone else’s in our neighborhood, if perhaps a little messier than some. Day to day I worry about my children’s education, the laundry, the lawn, the car, tonight’s dinner, the library books we borrowed, the weather, whether we should invite some old friends over this week or next, whether the dog has had her vaccinations, whether we bought the present for a friend’s sweet 16 party, whether the batteries need changing in our smoke detector, whether my editor will like the changes I made to my manuscript, whether this year’s elections will bring welcome results. And on, and on, and on.

You could write about me and pick the details that emphasize my Jewishness. Or write about me and pick the details that make me a middle-aged, middle-class American in the suburbs. Or write about me and pick the details that make me a lawyer, or that make me a writer, or that make me just a wee bit crazy, ya know? But if someone decided to write about me, I would hope that s/he would get a bit of all of me.

So when a white writer decides that a character has the skin the color of cocoa, it isn’t at all like deciding that her hair should be blond or brown. That character was shaped by her upbringing—in every detail. And the character’s family would have been, too. And there would be details, pieces of that upbringing, in the way she talked, in the way she stood, in the occasional foods she ate, in the tiny mundane decorations of her home, in her cabinets, in her family history, in the philosophy of her world view, that would, very occasionally peek through, despite the fact that in so many more details she was just like the white person she keeps company with.

I believe that when you choose a character, and particularly if she is your main character, you should have a bone deep understanding of who she is. And absent that bone deep understanding—because sometimes it’s hard to get there—at least a grasp of the salient details. Our job as writers is impossible: we try to describe people with an insufficient number of words to get to the whole of them. So we must pick the details we use with care. Omitting an African-American’s family’s culture—which, I remind you, exists—is a piss poor way to go about describing an African-American character. And no, even if your character was educated at Princeton, those minute details will not disappear. They shouldn’t. It is as much a part of who she is as the fact that I shrug my shoulders in the same way that my aunts and uncles shrugged theirs back a hundred years ago is part of who I am. It is indelible.

And, to be clear, these details are just that. Details. We must all be judged by how we act, and the details of our homes and lives neither make us better or worse, just who we are. To paraphrase someone I respect very much: you can write about good people getting along, not judging people by the color of their skin. But you still need to write about who they really are—not a whitewash or an everyman or everywoman. At least, that is what we should aspire to.


A.C.E. Bauer has been telling and writing stories since childhood. She took a short break to write dreadful poetry in college, and then a longer one while she worked as an attorney, writing legal briefs and telling stories about her clients. She has returned to fiction, and now writes children's books and short stories for all ages.

Her first novel, the critically acclaimed NO CASTLES HERE, published by Random House Children’s Books in 2007 ( USA, UK, Canada ) was a finalist for the Tassy Walden Award: New Voices in Children’s Literature.  

“ Bauer balances tone and content beautifully in this superb debut… Complex characters and an infinitely readable text make this one of the strongest titles of the year. ”
Kirkus Reviews, starred review


Born and raised in Montreal, she spends most of the year in New England with her family, and much of the summer on a lake in Quebec. 

Interviews of A.C.E. Bauer:

In the Rabbit Hole began in December 2005
Write to A.C.E. Bauer at
acebauer at gmail dot com
A.C.E. Bauer's "Unblog"

The virtuous medlar circle

is part of
Anna Tambour and Others

"It's not like choosing the color of her hair" copyright © July 2008 by A.C.E. Bauer.
This essay appears here with thanks to A.C.E. Bauer, whose payment was less than a brass razoo.
This is part of a series of invited pieces by people I find deliciously inspiring, always a hoot, and who write like a bletted medlar tastes. A.T.
The Virtuous Medlar Circle © 2004 - 2008