Dealing with race is scary for a lot of people, because of what I'm calling the "vacuous critics" problem. There are so many people saying terrible things about race, that people are afraid of opening the doors to those people, or worse, being that person. But I'm not sure that this fear serves us well in "post-racial" US, where most people of my generation refuse to acknowledge that racial issues still exist. In particular, it doesn't serve people well when they try to write fiction.
There's the easy way of including ethnic minorities in
fiction, which is to mention or imply a character's ethnicity, and not
make anything out of it. And then there's the hard way: dealing with a
character's ethnicity with the nuance that the issue deserves.
In my novel, I take the easy way with several
characters. But then I also take the hard way, inventing an entire
ethnic minority, which includes two main characters. It's a way of
talking about race, without talking about any race in particular.
Now, I'm not exactly coming from experience here, since
it's my first novel and I've written like 10% of it. But it seems to me
the first step to creating a nuanced ethnic group is to write out their
history. I decided that there were maybe three qualitatively different
ethnic histories (in the US--there might be even more outside the US).
1. There are Native Americans, who lived here before Europeans moved in.
2. There are African Americans, who were imported as part of the slave trade.
3. There are immigrant groups. Some of these groups (eg Irish, Italian)
eventually got conglomerated into "white", while others groups probably
never will, because they're not light-skinned, or otherwise look
I thought it would be easiest to write an immigrant
group, since the others might require more radical alternate histories,
and I'm not feeling quite so adventurous. Furthermore, the first two
histories would read as thinly veiled metaphors for Native Americans and
African Americans, so it almost seems like you should just be writing
about the real deal. Lastly, I'm more familiar with immigrant issues,
being half Asian.
I guess I just inadvertently invented an Asian American subgroup
based on my own experiences! Oh well. It's basically impossible to
write something that would generalize to all ethnic groups, even just to
groups within the US.
The issues of the ethnic group don't have to be
complicated. Here's a really basic and ubiquitous issue for immigrants:
First generation vs later generations. Bam. Here's another one:
stereotypes. Another: feeling distant from, and inferior to white
people. Easy. At least in theory.
And then there are more difficult issues. For instance, I'm
inventing a religion. But most of the characters are not part of this
religion, they're Catholic because they were converted by colonists.
Colonialism is super complicated. Luckily, in a work of fiction I don't
need to deal with it explicitly, I just want it in the background to
the story's events and dialogue.