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What great writing can teach us about Trayvon Martin

One issue I like to address with my writing students is the vague identity adjective — or, when a student identifies a character as, say, “the black guy.” I also often come across “the white guy” or “the Jewish girl,” or “the gay guy,” or “the redneck guy,” or “the Asian girl,” etc. The student is using race or ethnicity as an identifier, without any other specific details to bring this character to life. The writer assumes that this simple adjective will give us all we need to know about a character.

Once, I had a student who was quite smart, vocal in class, and turned in a story that was otherwise rather well-written. But he did describe one character at a party as “the Jewish guy” and left it at that. I asked him, in a conference, what kind of Jewish guy this particular Jewish guy was.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

I said there were lots of types of Jewish guys. What region was he from? Was he from Brooklyn, say, or Beverly Hills? Was he religious or secular? Was he attached to his Jewish identity or did he want to hide from it? What did he look like? What were his interests?

The student squirmed, uncomfortable.

“There’s not just one type of Jewish guy,” I said, carefully.

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