Diversity in Secondary Characters

When I first became aware of the lack of diversity in fiction, I was writing Under the Covers. I couldn't change the ethnicity of my hero or heroine, because they'd both appeared in All that Sparkles and so I decided to make my hero in Into the Fire diverse in some way. 

But while I was writing Under the Covers, I also chose to ensure that some of my other characters were diverse. Elle creates her own book club at her book cafe and ​I described them in this way.

​The book club was a mixture of ages and races, with George the only male. Maria was a Hispanic woman in her eighties, who'd insisted her daughter and granddaughter come along too, Nicole was an African-American woman who'd just retired from her high-powered corporate job and was looking for something to fill her spare time, and Jude and Bethanie were both mothers whose children were at school.

My editor quite rightly asked whether this was a bit token, putting people of colour in the un-named chorus and it got me thinking. You see I don't often describe secondary characters more than maybe hair colour or build. The slightly awkward way I added diversity to Under the Covers in the example above, is more description than I'd normally give token characters. In fact Nora, who is a waitress who works with Elle and is in multiple scenes, isn't described more than saying she is a single-mother. 

I think that comes from the way I read. I don't really care about what characters look like in the stories I read, I'm more interested in who they are and what they're doing and I often forget even if they are described. ​

So I started wondering - if a writer doesn't specifically mention ethnicity when describing a character, does that by default make them white?​ Or can the reader make them any ethnicity they want?

​I'm quite interested to hear what people think about this. Do I need to make more of an effort to describe the ethnicity (as well as other features) of my secondary characters, or can I let the reader make up their own descriptions?

If a character's ethnicity isn't specified, does it by default make them white?

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