So y’wanna write about people of color…

I get a bit uncomfortable whenever white authors discuss writing about people of color as if it is a painful ordeal. If/when men say that they do not write fully-realized women characters because “we aren’t women and gosh women are so complicated and foreign and other, it’s easier to just avoid writing them all together cuz we sure wouldn’t want to offend anyone” most would agree that they are full of shit. They don’t write solid women characters because of sexism and male privilege.

Why, then, is it considered a completely legitimate option for white authors to avoid writing about people of color? Why is mentioning various races but then focusing solely on white characters so often considered good enough? Are people of color so complicated and foreign and other that giving them human emotions and motivations is a struggle? I assume that most white authors are not 18th century courtesans, vampires, magical children, aliens, dinosaurs, conspiring politicians, detectives or any of the various types of people(beings) that are represented in books. But they manage to characterize them just fine and are willing to do the research when it is required. So again I ask, what is it about people of color that stymies white authors? (I was going to suggest that perhaps people of color are elusive, mythical creatures but I’ve seen authors do wonders with mermaids and centaurs.)

Could it be racism and white privilege? In this blog post Rita Arens ends her discussion of white authors writing nonwhite characters by asking “And authors of color — do you write white characters? Why or why not?” This bothers me. The question assumes that authors of color have and have always had this choice. In reality, it is white people who have been allowed to create and consume media that excludes others with impunity. When people of color try to create media that “looks like them”, it is undermined at every turn. At best a book with only black characters is labelled “African-American interest” and marketed to a restricted audience. At worst it never gets off the author’s hard drive because publishers falsely claim it has no audience. Furthermore I’d like to point out that the majority of books by people of color I have read include a diverse range of people rather than only people of the author’s race or culture. We live in an incredibly diverse world; the ability to ignore that and live in homogeneous bubbles seems to be reserved for white people. I sincerely hope authors of color answer this question. I would wager their answers have little to do with the ease or difficulty of authentically portraying white cultural practices.

I am glad Ms. Arens asked kids how they feel about white writers and diversity in books. Too often the voices of children are left out in conversations about children’s publishing. I’m also glad she is taking their words to heart and making an effort to do better. I’m simply surprised (well, not really… more saddened) that the question was not rhetorical. I wonder if this writer and other white writers who grapple with the question of including people of color in their books have authors of color in their peer groups. I wonder if they have read the work of writers of color. I wonder if they have thoroughly examined why they’ve never written about people of color and why they ever thought that was okay. Hopefully when they answer that question and consider the implications of their position, the question of whether or not white authors should write nonwhite characters will be rightfully be considered ridiculous.

4 comments for “So y’wanna write about people of color…

  1. September 30, 2013 at 11:11 am

    Thank you for articulating this.
    I’ve been plenty blind to how non-diverse the characters in my writing have been, but this year have tried to get away from that. The “dread of offending” feeling is, as you pointed out, not a valid reason for continuing to ignore a group of people; and, I think, it can be a writer’s excuse not to acknowledge his/her own ignorance.
    In my case, I wanted to write about the effects of Canada’s residential schools on an Oji-Cree main character. At first I felt, well, I have no idea how to approach this, and whether I should, for fear of culturally misappropriating another’s story or voice. But the more I asked people of First Nations background whether this was something a white writer should write about, the more I heard, “Yes, because residential schools are part of all Canadians’ history” – which really resonated.
    Whether I have done enough research, treated the subject fairly and told a worthwhile story is up to readers to judge, but I feel I certainly took too long in my writing life to embrace this.

  2. Léonicka
    August 13, 2013 at 12:38 am

    Christine Lee Zilka’s (@czilka) comments via Twitter remind me of another peeve: why do white writers tend to centre the conversation about diversity in literature around their ability to write POC characters or not? Why not shed light on the more important issue of POC writers not getting published enough or getting enough shelf-space in bookstores? Could it be… white privilege?

    • The Voice of Reason
      August 13, 2013 at 1:04 am

      Because they’re self-centered whiny bitches, duh.

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