Life as a Writer

Should White Writers Write Non-White Characters?

“We need diverse fiction.”

If you’ve been around the publishing world for more than a few microseconds, you’ve probably heard this phrase. Every editor, publisher, and agent (including me) is looking for “diversity.” But what does that mean?

You’ll get a multitude of answers to this, but I think most would agree with the following statement: diverse stories include characters of different racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds with a diversity of genders, sexualities, and mental and physical abilities.

(Note: diverse does NOT just mean non-white. All of the above are also included.)

Of course, when people say diversity, they usually seem to be talking about race, so that’s what I’ll focus on here.

I don’t think anyone would argue that modern media has been whitewashed as long as any of us can remember. I also don’t think many people would argue that this isn’t a problem. Numbers are difficult, but a 2013 study showed that though 37% of people in the U.S. are people of color, only 10% of children’s books were what the CCBC dubbed “multicultural.”

Thus, I think most of us would agree this call for diversity is good.

However…

White writers are freaking out.

    But why on earth would they be freaking out? you might be wondering. Are they racist bigots who hate diversity?

No. Well, maybe some, but for the most part, no. It’s more complicated.

There’s a lot of backlash right now toward “whitewashed” casts. Readers and viewers get upset about stories that only feature white characters. So, white writers, to avoid this, try to insert diverse characters. But half the time, they end up with stereotypes. The sassy black woman. The mystical Native American shaman. And again, everyone gets mad. This time, they’re mad about stereotypes and misrepresentation. And most of the time, the outrage is justified.

These two groups of people, the whitewashers and the stereotypers, have screwed up royally on behalf of their entire race. So white writers are freaking out. They think it’s “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

To add to this, many publishers are specifically (or sometimes exclusively) looking for writers who are non-white, and they want stories about non-white characters. I’ve even seen some editors who say that if your story doesn’t include these elements, “don’t bother submitting to me.”

Then there are the articles and blog posts. Some of them rightly call out white writers to stop comparing skin colors to foods. But some rail against white writers, asking how they would dare write from a black or Asian or Native American person’s perspective. YOU COULD NEVER POSSIBLY UNDERSTAND!

That’s where I want to call a timeout.

White writers: They’re right. Wake up. You are not the only people in the world. In fact, globally, you are a minority.

Non-white writers: You’re absolutely right. You are more qualified to write these stories. And please do. The market is ripe for it. People are clamoring for something besides the worn-out cliché of a white male protagonist.

However.

I think it’s wrong to suggest that we as readers and as writers can only relate to people who look like us. I think we all need to chill out for a second and realize that we are all people.

You may have noticed that female writers have male characters and male writers have female characters. That older writers have younger characters and younger writers have older characters. And we’re not ready to burn anyone at the stake over that. As a reader, I don’t much care whether the protagonist is male, female, purple, blue, human, or animal, as long as they’re interesting. We don’t scream, “You could never possibly understand what it’s like to be a man!”

Granted. As a woman, I can never fully understand what it’s like to be a man.

I also can never fully know what it’s like to live through the Norman Conquest. Or learn that I have magical powers. Or live in another state. But these are perfectly acceptable things for me to write about.

Because even though I’ve never experienced what it’s like to be a man, or go to war, or wield magic, or live somewhere other than my own house, I have experienced what it’s like to be a human. And I can place myself in those situations. I can consider the physical, societal, cultural, and personal ramifications of actions in the situation, and I can ask myself, “What would I, in such a situation, do?”

As soon as we start screaming, “you could never possibly understand,” we’re devaluing each other as humans.

We’re saying that an African American person is so inherently different than a white person that one couldn’t possibly portray what might be going on in the other’s head. We’re saying the color of one’s skin determines how one thinks so that the one’s thought process is completely different and incomprehensible to the other, like different calibers of humans.

That seems a bit racist.

Yes, diversity is very important. Yes, white writers are notoriously bad about it. But to tell any given person that they cannot write the fictional story of any other fictional person because they could never understand seems like overkill.

However.

It’s incredibly important to do your research. Just like a writer would need to research how the Civil War would affect a character in that setting, he would need to research what her sexual orientation, race, and gender would mean for her. It only makes sense. If there’s any aspect of a character you don’t personally experience, you research it. Mostly because you’ll look like an idiot if you put helicopters in Gettysburg. Then, our writer can imagine how he, as a human being in this specific situation, would react.

Maybe this seems like too much work. Maybe you want to throw your laptop out a window and give up. How could you possibly please everyone?

You can’t. And you won’t. However, at the end of the day, it’s worth doing not for their sakes, but for the story’s sake.

As someone once put it, it’s not about including diversity, it’s about eliminating homogeneity.

Homogenous characters are boring. The world isn’t like that. People are a dazzling array of personalities, backgrounds, life stories, and identities. This doesn’t just include demographics like race, sexuality, and gender. It includes who people are, what they like, what they don’t like. It’s about being real.

So next time, instead of thinking, “What should this character be so the least amount of people will be angry with me?” ask yourself, “What will be most true to this character and this story?”

 

Note: I have tried to use the appropriate terms throughout this post. As PC words change frequently, I apologize if I have incorrectly referred to any race, ethnicity, sexuality, or type of ability. No offense is meant.

 

2 thoughts on “Should White Writers Write Non-White Characters?”

  1. Hi Alyssa,

    Thank you for your honest and thought-provoking blog, “Should White Writers Write Non-White Characters?” This topic hits home with me. As a fiction writer, I’ve wondered if readers, agents and publishers will consider me unqualified to create diverse characters, since I’m white. True, but many of my own grandchildren and those of my friends are of “mixed” heritage, and, according to National Public Radio and other sources, over half of babies born in America are “babies of color.” Your article is well-researched, heartfelt, and raises a lot of good questions for discussion. Thank you for addressing this sensitive topic.

    A bit earlier this morning I sent a longer reply, but it appears to have disappeared when I tried to log in. If indeed it does show up, please feel free to disregard the repetition. Thank you! Lois

    Like

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