‘It’s a double-edged sword.” That’s the phrase that I usually hear from writers when they discuss writing about minorities, particularly characters of colour.
It seems to suggest, that no matter what you do, you’ll never win either way. Write minorities? You’ll be criticised. Don’t write minorities? You’ll be criticised. But many writers I’m acquainted with seem to use this ideology to avoid challenging their writing and world views; to avoid being inclusive or diverse.
The bottom line of it is true, of course. As a writer, you will always be open to criticism. That comes with the territory. And criticism – actual, legitimate criticism – isn’t attempting to tear down white authors for not writing about racial minorities. It’s not accusing white authors of racism. It’s simply pointing out the lack of inclusivity and diversity that is still ever-present; both in literature and in the literary industry itself.
Often, writers that I come across are less interested in actually writing authentic character of colour, and more interested in getting a free pass for ignorance. They’re on the scout for that one person of colour who will say, “yes, of course you can write characters of colour without indulging in the kind of research and cultural knowledge that should be expected of you,” whilst simultaneously ignoring any dissent from other people of colour. Or they’re looking for an excuse to keep doing what they’re doing, so that when the criticism arises they can say “here’s the PC police again,” or “you can’t win no matter what you do!”
Unfortunately, the situation isn’t so simple. It’s not as easy as one person saying, “please. You have my permission to write characters of colour,” and just flying with it. Neither is it as easy as a person saying “nope, don’t write characters of colour ever. Because you can’t do it!” and dejectedly throwing up your hands and exclusively writing about people from a white background from there on out.
Writers, and readers, of colour have very legitimate concerns about white authors who write characters of colour, and this is something that needs to be understood and addressed; but is often dismissed.
Write What You Know
White authors often lack the cultural knowledge that is required to write certain characters. More than that, they lack the drive to actually accumulate this kind of knowledge; to go out and do the kind of research that is required of them. Too many white writers that I’m acquainted with feel entitled to write about characters of colour without actually understanding their cultural or racial backgrounds. It’s probably one of the reasons why writers often write racially ambiguous characters that can’t be traced back to a particular culture or race, but doesn’t necessarily fall into the category of white characters. It’s a way to avoid committing to any research; or to understanding people of colour and their relationship to their racial and cultural backgrounds.
The phrase, “write what you know” can often be seen as the be all, end all of writing advice. But in recent years this same phrase has become something that is looked upon with disdain. This is particularly true of writers whose genres are science-fiction or fantasy, and fall outside of the realm of realism. They think that the advice “write what you know” is somehow attempting to limit them and their imaginations.
White writers have a complicated relationship with this important piece of writing advice. Often they claim that to write what you know would mean they can never be diverse; they can never include characters of colour in their fiction because they don’t know what these characters would consist of.
Personally, I find “write what you know” is probably the only piece of writing advice that has consistently helped me in my journey as a writer. Because if you don’t know what you’re writing, what are you even writing? This is to say that to write what you know is not to place a limit on your own imagination, but to actually be able to ground yourself and figure out what you’re putting down on paper.
In my opinion, everything that you write should come from knowledge; whether this is the knowledge of your own experience; the knowledge that you go and seek out because you believe this is the story you need to be telling; or the knowledge that comes from your imagination but you’re able to construct and place within your writing in clever and constructive ways. Writing what you know should never be limiting. What it should do is make things easier, more accessible, and relatable; both for you as a writer, and for your readers.
Thanks to the age of technology, knowledge is at the tip of our fingers. There are blogs and websites that are specifically dedicated to helping writers construct characters from a variety of cultures, sexualities, genders, races, etc. They’re often written by people who identify with these identities, people who are willing to help writers in the act of writing diverse characters authentically. Writers can also find sensitivity readers, who will check over your manuscript for issues of representation.
Of course, the best type of research is hands-on research. Most of the time my characters of colour are constructed from my own interactions with my friends, who come from diverse cultural and racial backgrounds. But many writers don’t have a diverse network of friends and acquaintances, in which case the internet is right there to help them along.
As most writers probably know, the best teachers of writing are the writers themselves. When you want to learn how to write better, the solution is to read better (or at least read more broadly). Each of us are writers learned from those we have read in the past. The same thing goes for writing characters of colour. In order to write them, and write them well, you should be reading them, too.
A pitfall that writers often fall into, in regards to writing characters of colour, is just blatant stereotyping; which is often construed as passive racism, or just plain ignorance. One of the reasons why this happens is because of a lack of research on the writer’s part, but the other reason is the vast lack of characters of colour in fiction. When you have a single character from a particular ethnic background, it is easier for this character to fall prey to stereotypical representation. The best way to combat this is to include multiple characters from this particular ethnic backgrounds; so as to not pigeonhole yourself into a stereotypical representation, and to avoid writing token characters of colour.
Support Writers of Colour
I do believe there are times when you shouldn’t write characters of colour. Or rather, I believe that there are stories that don’t help anybody by being written by white authors. Certain stories belong to us, certain experiences belong to us, and just because a white writer has spent time researching aspects of that, doesn’t mean that they can step into our shoes and do justice to those experiences. It’s important to be able to ask yourselves the important questions when you have the inkling to a story. Do you have cultural knowledge to be able to do this story and character justice? If your answer is no, then don’t write that story. Don’t write that character. It probably isn’t your story to tell.
Most often these will be the stories that are completely tied up in cultural and racial elements that people outside of that culture will find difficult to understand, but they’ll find it even more difficult to actually translate it into a story or character. These will be stories that are made up of experiences that people outside of these cultural and racial groups don’t face. These are stories that should be avoided because an outsider will most likely not be able to tackle them.
One of the reasons why white writers actually feel a certain pressure to write characters of colour is precisely because the people who are able to tell these stories are continually being relegated to the background. Too many genres of fiction are dominated by white authors, as are many major book awards across the globe. Publishing itself is an industry that is vastly lacking in any kind of diversity. It’s more important that writers acknowledge this disparity within the industry and work on helping marginalised writers get the recognition that they deserve. Bringing writers of colour to the fore will ensure that the literature that we read is authentic, fresh, and diverse.
So should white authors write characters of colour? The answer isn’t simple and unfortunately it never will be. My opinions about the issue may vary vastly from any other person of colour. The important thing is that writers are aware of the kinds of stories and characters they are trying to write; aware of the impacts that including multicultural characters might have, and are willing to listen to the criticism that a diverse audience might offer them.
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