White Authors – Fill Your Stories With People Of Color, But Don’t Make Them Your Protagonists

This is a letter for the well-meaning white authors who are considering including people of color in their stories.

If you are a white author who is serious and passionate about writing ethnically  diverse characters into your work, please tread carefully. And please refrain from making your protagonists people of color.

I know, you’re probably groaning and thinking “damned if I do, damned if I don’t.”

Yes, it is a fine and tricky line to walk, but white authors should tread carefully, do lots of research, and must have good and honest intentions if they want their work to be taken seriously by people of color. That all goes without saying.

Now, I do want to clarify that my points are aimed specifically at middle-class, white authors who possess both earned and unearned privilege. At the very least, we can all agree that white, straight, cis-gendered authors from middle-class backgrounds (aka the group most likely to get published) have advantages in the publishing industry that people of color don’t — such as dominating the entire industry.

I apologize if my position appears confrontational, but it is born of good intentions and I want to help. 

My first piece of advice is to avoid making your protagonists people of color. Don’t make them black or indigenous or Asian or Latino — you get the point. 

Why do I find white authors writing people of color problematic, you ask?

1 – It reeks of White Savior Complex

  • I appreciate when white authors with influence in the publishing industry support diversity in literature, I really do. We need allies from all walks of life. But if John Green’s next book starred a Native American or African-American teen, I would cringe. We don’t need white authors getting published for writing the stories of people of color; we need more people of color to get published and be represented in an industry that has historically disenfranchised them. 

2 – It diverts attention from people of color who use their own voices to tell their own stories (let’s call them #ownvoices authors)

  • White authors dominate all aspects of the publishing industry. There’s no need for them to gain even more attention for writing the stories that have been lived by #ownvoices authors. Bestsellers such as Memoirs of a Geisha and The Help are especially problematic because white authors become more known for telling the stories of people of color than contemporary people of color telling their own stories — often leading to the praise and recognition of said white authors at the expense of writers of color.

3 – A white person’s perception of the world may not be be the same as a person of color

  • A story told from the first-person point of view is particularly troubling. No matter how much research you do, you’re not going to convince me that you see the world the same way as an indigenous person or a black American. You simply won’t. White people don’t have to worry about cultural erasure, cultural appropriation, and systemic racism.  

Quote 1

If you are a white author who writes stories with an all-white cast, consciously or unconsciously, please don’t feel pressured into writing people of color into your stories out of guilt. That’s a terrible reason for adding diversity into your stories. It’s blatantly inauthentic, your audience will notice, and you’re likely to experience backlash and criticism if your portrayal of people of color is done poorly.

Let’s be clear – adding a black or Asian character to your story simply to fill some imagined diversity quota is a bad idea. Don’t do it. Especially if said character serves no real purpose to the story. We don’t need any more gay best friends or POC sidekicks whose purpose is to support the straight white protagonist.

That book of yours with an all-white, straight cast will reach its audience. Trust me: that audience is sizable and it won’t change any time soon. It’s better if you stick to writing what you know and not upset anyone. If you do this, I’ll respect you more and leave you alone. I’ll probably never read your work, though. Sorry. 

So, can white people ever write about people of color?

Yes.

Speculative fiction is a wonderful genre that allows authors to explore their imaginations unhindered. So I especially encourage writers of Fantasy and Science Fiction to populate their worlds with culturally and ethnically diverse characters. 

And here’s the beautiful thing — your worlds don’t have to be Earth analogs! This means that the dark-skinned or brown-skinned people you write about aren’t black Americans or Indigenous people or Mexican or Vietnamese people. So all that messy history of our world be can set aside and you focus on telling a rich and complex story. 

If you truly want to discuss issues of race, tell the stories of an oppressed people, or just want to write a multicultural story, it’s best to create your own world. But as always, do your research and have good intentions. 

Quote 2

By now, you’re probably thinking — Well, if white people can’t write about people of color, then people of color shouldn’t be able to write about white people either. 

The answer to this is complicated. 

The main issue always goes back to power and representation. When a person of color writes about the experiences of white people, there isn’t a history of cultural erasure, cultural appropriation, and colonialism.

It’s also disheartening when people of color feel they can’t write about their own experiences and be successful. I will be the first to admit disappointment if an Asian, Latino, or Native American author chooses to write about the lives of white people instead of their own communities. This is rare, but it happens and I don’t like it.

Do you understand how sad and upsetting it is when young children feel like the stories they write can’t be about them? I will never forget the day I realized that the majority of the stories I wrote as a child and teenager were about white children. Even my video game characters had white names! And that’s because the media and literature I consumed ingrained in me the belief that mainstream and “universal” stories couldn’t be about people like me. 

I’m upset because I don’t want young people of color to ever think their experiences are unworthy of being told. That’s why I feel it is the moral duty of writers of color to tell their own stories, so that children see themselves reflected in the books they read. 

Perhaps I’m limiting writers of color by proclaiming they should only write about their own experiences and shouldn’t write about, say, a white European family during World War II or a tragic romance set in the backdrop of Cold War Russia.  

Pardon me for saying this, but I don’t particularly want to read a story written by a contemporary Mexican writer set in Pakistan. Or a novel by a Chinese-American set in India. It just doesn’t seem authentic. Not every story is yours to tell — this applies to everyone. 

But some white people seem to think they have the right to tell any story they’d like. Sure. Technically, they can, but should they? I certainly don’t think so.

Quote 3

 

I want to end with a list of things NOT to do as a author who wants to write stories that reflect the diversity of our world.

1 – DO NOT write the next “Cinder”

  • I just want to put the idea out there. This story has barely anything to do with Asian culture. The honorifics are used incorrectly, the names are a mess, and the entire endeavor is an imperialist fantasy.

2 – DO NOT write ethnically vague characters and act like your novel is “diverse”

  • Everyone will assume your character is white, so don’t pretend otherwise.

3 – DO NOT scream “reverse racism” because your work is rejected under your real white name and assume a nonwhite pen name

  • Just don’t. I shouldn’t have to explain. 

4- DO NOT include characters from multicultural backgrounds because you think it’s trendy or it’ll sell books.

  • If you think diversity in literature is a trend you can cash-in on or some sort of cool bandwagon to jump on, then you’re writing for the wrong reasons. 

5 – DO NOT claim people of color aren’t working hard enough to get their stories written, published, and read.

  • If you think this, you probably aren’t paying attention. We are working our butts off to make this happen, and we’re doing it boldly and fearlessly. 

To finish:

Obviously, I understand that as a person with agency over your own life and decisions, you can write whatever story you’d like. You’re perfectly welcome to include people of color in any of your stories, even as protagonists.  I simply wanted to share my concerns. So if your next novel is going to star a nonwhite protagonist, please remember to research extensively. This includes communicating with and listening to the communities you wish to portray. Finally, be open to and expect criticism because it will improve the story you want to tell. 


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34 thoughts on “White Authors – Fill Your Stories With People Of Color, But Don’t Make Them Your Protagonists

  1. Oh man is this a loaded post. I don’t even know where to start. I very recently read a heterosexual romance by an Indian South African lesbian that took place in WWII Soviet Era. I asked her about it (because I was predictably curious), and she said it was just interesting to her, and that she wanted a setting in which romance was a life or death situation. For her, it wasn’t too far from what her life experience, just with different characters in a different setting. She went to Russia and learned about the culture so that she could authentically write her characters. Personally, I think she did a great job. So, I see your points, but I also understand her statement that she can’t control the story she wants to write– she can only make sure that she writes it as authentically as possible. I’d have LIKED her to use her voice to tell more stories of other PoC, but I she usually does, so who am I to withhold from her this single whim?

    As for white authors not having PoC protagonists, I think its a bit more nuanced, because inclusive white writers don’t just write books. Their writing can pave the way for PoC actors in TV and Film, where PoC writers are only slowly making their way to the table. Now with books, I don’t particularly care either way– I’m not going to fight for a white author’s right to write PoC leads because they don’t seem to want to anyway. I’d need an example first, because its not something that I come across often. But I do know that it’s a slippery slope. We’ve already discussed the number of heterosexual white women who write gay romance, which I think is odd, but a few manage to do so with a degree authenticity. But there are also a number of men who write female leads, and no one seems to think that it’s inauthentic. Race and sexuality are obviously different, but a comparison is worthwhile.

    This was a long comment. I don’t even remember what I said. But just know that your post sparked a lot of thought. I’m with you on a good number of the points, but I think I’d like to know what inspired the post so I can get a better idea of where you’re coming from.

    1. Hi, Whitney. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      I do want it to be clear that these are my very emotional, personal, and subjective opinions. And as always I’m open to criticism and starting a dialogue.

      My words may have sounded absolute, but I do understand that there are exceptions, like the example you mentioned, in which writers of color can effectively write about other cultures. As long as the writing is done with respect and with enough research, I will accept the work of any author who writes about a different culture.

      But of course, I will personally favor stories by people of color about people of color. I understand the limitations this may appear to impose on POC writers, but I think the best way to affect change in the publishing industry is to have #ownvoices authors write as much as possible. We can focus on POC writers writing about other cultures after there is better representation of our own stories.

      I personally don’t take issue with men writing about women or women writing about men.
      Regarding sexuality — the same kind of points apply for this. As long as it’s handled with nuance and respect, it’s fine. But I will always prefer a book about a lesbian woman if it is written by a lesbian woman. No question.

      Again, I’m not forbidding anyone from writing anything. I just have really strong opinions about who should get to write what stories.

  2. Naz, a round of applause for you my friend. That was fearlessly done!!
    There’s so much food for thought, and I’m definitely with you on the fact that people of colour and minority groups should be given opportunities to tell their stories, and not feel conscious about it. The freedom of speech has been long argued about, and that battle is in no way over too. If you think about it, its getting there, slowly but surely they will get there.

    1. Thank you for your kind words.
      Yes, the whole situation is getting better and it’s because people of color are raising their voices and writing fearlessly about their experiences.
      I understand that my opinions may seem extreme and off-putting, but if I’m not bold and loud, then no one will listen.

  3. I love this! As an Asian in Britain, a LOT of the books about the Indian Subcontinent as a child were written by old colonialists who blanket stereotyped as unruly natives and I couldn’t relate to them. Whilst I appreciate things are more nuanced now, I am increasingly of the view that ‘diversity’ in literature is being co opted by white people as a fad. Thanks for telling it like it is! x

  4. That was a really awesome post 🙂 I totally agree with what you’re saying – I think people can really be playing with fire when they create a character who’s background and cultural influences they don’t really know anything about. This usually bothers me namely in Young Adult Fiction books. I’m not so fussed when it comes to historical fiction as to who wrote the book, because they tend to be the ones (if it’s a good book) that have been properly researched and actually educate you as a reader. But my all time FAVOURITE thing is when an author goes to town on recreating society in a fantasy world and you have that moment when you don’t find yourself assuming the character is the bog standard. I’m not too bothered though when an author includes an ethnically diverse range of characters within their book though – I mean, for me, I live in Australia and we’re a very multicultural society – it wouldn’t make any sense if someone wrote a book about my life and didn’t include a smattering of different ethnicities. So I do think it depends on a whole bunch of things.

    Great post! Really enjoyed reading it 🙂

    1. I also love when Fantasy stories create their own worlds, cultures, and races. I have read several white authors do this successfully. For example, Brandon Sanderson’s “The Stormlight Archive” features societies from an entire planet, and some of the most prominent characters in the story are people with brown skin. The culture he created is entirely his own, but it draws on some influences from our own world’s cultures, but they are expertly fused to create something new and distinct.

      My aim with this post was to express my strong opinion about authors writing people of color as leads. I certainly encourage all authors to write diverse casts into their stories, if they wish. But I wanted to share my concerns with white authors who want to write POC as leads. It can be done tastefully and well, but it can be difficult.

      Thanks for reading, Kirstie!

  5. *applauds*

    Seriously, thank you for writing this post. I’ve previously written my own post on this whole debate so I’m not going to rehash but I do strongly agree with your points here. While I agree with Whitney here that non POCs writing about POCs can often pave way for more opportunities for POCs. Because lets face it, at this point POC writers are hardly given the opportunity to stand on equal ground with white writers in publishing so we can use more representation be it the work of a POC writer or not. But the problem with this is that, this often creates room for non-POC writers to veer towards tokenism, mis-representation and some seriously problematic cultural appropriation! Like seriously how many djinn and “Indian mythology” inspired YA books by non POC writers have I seen this year?!

    I strongly believe that if we are to even hope for equal and fair representation of our cultures in fiction, we need to see a better representation in the publishing industry first. This calls for more POC editors, publicists, marketing specialists and bloggers!

    Thank you so much again for raising this incredibly important debate, Naz. 🙂

  6. Thanks, Nuzaifa. I really appreciate it 😀

    I would agree that POCs writing about Non-POCs is a good thing in general, as long as a POC writer’s entire body of work isn’t center around Non-POCs. (So many acronyms, I’m getting dizzy). I feel that because we’re currently working toward achieving mass appeal and exposure, every POC writer should attempt to help in any way to the cause of fair representation in the industry. Obviously, not every POC writer has to do this but I will still strongly believe that they should! haha.

    Our role as bloggers and advocates for this cause is vital and we have to continue the good fight.

  7. This is really interesting. I definitely agree with most of your points.

    I think white people writing about the real experiences of people of colour, in our real world, is problematic. Those stories are not ours to tell. But in the case of The Help, for example, I think the author did a really good job. She grew up with a black maid, and she felt like no one cared about that kind of experience, so she wrote about it. She drew a lot from her own life. She didn’t write about it to make a scandal or to sell – she actually, genuinely cared about what her maid had experienced. My opinion is obviously not very important in this matter, but I feel like I need to defend her.

    I do think you’re completely right when it comes to fantasy and sci-fi! Writing diverse characters set in a different world is a lovely way to represent people without cultural appropriation.

    I feel honestly weird, adding to this discussion as a white person. But I think the fact that you posted this serves as an invitation to a discussion, so I wanted to share my thoughts. Feel free to ignore me haha. x

    1. Please feel free to contribute!
      I’m surprised more white people aren’t commenting. And everyone has been so nice. I expected to be eviscerated by angry comments, because that’s what I see in the comments section of the “Internet.” But it looks like everyone in the blogosphere is so nice.

      I am very passionate and opinionated about this topic, but I’m not really forbidding anyone from doing anything. I just have loud and strong suggestions. 🙂

  8. I like to read books by people who’ve had a different life, or cultural experience to my own and that’s why I often read translated fiction, and love reading books by writers who originate from the Caribbean. I don’t want to read too many books that originate from the same perspective/culture however, so I’m careful that even though I read a ot of books by PoC, that there is diversity within the range of literature as well. I’m always looking for an authentic voice and insight and in this respect, reading books by PoC most definitely offers that. Books like The Help may be popular, but perhaps their noise silences the voices we need to hear more of, something about bestsellers by white authors channelling a black protagonist doesn’t sit right with me, it can’t be portrayed from within authentically, though clearly there is a market for it.

    1. Hi, Claire. Thanks for stopping by. I really miss new posts on your blog. I hope you’re well and will return to posting more frequently.

      I’m trying to diversify my reading as well, in the sense that I want to be reading more stories written by people of color outside of the Western world. This is my ultimate goal as a reader, not to focus on “diverse” reading of a region, but of the world in general.

      Yes, there seems to be a market for books like Memoirs of a Geisha and The Help, but these are the ones I find most problematic. A white author assuming the voice of a black or Asian person doesn’t sit right with me either.

      1. Thanks for your encouragement, I’ve been going through a stressful period and also moving in a week – I really miss not having the free mental space to read and write, it’s destablising, but hopefully once I’m resettled I will get back to my regular routine. I did just have a review published on BookBowse.com the first I’ve ever written for them, it was for the book Paint Your Wife by the NZ writer Lloyd Jones.

  9. Oh damnn that’s an interesting post-letter- LOL I do strongly encourage people to include other cultural minorities in their stories. However, if they don’t serve certain purpose just because they are from a different culture is not that problematic to me. Because I’ve read books from japanese authors or even african authors and they seem to include white people perspective and those characters do not really add anything to the story. I think it’s more realisitic to our daily life too. I live in a multicultural city and not everyone has a purpose in my lives hahah. Simply having a caucasian character as a friend talking for a few lines and then disappear seems like normal to me. Great post btw !! 😀 – Trang

    P.S : Your posts never seem to appear on our Reader :O is that normal ? I know that I had the same problem with Alicia@Hashtaglovebooks

  10. Thanks for reading. 🙂

    It seems some of my followers see me in their Reader and some don’t.
    A lot of people don’t see me on there because I have a self-hosted blog, and the Reader is for wordpress.com blogs. If you would like to see my posts on your Reader, I believe you have to manually add my blog’s URL into the list of “Followed Sites.”

    I’ve been so busy recently I haven’t had much time to visit other blogs.. I have to catch up on yours!

  11. Well geez.. humm..this post sure does hold a heavy load. First of all, excellent post to spark up a discussion among your readers. I couldn’t help myself from commenting since you’ve talked about a lot of things that are quite fascinating. Well written, buddy and kudos on conveying your ideas (must’ve had a storm of ideas while writing this up).

    I’m actually going to say that any writer (no matter their ethnicity) should be allowed to write absolutely any story that their heart and mind is set on. I don’t believe that a White author is not in a position to be able to write the story of a Afro-american. I think authors that write stories of various PoC can give readers more insight on different ways that people understand people. By creating PoC, giving them a personality, adding a background story and building their character throughout the story, I think readers can get a new point of view, a new perspective of people. I live in a multicultural city and I’ve grown as a person who observes everything. I learned the “main” culture of my society and I’ve discovered how everyone adapted and understood it. Being myself drenched in various stories of PoC, in various cultures of PoC, in various attitudes/values/beliefs of PoC, anyone could concoct a decent a respectful story of a PoC. In the end, I think any writer should know what he’s diving into and let his ideas drive his story.

    Because I believe anyone (White or not) can write up characters of different colors, I also believe that white authors shouldn’t refrain themselves from writing these stories for the sake of giving room to PoC who want to write a similar story of the people of his ethnicity. I don’t think that the problem that needs to be solved is among the “White authors” but rather in the publishers and every other filter that decides if a book passes or not. If there’s a certain discrimination that is really true (and that is not due to the number of potential white authors vs the number of potential PoC authors) then change should be found among these editors/publishers/whatever.

    I’m also quite astonished by how much American culture has influenced every one in my surrounding, including me. When writing up stories where I wasn’t myself the protagonist (an Indian), I did tend to go for White people during my elementary days. This phenomenon is quite strong among the kids of the 20th/21st century and is definitely understandable with the massive and overwhelming power of media/publicity. But that didn’t mean that I always went for white characters/names in stories I made up/games I played. It’s by growing up, maturing that you come to understand the world better. You start seeing abstract concepts like racism, sexism, etc. that you become more open-minded. It’s this very nature of becoming open-minded and desire to learn and explore that you start seeing things through the eyes of others. You start realizing what empathy is all about and are able to comprehend problems of various people. If you ask me, authors who’ve lived their lives with an open mind and who’ve searched for answers instead of swimming in a pool of stereotypes and misconceptions can definitely write up an amazing story like The Help, Kitchen House, etc. That’s why I believe white people (or anyone else) can write up novels with characters of color.

    My bad for the ramble I went on, I felt the need to do write up my thoughts and share them with you! 😛 I don’t know if it goes against what you say or nuances things, but.. ye. Maybe I got carried away, I don’t know! 😀

    Once again, loved your post and I’m glad that you shared your thoughts on the subject and are open for discussion! 😛 Have a good day, friend.

    – Lashaan

    1. Sorry I missed your comment!

      I appreciate the thought and time you put into it. I understand that my logic is imperfect, but I have very strong opinions about this matter! By no means do I think my opinion is right and absolute. I do come on a little strong, though. lol
      You do make many great points, of course. And it’s true that real change has to come from the people in power.

  12. Oh wow yes!! Such a great post and I’ll come back to post a comment that will try to engage with your thoughtful post after readathon!

    1. I love how non-comments section-y this is, so many respectful and engaging comments yay! 🙂 Also, thank you Naz for writing such a great post and I hope you’ll be this brave often! 🙂
      I really like that since you put down these thoughts I get to react and think about not absolutes as in usually when you start the discussion you have to be the teacher etc.

      Thinking about white authors writing poc, I think that’s a sound argument, even if I do make exceptions.Maybe it’s just me being happy there are poc characters or if a white author does this well I have the hopes of this reaching a wider audience. For example the Princeless comics are written by a white guy for his biracial daughter because he wants to add to the collection of comics out there where she can see herself represented. But of course I want to see poc writer in comics and such examples might be on the crossroads of adding diverse comics but adding to the problem of white guys getting more comics published. Do you know what I mean? I feel I’m constantly caught between elated and crushed when it comes to representations of poc, yay they noticed us and argh wtf is this.

      Whitney notes, much can be compared to discussions about gender in writing and publishing. I haven’t stopped reading dudes writing female MCs but I do makes sure my reading is bascially 90% #ownvoices. Also, thinking about 19th century lit and male writer who actually presented female MCs as people and did well and hating that it was these dudes getting published instead of many women writers but also happy these works survived and are read by people who aren’t necessarily seeking out diverse voices (yet).

      About the fantasy/scifi thing, I think there are a few caveats with writing race in fictive groups of people. For example there are discussions by indigenous people about the representation of indigenous people in fantasy about how they are still problematic and based on Native mythology and experiences even if they are called something different.

      So happy you posted this and I hope you won’t get caught in horrible comment wars like on twitter!!

      1. The book blogging community seems to be very nice over all, and even if someone assaulted me horribly, I have full admin rights. haha. Not that I would censor their ideas, but I COULD :p
        I did have a short “argument” with someone on Twitter who said my logic was flawed, and of course it’s not perfect. These are just my opinions and should not be taken to be absolute. I was willing to listen to his concerns, but then he said that #ownvoices writers are overrated and that they don’t bring any authentic experience or voice to their writing. At that point I just had to exit the conversation…

        Thank you for taking the time to read my rambling, ragey post! I think it turned a lot of people off, but I had to get it out.

        The comparison to writing about gender is valid, but I never had a problem with women writing about men or the other way around. I prefer if women focused their stories on the lives of women, but I won’t be upset if that doesn’t happen. For example, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is a masterful work of fiction, but the story is very male-centric and it’s the story of men’s lives and experiences. I enjoyed the novel immensely, but was a bit disappointed that she didn’t tell women’s stories.

        I too make exceptions for white writers, especially if they write about the biracial identity or if they want to write about biracial relationships. Basically, experiences that are close and personal to them. It has to come from a good place, not simply to fill some diversity quota.

  13. Wonderful post! You make some very good points, and beautifully articulate exactly why the relationship isn’t reciprocal (why white ppl writing as ppl of color is not the same as the other way around).

    There are few who can really pull of writing as/about someone other than what they’ve experienced. I haven’t read too many books by white people purporting to be about non-white characters, but I do run into this problem a lot with men trying to write about women (Thomas Pynchon is my favorite example, he is such a misogynist, and when he writes from the pov of a woman is truly insulting, especially since he fails to examine his perspective and doesn’t seem to realize he’s demeaning women).

    Love your blog btw, absolutely 100% on board with your overall message. I will be looking to you to diversify my reading list 🙂

  14. This is such a great post! I was a little worried when I saw the title, because I’m writing a novel in which one of the two protagonists is a person of color, but it’s a fantasy, so it sounds like I don’t need to go back and rewrite the whole thing. 🙂

    1. Well, it’s very nice of you to consider my very strong and loud opinion on all of this! hah. I appreciate you taking the time to read it.

      But honestly, even if it wasn’t a Fantasy novel, I’m OK with white people writing people of colors as leads as long as it’s handled carefully and with respect.

      And I definitely don’t have any problem with fantasy stories because that’s entirely different world and realm than our own. So keep on writing!

  15. I never laid my praise down for this post, but it came to me at a wonderful time. I’m writing a Sci-Fi novel, and my main characters are not of Earth, but I made their skin colors darker (burgundy and deep blue) and many of my bad guys have lighter skin…

    It was a bit subconscious, but I’d say it mirrors my beliefs about the world we live in today, so I got a little nervous that wasn’t going to work, but reading this post was helpful and made 110% sense.

    Also, I am guilty of being in the category of folks who are most likely to get published. If you have any advice on how to use that advantage to help the greater good, I am ALL ears!

  16. I respect your position but I do hope you know that not all white people have the same WASP background. I am an ethnic minority and immigrated from an Eastern European country as a kid. I never saw books that contained characters like me, and know what it’s like to not feel included in the mainstream.

    I agree that if you don’t know anything about the minority people then you shouldn’t include them, but if you do have similar experiences then research and include the characters. Tricky thing is how to include the minorities because if you make them seem American then you will get accused of whitewashing, but if you include defining characteristics then you will get accused of racism.

    In some cases minorities are also guilty of stereotyping their own ancestral countries. (Amy Tan for instance with China) maybe talk about some instances of that in the future, or about the cultural differences within a particular race.

  17. Dear Nazahet,

    this post is a little old, but I wanted to thank you for these helpful insights and was hoping that you could give me some advice.

    I am an unpublished, less well-off young female white writer of fantasy from Austria.
    It’s a given that a fantasy world should be diverse in my opinion. Everybody should be able to relate to characters that are part of a magical, special place. Also, I just want to create a world that feels real. Diversity is a big part of that.

    In my story, the (white-looking) protagonist becomes the “lieutenant” of a group of seven people trying to save the world peacefully while it is plunged into war.
    All of the members of the group are extremely important characters who influence the plot, save the day, give essential information, etc. … and become a loved family for the heroine. So I dare say they are far from being sidekicks.
    The “captain” is an elf who was supposed to be dark-skinned. The genius engineer was supposed to be a girl that resembled an Arab person. The combat expert was supposed to be an Asian-looking woman, to name a few.
    The rest of the population was supposed to be diverse, as well, and interaction and mixing was supposed to be normal.

    Until recently, I had always thought, if, in fantasy, you write a character as a human being with individual traits and a distinctive biography and background/origin, it does not really matter what their skin color is. But upon doing research, I found out there are so many mixed signals that I just don’t know how to make everybody happy.  It turns out, some people of color are fine with this approach, but others say characters like this created by white authors still “feel white”. Others feel that they are not properly represented because the characters don’t resemble them.

    I have to admit, I am kind of scared that this might happen to my characters. I’m not nearly done with creating the characteristics of the ethnicities and cultures, and of course I want to do a good job of making them as different from our real world ethnicities and cultures. But I have a degree in Intercultural Communication and am aware that I am always wearing my cultural lens. I’m only human, and nobody can ever get completely rid of their lens, especially when it comes to subconscious things that are just normal for oneself (e. g. the majority of my characters will probably be awake during the day and sleep at night).

    So my questions are these: What properties do people of color attribute to white people (in this case, you personally, of course. I’m aware that you can probably only speak for yourself)? How can I avoid writing my characters “white”? Am I offending anyone by not writing my dark-skinned elf with the cultural qualities of e. g. an African American but as a person with his own cultural heritage (which will hopefully not resemble my own or other cultures from our world too much)? Is the “borrowing” of a skin tone cultural appropriation? Could I hurt a member of a minority by not emulating the history of suffering that their ethnicity experienced because they think I’m trying to deny/downplay it?

    If I was expected to represent a given culture appropriately in a fantasy setting, I would feel confident enough to portray characters that feel like Japanese or Chinese people without falling back on stereotypes, since I studied Japanology and Sinology. Maybe not as the main character, but as important secondary characters. However, I’m not that familiar with African American or Arab cultures, for example, and I don’t have the resources to take on a course of studies in African and Arabic studies. So what would you recommend here, except doing research and speaking with people of these cultures?

    I just want to do right by readers of various ethnicities. I want to write a story that they can enjoy, cry about, and maybe learn from; one that doesn’t force them to imagine the characters had their own skin color or even put the book away with a sigh.
    Considering myself a philanthropist, for a long time, I have been thinking race doesn’t matter to me, personality does. I don’t even like the term. I’m not sure about English, but in German, “Rasse” is a term from animal breeding which is inapplicable for humans because nobody breeds humans. We’re all part of the same species homo sapiens sapiens that happens to have minimal genetic variations. .__.
    But by saying race doesn’t matter, I might actually hurt someone’s feelings who takes pride in their ethnicity or assumes I am trying to downplay the oppression they experienced at the hands of white people. What are your thoughts on this?
    I sure as hell don’t want to tread on anyone’s toes, so I’m kind of at a loss with what to do.

    I’m aware that the situation concerning minorities, discrimination, cultural appropriation etc. is different in our countries, but I would really value your input.
    Thank you very much in advance. Also, sorry for any mistakes; English is a second language for me.

    Yours sincerely,
    Alice

  18. Boy, I missed the boat on this one…Hey Naz, I’ve been following your blog for about a week now, ever since finding your Diverse Books Tag. So far, I love it!

    If given the choice, I would rather read a book by a a fellow Latino author than a White author telling the same story. That’s why I also started a diverse book blog, to support POC authors. I’m about burnt out on books about boring White boys growing up in Boring, USA. Hell, even White people are sick of White stories. White as in, upper-middle class, Christian, small town stories like “A Prayer for Owen Meany” by John Irving. God, that book was boring!

    Anyway, I’m perfectly fine with White authors writing POC protagonists. Yes, they may not be able to fully slip into the POV of POC character (so many abbreviations), but as long as they’ve done their research, and the characters aren’t offensive stereotypes, I don’t see a huge issue with it. That, and we live in a diverse world. I always get a little annoyed when I read a book by a White author, and it has all White characters. I mean, if you’re writing a story about a big city in modern-day America, a sci-fi or fantasy, then why the hell not write characters of different backgrounds?

    Personally, I would rather a White author try to add diversity in their novels, and learn about other cultures, than stay in their own culture bubble. I don’t believe in telling anyone that they should only stick to their own culture and people.

    The best writing advice I ever got was: You can never please everyone. Don’t use this as an excuse to stay ignorant, but don’t let it scare you from creating. I think that’s good advice for anyone, really.

    Happy Holidays, and a Happy New Year!
    Rita

  19. I know you mentioned the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” complaint, but you really didn’t address it. I’d love to see more books written by POC about POC, and I’m doing what I can to support those books. But I’m not a publisher. I have no real power to help those authors get published. I’m just a white author who thinks lack of representation is a problem and would like to avoid it. But if I write a POC protagonist I’ll be inauthentic, if I write a white protagonist with a POC friend I’ll be making the POC a sidekick, and if I just avoid writing POC altogether I’ll be excluding people. Seriously, is there any way for a white author to write a POC character well?

    1. Do research on people of color and write them in. You will get criticism, but that’s OK. Nothing is perfect. This next part might suck to hear, but you’re just gonna have to suck it up and admit that you’ll never make perfect representation. Read criticism, learn from it, then keep writing diverse stories. Writing is pushing a boulder up an endless hill. That’s why it’s hard. You just gotta keep going.

  20. Hi Naz,

    THANK YOU for this post. I’m doing a research/ news report on supporting marginalized voices in the editing & publishing world, and your post was extremely insightful in allowing me to understand the concrete ways white authors can and should be more inclusive in their writing, and also knowing when to take a seat.

    Best,

    Emily

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