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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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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