how to write characters of color (as a white writer)

So, we’re all working to deconstruct whiteness, right? Right?!

And now the time has come to deconstruct the white narrative. Now it is no longer acceptable to write all-white stories (gee, I wonder why?!), and white writers may feel unsure of how best to proceed. Claire Light explains:

In response to the complaint of white writers about writing about people of color: “Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t,” I want to say: absolutely.

It’s absolutely true. You’re damned either way. If you don’t do it, you’re a racist. Yes, you are. Race and racism exist in this society, and if you ignore them, you’re expressing a racial privilege that you don’t, morally, have any right to. That’s a subtle form of racism.

If you do do it and get it “wrong”, you’ll get reamed, and rightfully so. It’s presumptuous of you to think that you have the right to represent a culture you don’t belong to if you can’t be bothered to properly examine and accurately portray that culture.

Further, if you do it and get it “right”, or rather, don’t get it wrong, you’ll still get reamed by members of that culture you’ve represented who rightfully resent a white writer’s success representing their culture.

We are literally living in a society that is created with our comfort as its top priority, so it’s fricken time for white writers to feel discomfort. Sit with it. This is a long process. Another thing to get comfortable with is the idea that, if you achieve any level of success, you will be criticised for your portrayal of race.

Ello Ellenoh: “Yes We Need Diverse Books. But that doesn’t always mean that we want YOU to write them. No, it means we want you to support them. We want you to read them. We want you to promote them, talk about them, buy them, love them. We want you to recognize that these stories told by authors in their own voices has as much importance as all the white ones that are published year after year.”

Also, there is no such thing as a “character of color,” and I’m sorry for including it in the title. Every character is a character. Period. When it comes to choosing the ethnic background of your characters, you gotta take this shit seriously.

Your first step is to read writers of color. If you do not have the ability to read and love writers of color, get your white bullshit out of here. For every story you read that was written by a white person, read two written by a person of color.

Do. The. Research. DO NOT take up bandwidth in writers’ groups asking, “I’m a white guy. How do I write a Japanese young woman in an internment camp?” Then stomp off when someone tells you to invest time and money into supporting Japanese art, rather than asking all the Japanese people in the group to support your white-ass art for free. Or even worse, listen to white people say something like, “I studied Japanese internment camps in grade 5, and this is what it’s like for them.” Miss us with that bullshit. (If you think that this is an exaggeration, I have legit seen a post by a white guy, offended that he was called a racist by a person of color IRL, and insisting that he be validated by people of color in this group! If that is not white supremacy in action, I don’t what what is.)

If you want, you can talk to people from the cultural group you are trying to write, and pay them for their time. Or find some sort of quid-pro-quo in support of their art. But, really, just spend a ton of time doing research.

DO NOT write a character of color for “diversity.” No human person is a quota. You are already seeing them as less than a full person. DO NOT think that because you have seen a Spike Lee movie, you know “how black people talk.”

Be humble. Do not ask people for free labour. Support artists of color. Don’t think you know everything because you live in a society that is catered towards whiteness.

It’s gonna take a super-long time. And that’s okay. Take time. Ask questions. Spend money. Get invested.

And if you can’t do all of this, you should reconsider not only whether you should write characters of color, but whether you should be writing at all.

Featured image was created by the author using elements from canva.com.

Published by amy

Coffee-drinker, money-saver. Laughs at "that's what she said."

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