NaNo Tip No. 24: Writing While White

Lately many white writers have been asking me about writing characters who aren’t white. Quite a few are doing NaNoWriMo, so I decided I’d put my responses into the NaNo tips.

I’ve been asked the following questions: Why should I have non-white characters in my books? How do I write about non-white people if I’ve never known any? Should I write about non-white people at all?

I’ve already addressed some of these questions a number of times. I’m not sure if any of my responses are adequate. These are complicated questions that I wrestle with myself.

And, of course, I feel very weird being put in the position of giving people permission to write. No one can do that for you. Least of all me.

In a few cases, I’ve been tempted to tell these well-meaning askers, “No, don’t put non-white characters in your fiction.” Reviews like this one by the fabulous Doret Canton definitely make me feel that there are white writers for whom writing outside their social circle is a bad idea.

As a general rule you should never write about anything you are ignorant about. If you want to write about an African-American character living in NYC, say, and you don’t know any, and you’ve never been to NYC, odds are you’re going to do a bad job. Which is why Chris Crutcher’s Whale Talk is so good. He’s drawing on his lived experiences.

Now, you may point out (if you know me at all well) that I have repeatedly written about things about which I know practically nothing. Mathematics in the Magic or Madness trilogy, as well as luge in How To Ditch Your Fairy and biology in Liar. I did a lot of research to be able to write about them but I was shockingly ignorant starting out.1

So what’s the difference?

Mathematics, luge, and biology are not people. They can’t be hurt.

What we all have to remember when we write about people—any people—is that the risks of reinforcing stereotypes and thus hurting people is very high. So the onus is on us to do the very best job we can. We also have to remember that even when we do a wonderful job, even if we are a member of the group we’re representing, there are still people who will be offended.

There will also be people who read your characters in stereotyped ways no matter what you do. For example, there’s been much discussion on this blog about representations of women and the way women characters are held to different standards. I recently saw a discussion of Sarah Rees Brennan’s wonderful debut novel Demon’s Lexicon where Mae was referred to by a commenter as a “whore,” which is, aside from everything else, factually incorrect. The much more sexually active character (also not a whore), Nick, was discussed in approving terms.

None of us want to perpetuate those attitudes about female sexuality but even when we’re writing strong2 3D female characters, like Mae, readers are still calling them whores. Which is to say it’s really hard bucking centuries of negative representations of women and particularly of their sexuality.

None of the white writers asking me these questions wants to hurt anyone or reproduce racist stereotypes. They’re asking because they’re concerned and they want to do the right thing and because they recognise that most of the novels being published in the USA are about white characters. Outside of bookstores like Hue-Man the shelves of most bookstores in the USA are groaning with books about white people.

However, when I ask them what they mean about not knowing any non-white people it usually turns out not to be true. Often white people start seeing their non-white friends as “white”3 and forget that they’re Hispanic or of Japanese or Korean or Indian ancestry. I strongly recommend writing about the people you know. But perhaps you need to open your eyes to notice that not everyone around you is the same race as you. Maybe you need to think about why you’ve started seeing them as white, and what that means.

Writing should challenge the way you perceive the world. You should look harder and longer than you ever have before. Notice that the sky at night is not black, that eyes are not one uniform colour and that car engines don’t “growl”. I would argue that thinking about how race and class and gender and sexuality and all the other aspects that make up who we are and how we treat each other is absolutely crucial to becoming, not just a better writer, but a better person.

  1. Sadly once the books are written all that I gleaned in order to write them drops out of my head. []
  2. By “strong” I do not mean “arsekicking”. See Diana Peterfreund’s comment for further explanation. []
  3. Which is a whole other problem. []

22 comments

  1. wandering-dreamer on #

    I guess I’m in a better place than most since my story is set in another world with a separate and different backstory than Earth, to me it feels like I have a few less rules about what the characters should be like and can focus on their personal lives more. And I guess my main characters is white. Based on where I set her hometown and it’s the area her family has lived for years I suppose that physically she is white. Honestly I never thought of it though, I think of white characters, tan characters, none that are truly black yet since I’m still world building that part but they’ll come up sooner or later. Really I just saw my character’s skin tones as a physical characteristic of where they lived and not much else.
    As for people not knowing any non-white people in real life, THAT surprised me. Probably because I live in the American South (and had to be told that there are not that many African-Americans on the west coast, seriously?) and lived in Cleveland before this and there are a lot of dark people in Cleveland as well. And I’m a sheltered kid so the idea of someone having no contact with people outside their own ethnic group, where do y’all live?
    Why hello long post that was more than I expected…..

  2. Joe Iriarte on #

    “Often white people start seeing their non-white friends as ‘white’ . . . ”

    I’ve run into that a lot. I’ve begun making a point of writing more characters who are Latino, like I am, and I think some of my white American beta readers view it as kind of an affectation, because they don’t see me as “really” Latino.

  3. Amber on #

    I am not a writer by any means, but as a reader of color I do have a comment:
    I really, really wish that white people who choose to write a story involving race in any way would take the time to investigate white privilege and whiteness as an identity. I feel like a lot of my issues with various books/publications could be resolved or at least addressed by refocusing the racial lens to stop counting white as an unmarked category.

  4. Pam Adams on #

    There will also be people who read your characters in stereotyped ways no matter what you do. I, to my shame, have found myself doing that. I managed on my first read of HTDYF to entire ignore all of your clues and descriptions about the characters’ ethnicity and considered them to be white. [Headdesk] It was only when I went back for a second read that I saw the characters as they really are.

  5. Alii on #

    I agree with you. As you point out, if I’m trying to write an African-American character with any sort of breath and breadth, I’ll probably suck at it since I have about zero understanding of the cultural subtleties that exist outside of my white experience. My powers of empathy are not that awesome.

    However, I am a white writer of fantasy and I prefer a multitude of skin-colors in my characters because I prefer a multitude of cultures that may or may not resemble a white culture.

    In my opinion, skin-color being non-white doesn’t make a character non-white if the culture is white behind the scenes. I think defaulting (in any way) weakens world-building in fantasy or in anything else. Especially if you’re trying to write another culture in a real-world context.

  6. Joe Iriarte on #

    Pam, I think that’s more to Amber’s point than to Justine’s. That said, I have to admit I’m guilty of the same thing. I somehow made it more than halfway through Anansi Boys before figuring out Fat Charlie was black. :o

  7. Najela on #

    This subject always brings up some controversy.

    Personally, as a person of color, I’d like to see more white writers try writing characters of color. I agree with you when you say taking into account stereotypes, but we are essentially all humans, we all feel the same things at some point.

    The Disney way of Dumbing down the white characters and leaving the PoC at their own “standard” does not work. Neither does the token stereotypical PoC.

    Your books are on my reading list, but I’m interested in reading your stories about non-white characters.

    I wonder if an author didn’t mention a character’s race, would people set to their default, or assume that the character is white.

  8. Katie-wa on #

    We’re all people, and we’re all the same. Maybe our ancestors had different beliefs and culture, but essentially, we all want the same things. There’s no difference across skin color, because there is so much variety within those colors as it is. If we want to truly eliminate racism, we need to not even make ANY distinction whatsoever. We’re the same. We’re brothers and sisters. We’re human. No more of this racial distinction. It’s pointless and only prolongs and ancient issue between mankind. I mean, no one comments on a hair color that sticks out or personal beliefs in an all-white crowd. Just stop making everything into such a big deal and fitting us all into carefully aligned boxes!

  9. Joe Iriarte on #

    The thing is, Katie-wa, that when we make no distinction whatsoever, what we end up doing is making everybody *white*. If I as an author assume everyone is fundamentally just like me, culturally speaking, then people who are *not* like me won’t see themselves in my stories. If most writers do this, and if most writers belong to the same cultural group, then people who are different start to feel as though their truths, their way of being, is somehow invalid. It’s not about prolonging hatred, as recognizing that we *aren’t* all the same. We’re the same in many important ways and we’re different in important ways, and it’s about recognizing that different isn’t bad or threatening. Have you ever had the experience of going someplace that felt foreign to you, but not threatening, and just enjoyed the foreignness?

  10. Philip on #

    Seems to be some contradictory advice here. “Write what you know, but be aware not everyone is like you. And people are going to criticize you no matter what you do.” Umm…OK :p

    This matter does give me concern, though. From when I started my protag’s girlfriend was from Japan, and since then I’ve created another Japanese female character who’s a significant supporting character. So in addition to ethnic differences I have the cultural to obsess over as well. I’ve pretty much resigned myself, should this ever get published, to having somebody criticize me as an American otaku who doesn’t really understand Japanese culture, as evidenced by this comment or that action on the part of one of my Japanese characters.

  11. Joe Iriarte on #

    Philip, I can only speak as a reader, because I have no writing success to speak of, but I would say write what you know–but learn the things you don’t know. Do research, ask people, and have knowledgeable beta readers. And yes, someone will tell you you got it wrong anyway, but at least you can honestly feel like you did your best, and like you dealt in good faith.

    Personally, as a reader, I notice when people get it, in my opinion, wrong, and I wish they’d done more research if I don’t think they did enough. But it doesn’t outrage me unless the portrayal is downright insulting. (Like in cop shows set in Miami, my former hometown, where the only Latinos you see are drug dealers.)

    As for the concern of making all your characters white guys in disguise, I suspect the key there is to not be what people in script-writing call “on the nose.” Don’t have your blacks, say, conform to every black stereotype, but don’t have them conform to every white one either. Real people conform to some expectations and confound other ones.

    (I apologize if it’s presumptuous of me to be saying this, but I just wanted to throw my opinion in in response to this.)

  12. wandering-dreamer on #

    O_O I think I need to go back and re-read HTDYF, I think I must’ve missed all the context clues for the characters races/colors. But since it is from a fantasy world (alternate Earth? separate altogether?) does it matter as much if I goofed and assumed that, since the characters thought like me they might look like me? in my defense I was also reading through the book really fast so I could get to all my classes on time and have gotten a bit lazy with my webcomic reading where you can tell with a snap someone’s race.

  13. Jude on #

    Although I’m not Latina, I have cousins in Mexico, which is where I learned Spanish. I understand many nuances of the culture that a typical “white” person doesn’t. At parent-teacher conferences this year, I greeted Latino parents at the door, passed out maps, translated–did whatever it took to increase their comfort level. The other Spanish-speaker on staff (who is far less fluent than I am) labeled me a white-bread Mexican, which annoyed me. I started calling myself a Gringa Mexicana instead. I couldn’t stand the TV show Friday Night Lights because of the ways it gets another culture wrong: that of a wheelchair-bound person. It turns out that I’m fluent in that culture as well. We are *not* all the same, and understanding and respecting another culture is a profoundly wonderful experience. I’ve always preferred anthropological science fiction, where you see another world from the perspective of someone who *isn’t* you.

  14. Jessica on #

    A couple of things:

    “(and had to be told that there are not that many African-Americans on the west coast, seriously?)” o.o Um? Well, I can only speak for California, but the SF Bay and LA areas are extremely diverse, with pretty much every ethnicity well represented. Of course, the rest of California (aka the non-metropolitan areas) is primarily white and Latino, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Oregon and Washington are pretty homogenous.

    Also, I am very guilty of assuming characters are white until shown pretty darn explicitly that they aren’t. In fact, I was reading a short story yesterday where halfway through I realized the protagonist was a POC. And, like every time this happens (EVEN IN FLEDGLING, even with Octavia Butler! that was a headdesk moment, let me tell you), I… am just so disappointed with myself.

    And lastly, thank you so much for continually talking about race and class and gender, Justine. They’re such important topics to think through and think about and, not only do you think very well, but you link to loads of others who do as well!

  15. Michelle on #

    I am so happy I have friends and met people of different races. My best friend is a white Muslim (from Albania), my MC is half Cambodian and Half white and I’ve known 2 Cambodians one of which I was really close to. I grew up in a predominant Puerto Rican and Black community, but my old high school has at least one person of every country imaginable. Thank Goodness my large social group consisted of at least 50 different countries all the way from Argentina to India to Canada which makes building characters easier and the research almost nonexistent.

    I am Hispanic, but I think it goes both ways. Coming from such an ethnic community we instantly thought a book written by a fellow Hispanic or Black meant the characters were of the same race. We would be pleasantly surprised when it turned out most of them weren’t or consisted of interracial couples of different ethnicity. I knew a few people who dumped a few books because of this. Ethnic writers should also do research on “white people” because sometimes they tend to be stereotypical. Numerous times I have read of chubby white women dating a black man in books and it gets annoying.

    I instantly believe the characters are white until subtle descriptions tell otherwise. If you’re going to write a book about another race sometimes its nice to get the opinion of someone you know of that same race and where they are from. A Southern black person who says their “please” and “thank yous” is completely different than a Northeastern black person. As well as people straight from Africa are more likely to be shy, not have many friends, and stay to themselves (the handful I’ve met). I applaud white writers who create characters of color but its all about filling up those plot holes correctly.

  16. Angelo Thomas Crapanzano on #

    I don’t know why people in this country make color of skin any different then the color of hair. I know many dark skined people. I have great respect for them. Some are even Italian. By the way, I don’t like calling dark skined people African Americans. They are Americans. They don’t refer to me as Italian American. Or I have never heard of Spanish Americans. [No advertising, thanks.]

  17. Justine on #

    I’ve not been able to get to a computer for the last few days (I’m writing this on my phone.). Thanks for continuing the conversation without me. Thanks Joe Iriarte for your responses. Exactly so. We are at once all human with the same sets of emotions etc and different.

    Thanks also Amber for pointing out the ways in which the category of being “white” gets lost in these discussion. Why is it that books with all white characters are not seen as being about race?

    Michelle, sounds like you grew up in a wonderful community. You’re very lucky. I’m curious though about where those African students are from. Africa is a huge continent with many different countries. It seems unlikely to me that all Africans are shy. No more than all Europeans are arrogant. I was frequently the new kid in class when I was a kid and the experience often made me shy. Maybe that’s part of what’s going on with those students.

  18. Shveta Thakrar on #

    I strongly recommend writing about the people you know. But perhaps you need to open your eyes to notice that not everyone around you is the same race as you. Maybe you need to think about why you’ve started seeing them as white, and what that means.

    I would argue that thinking about how race and class and gender and sexuality and all the other aspects that make up who we are and how we treat each other is absolutely crucial to becoming, not just a better writer, but a better person.

    Beautiful, Justine. Just beautiful. As always, thank you.

  19. Vir Modestus on #

    There will also be people who read your characters in stereotyped ways no matter what you do

    There will be ways in which I (as a white, male writer) will get my female characters wrong, or the People of Color won’t recognize themselves in my characters that are supposed to be PoC. Or, I’ll just fall into stereotyping despite my best intentions.

    I think that it behooves us as writers, when we mess up on something, to stop, apologize, and try to do better. Digging in and getting defensive won’t help the story and it won’t help me, as a writer, to not screw up the next time.

  20. Robert Sloan on #

    Thank you for this post! A lot of times I have to write characters who aren’t me. As a disabled man, I realized very recently that my action novels were weirdly devoid of chase scenes! Full of conflict, full of fights and clever puzzles and tension and suspense… and none of my heroes chased after other guys running away or got chased for long. Instead there’s a lot of ambushing and stalking.

    I deliberately set out to break that rule and write about long-legged action characters who run for fun and have a good speed and good wind when running for their lives or their ideals.

    It doesn’t hurt to learn.

    No matter who you are, a lot of the people in your novel aren’t like you at all. Half or more will not be your gender. Many might not share your religion or economic class either. “Race” to me is not a valid concept – I’m far too aware that there are no biological differences and that at least one “Black” group of people are technically Caucasian even by some racist documents.

    But racism is real and anything contemporary or historical must deal with it. Anything in SF must deal with it in its past. History is all there as it was, something to be played with, changed, distorted, written and rewritten within the world of your novel.

    The other thing I found out in all these years is that people will tell writers things. They want their story told. If you listen, if you ask honestly and take people at their word, you may swallow a few tall tales along the way but they’ll quickly set you straight on any gaps of ignorance with dozens of examples. In any group of people, some are less prejudiced and more outgoing, more willing to share their experience with someone who isn’t like them.

    If you’re respectful and take their word for it, you can fill the ignorance gap. I’ve asked my share of dumb questions, but the dumbest are always the questions not asked or the answers not listened to.

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