On Writing PoC When You Are White

My comments on white people writing People of Colour in these two posts has created a wee bit of consternation. This post is to clarify my position.

First of all: I am not the boss of who writes what.1 This is what I have decided for myself after much trial and error and listening and thinking and like that. Do what works for you.

I have decided to stick to white povs when I write a book from a single point of view.2 This does not mean will I no longer write PoC characters. There are people of different races and ethnicities in all my books. I have never written an all-white book. I doubt I ever will.

I didn’t make this decision because I was called out for writing PoC. Before Razorhurst all my main characters were PoC. The response has been overwhelmingly positive.3

The decision has more to do with the way the debate about diversity in Young Adult literature plays out. Almost every time the overwhelming whiteness of YA is discussed a well-meaning white author says, “I shall fix this. My next book will have a PoC protagonist!”

I cringe. All too often the white folks saying that don’t know many people who aren’t white. They rarely socialise with them. There’s a reason for that. As many as 75% of white people in the USA have entirely white social networks. I’m sure the numbers are similar in Australia.

That’s why I now largely recommend that white people with little experience of PoC don’t write from the point of view of PoC characters. Research will only take you so far.

Writing about PoC when none of your friends are PoC is not the same as writing about an historical period you weren’t alive for. If you perpetuate stereotypes you hurt living people. When you don’t know any PoC, even with the best research in the world, you’ll get things wrong. Stereotypes are harmful. Especially when you don’t realise you have written a stereotype.

Who are you going to get to read and critique your work if everyone in your social circle is white? Are you going to ask someone you don’t know very well? It’s a huge thing asking someone to critique your work. It takes a lot of work and if they don’t know you well how do they know that you’ll be receptive to them pointing out racism in your work?

We whites are notorious for freaking out when PoC so much as hint that something we did or said is racist. Many of us seem to think it’s worse to be called on our racism than it is for a PoC to experience racism. Even though being called racist can not kill us.

On top of all that I’m increasingly unconvinced that white people writing more people of colour solves anything. According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center this year whites wrote most of the YA books with African-Americans, American Indian, Asian Pacifics/Asian Pacific Americans and Latino main characters.

Representation is improving but it’s mostly whites doing the representing, which is part of the problem. We need more writers and editors and publicists and publishers and booksellers of colour. We need publishing to be more representative of the countries we live in. Right now US publishing is 89% white. Australian publishing is at least that white.

We white writers could do more to increase diversity in our industry by drawing attention to the work of writers of colour. By mentoring, introducing them to our agents, by blurbing their books, by making space for them at conventions and conferences, by listening. Check out Diversity in YA. Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon and the others involved with that organisation have lots of concrete ideas of how we can make YA more diverse and inclusive.

The other reason I’ve shifted to predominately white points of view is in response to all the critics who’ve pointed out for many, many years that too many white writers think they can only tackle race through the pov of a person of colour. The implication is that race is something white people don’t have. We just are. We’re colourless neutrals.

No, we’re not.

Expectations about our race—our whiteness—shapes our lives as much as our gender or our sexuality or our class. Yet all too many whites are unaware of it.

I wanted to write about how whiteness obscures our understandings of how we are who we are and of how the world operates. For the next few books, including Razorhurst, I’ve been pushing myself to examine whiteness in my fiction.

A recent book that does this well is All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. The character written by Kiely has to confront the ways in which his whiteness makes him complicit in the racist violence inflicted on Jason Reynolds’ character and what he can do about it.

Overt racist violence is not at the centre of Razorhurst or My Sister Rosa4 or of the book I’m currently writing. I’m looking at the less overt ways in which whiteness shapes lives.

I fully expect many of the people who read these books won’t notice. That’s okay. Many readers didn’t notice that everyone in How To Ditch Your Fairy is a person of colour. Books do many different things. No one reader is going to notice them all and many readers are going to see things the writer didn’t intend. It’s how it goes.

In all my books I try to tell a story that engrosses readers and lets them forget the real world for a few hours. That my books do that for even a handful of readers is glorious.

TL;DR: I’m writing predominately white pov characters because of reasons listed above. You do as works best for you.

  1. Not going to lie I kind of which I was. I’d also like to dictate Australia’s foreign policy, response to climate change, and treatment of refugees. Also fashion. []
  2. In books with more than one point of view, such as Razorhurst and the NYC historical I’ve been working on forever, there are PoC povs. Those books wouldn’t makes sense otherwise. []
  3. Including winning the Carl Brandon Society’s 2009 Kindred Award for Liar, which is one of the biggest honours of my career. []
  4. My next book. My Sister Rosa will be out in Australia/NZ in February and in the USA/Canada in November 2016. []


  1. C.Cooper on #

    I like the idea of white writers finding new ways for young white pov characters to interrogate the history (and dismantle the conceptual supports) behind the system of white supremacy.

    In high school I remember at 15 or 16 reading then writing an essay about John Hersey’s novel “White Lotus”. It was an SF novel of sorts, imagining an alt-future in which a post-Communist (or perhaps slightly pre-Communist) China defeats and invades the US.

    The story is told from the perspective of a white teen girl, sentenced to forced labor, who ends up having an oppressive cultural displacement experience not unlike that suffered by enslaved Africans brought to work as chattel slaves in the USA. under chattel slavery.

    Hersey a journalist who often sought moral insights when writing about war–grew up in China speaking fluent Chinese as the son of Christian missionaries–and wrote it in 1965 as a thought experiment. I found it revelatory.

    • Justine on #

      Did you get to read the actual book? That sounds fascinating.

      • C.Cooper on #

        Sure. And at the time I didn’t even know Hersey had already won a Pulitzer for the 1945 novel “A Bell for Adano.” I just liked the originality of this story…unlike anything else I had then seen from a mainstream white writer. I later found out how very much the writer “sided with the angels” on the front lines of many human rights issues. But at 15 I didn’t know from impressive CVs. What impressed me more back then was that choosing to write about “White Lotus” for my Advanced Placement English Exam got me a perfect score from the judging panel.

        • Justine on #

          Ha! No doubt.

          I’d never heard of it. I’ll now be tracking it down. Sounds fascinating.

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