How to Write Protagonists of Colour When You’re White

Step One: Ask Yourself Why

Why are you writing this book? Why have you decided to write a protagonist whose background is different from your own?

Is it because you want to make the world a better place? Because doing so seems to be the cool new thing? Because you lived for many years in a foreign country and you think that writing about it from that outsider’s perspective is voyeuristic and exploitative? Because you have the imagination and understanding to do so? Because you’re the reincarnation of an African king? Because you came across a cool story in the local newspaper and only you can do justice to that story? Because you’ve been part of the community you’re writing about since birth? Because the voice of the character came to you in a dream?

Once you’ve figured out why you’re going to write an Indigenous protagonist or Protagonist of Colour and can explain your motivations clearly you can move on to:

Step Two: Research

Writing from the point of view of someone from a community that gets less representation in mainstream culture than your own is hard. Especially when what representation they do get is largely negative and/or stereotyped. If you do not know people in that community, and have not spent time in that community, it will be an uphill battle to write from that point of view believably.

Which is why you must research.

As much as you can avoid accounts written by outsiders—all you’ll learn is how outsiders see them, not how they see themselves. Read books written by the people of that community. Watch TV and movies created by them. Look at what they write about themselves on social media. Listen to their podcasts.

Confusingly, you will find many of their accounts of themselves and their communities contradictory. Take a moment to think about that. Is it really confusing to have a wide range of opinions within the one community?

Consider the histories and novels that have been written about your community. It’s likely they’re every bit as contradictory. There is no completely unified community that agrees about everything. You know, other than, say, The Borg.

Ask the people you know well in that community questions. Listen to their answers.

If you don’t know anyone well from the community you’re writing about go back to step one, Why are you writing this book?

Do not jump onto social media to ask strangers about their community. Though some may be kind enough to respond it is not their job to teach you.

Step Three: Find Sensitivity Readers

When you have finished your diligent research, and have a complete manuscript you’re happy with, you need to have people from the community you’ve chosen to represent look at your book. Approach these readers in good faith and pay them for their work. Because it is hard work.

When someone critiques your book about their community it’s called a sensitivity reading. It’s called that because they’re reading to see if you have been sensitive to the community you’re writing about. If you have instead written stereotyped caricatures then critiquing your book is going to be even harder work. For some readers it will be painful work.

It’s best to have more than one sensitivity reader. Some readers might tell you the book’s fine, or only find a few minor problems with it, while others will find major problems. No community agrees on everything. Listen carefully and rewrite your book accordingly.

I had two of my readers tell me they found some of the dialogue of the black characters in Liar jarring. While other readers had no problem with it. I opted to change it. None of those readers had a problem with Micah’s use of the word “nappy” to describe her hair, though they agreed it might be a problem that I, a white writer, was using it. After publication some readers found it offensive. I discuss that at greater length here.

No amount of careful rewriting based on your sensitivity readers’ critiques will shield you from criticism. That is not what sensitivity readings are for. They are to show you how to write your book as accurately and as sensitively as possible.

And there you have it in three easy steps you now know how to write from the point of view of a Person of Colour or an Indigenous person. What could go wrong?

What’s Wrong With This Guide

Sadly, a lot goes wrong, particularly at step one.

Let me speak from my own experience, having written six books from the points of view of Teens of colour and an Indigenous teen. I went wrong at that first step. I did not ask myself why I was doing this. It did not occur to me that writing from an Indigenous or PoC point view was problematic.

If I had asked myself, these are the reasons I probably would have given: that I wanted to examine racism, and that I was trying to make YA more diverse.

My old belief that I couldn’t write about racism from a white point of view is garbage. Certainly books like To Kill a Mockingbird show that. But books like Mockingbird have other problems. Racism in Mockingbird is something that good white people save black people from. Racism is something that bad whites do, not a system of oppression that benefits all whites. There need to be more books in YA that examine white complicity in systemic racism.

I also thought I was saving YA by writing PoC and Indigenous main characters. It’s a notion that is dangerously close to the idea of the white saviour.

Once I’d proffered those two woeful reasons I would have explained that I was qualified to write these books because I spent part of my childhood living on Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory of Australia and because I have many friends who aren’t white. At the time I doubt I’d have realised I was literally saying, “Some of my best friends are black”. Yes, I’m ashamed.

Arrogantly, I did not let what I didn’t know about my Aboriginal and PoC protagonists be a bar to writing them. I made my protags of the same class and gender as me, which I figured would give me enough commonality to write them convincingly. Spoiler: it doesn’t. I did not consider how much I didn’t know about the ways in which race and ethnicity shape class and gender. It is impossible to know what you don’t know, which also makes it incredibly hard to write believable characters’ whose experiences are far from your own.

All writers need to have the ego it requires to write. But we white writers also need to step back from feeling we have the right to write the stories of people with less power than ourselves. Especially because every year more books by whites are published than by any other race. In YA, not only are the majority of books by white people, so are the majority of books about PoC and Native peoples. When we write these books we are literally keeping books by PoC and Native writers off the shelves.

Outside of my books with multiple protags, I now only write white protagonists because I realised that I was part of the problem of lack of diversity in YA, not the solution.

There are books by white writers with PoC protagonists that are loved by some people in those communities. But I think we white writers can do more good by calling attention to the books by PoC and Indigenous writers and by thinking about PoC and Indigenous readers.

In answering the question of why you want to write a book about someone else’s community try to think of those readers before you think about yourself. Think about who is better qualified to tell their stories: you or them?

Misusing Sensitivity Readers
In the last few years I have heard multiple stories about white writers in the YA, Romance and SFF communities misusing and abusing sensitivity writers. Writers who have employed sensitivity readers in bad faith, only wanting these readers to give them the Indigenous or PoC seal of approval. Spoiler: there is no such thing.

Sensitivity readers do not read your manuscript to give you cover. They read to show you how to make it better, how to make it not offensive. If they think that’s not possible they will tell you to kill the project.

Listen to them.

Writers who keep getting the same critique from sensitivity readers and ignoring it are acting in bad faith. If more than one person finds the same problem with your manuscript LISTEN TO THEM. And if it’s more than five or ten or, as in one case I heard about, twenty people pointing out the same problem? And you continue to ignore them and send your manuscript to yet another sensitivity reader? You need to stop. You need to burn the manuscript and go all the way back to step one and realise that you had no good reason for writing that book.

You also need to realise that you have trashed your good name in the community. People talk. People know what you’re doing and they’re appalled.

If you can’t take critique from the people who know the life experiences of your protagonist better than you do then STOP.

Pointing to the good reviews your book received once it was published, the prizes it won, is irrelevant. The vast majority of trade reviewers are white. The vast majority of major literary prizes come from white institutions. We white folk are not the best judges of accurate representations of any communities other than our own.

Nor is pointing to the Indigenous readers and Readers of Colour who’ve told you that they love your work. All too often they are so starved for representation that many have learned to be generous readers of even the worst representations. All too often I have heard teenagers say they’re just grateful to see themselves on their cover, to be able to read a book about someone like them, even if it doesn’t ring true.

Read the thoughtful analyses of books on Edi Campbell’s blog or on Debbie Reese’s American Indians in Children’s Literature. Some of the problematic books they discuss received multiple starred reviews and prizes.

What makes Edi and Debbie’s work powerful is that it is so clearly about the children and teenagers in their communities. Their mission is not to castigate white writers; it is to find books they can recommend wholeheartedly to those readers.

That is all the readers of any community that has been historically stereotyped and underrepresented wants: to read books that won’t make them roll their eyes, wince, or put the book down because reading it is too painful in the very worst way.

It’s Not About Us

Their work is not about us white writers. This debate about diversity in literature is not about us white writers. The only way to fix what’s wrong with publishing is systemic change at every point within the industry: from the CEOs of publishing companies through to the writers and editors and agents and sales reps and booksellers and librarians. Right now the majority are white. That has to change.

But we white writers keep centring ourselves. As Patrick Jones does in his recent article,
Writing While White, published in the June 2016 issue of Voya where he discusses writing PoC teen protags as a white man:

I shared the first few chapters with two award-winning black female authors who said, more or less, “No, you—as a white male—can’t tell this story.” I also asked a black female librarian from Flint to pre-read it. Her comment-slash-question, “Why didn’t you have them eating fried chicken and watermelon?”

Chasing told one black girl’s story; the pre-reader saw it as a white retelling a stereotypical story. I caved, but at the time, I didn’t think it was the best move. I understood the arguments about writing outside of race, but I didn’t accept them. So Tonisha became Christy.

Jones did the right thing in that he asked knowledgable readers to critique his book and they said, don’t do this. So he changed “Tonisha into Christy.” Well and good. Except that Jones does not seem grateful for their critiques nor does he acknowledge their hard work. He seems to have wanted his sensitivity readers to give him the PoC seal of approval and is annoyed that they didn’t.

Jones also doesn’t seem to understood what they told him. Maybe they did say to him, “No white man can write this story.” But it also seems like they were saying, “You, Patrick Jones, cannot write this story. You have not created a believable black girl living in Flint. You have created a stereotypical caricature of a black teenage girl living in Flint, who might as well be eating fried chicken and watermelon.”

He presents their thoughtful critiques as bad advice that he caved to. He says he understood their arguments but that he didn’t accept them. He describes the long-running debate about racism and the need for more diversity in YA as noise.

That’s the language of someone who is not listening. Someone who mischaracterises this vital movement to change YA as being about whether white people are allowed to write PoC protagonists. This is a common misconception.

Later in the article Jones says he’s decided to stop writing PoC protags because he worries Teens of Colour might view his books as “perpetuat[ing] stereotypes.” But then he undercuts that central concern by saying he’s stopping because it’s all “too complicated and stressful” making it about him again.

He’s not alone. Indeed VOYA’s Editor-in-Chief RoseMary Honnold told Fusion that

she didn’t expect Jones’ piece to spark controversy. “Patrick Jones is a highly respected member of the YA library community and the YA lit community,” she wrote in an email. “The first person account of his own journey of questioning the efficacy of his writing about POC, extrapolated to that topic, in general, brings a human dimension to the article for his many admirers and colleagues in the field.” When asked if she had concerns about the headline before publication, she said she did “not at all.”

This is a complicated and stressful debate but the central question is not whether whites like me and Jones can write PoC protagonists. No one is stopping us white writers writing whatever we want. Let me repeat: the majority of books in YA in the USA with PoC or Native protags are written by white writers.

We whites have to stop hijacking the debate to talk about us.

By all means grapple with this question on your own, as Jones has done, as I have done.
But we have to stop taking up space on Twitter, in Voya, and elsewhere to do so. If you read all the other articles in that issue of Voya you’ll find work by Debbie Reese, Edith Campbell, Sarah Park Dahlen, Amina Chadhri, Marieke Nijkamp and others on the truly central issues around Native American and PoC and other communities’ access, safety, autonomy, constructions of intersectional identity and so forth.

But PoC Writers Get to Write About Whites It’s Only Fair We Get to Write About Them
We whites do not know as much about Indigenous people and People of Colour as they know about us. This is a large part of why when we write from their points of views we all too often get it wrong.

Yes, we’re all human. Yes, we all have the same physiology. We all experience love and hate and desire and jealousy. We all need to eat and go to the toilet. But I’m no longer sure that our white imaginations are enough to fill in what we don’t know about loving and hating and existing as an Indigenous person or Person of Colour in a world where whiteness is prized and white people hold most of the power. In a world where the vast majority of our publishing, film and television industries, and other media is run by, produced for, and about white people.

On Twitter writer Justina Ireland has talked about how:

Every PoC lives with a dual consciousness. It’s the idea that PoC have to take on two identities in order to survive in a hostile society. Meaning: we learn how to act white in order to be successful. At school, in jobs, and in publishing. We know what it takes to be white. Which is why PoC can write white characters effortlessly. Because we’ve all played a white person at one time or another. . . Bottom line: the oppressed are forced to learn to identify with their oppressors, it rarely happens in the other direction.—Justine Ireland.

White people do not have to take on two identities to survive in a hostile society. Our society is not hostile to white people.1

In a recent discussion writer Doselle Young put the difference more strongly, talking about:

the reality of what “playing white” entails. From my PoV, it’s about learning to instinctively bundle up, separate, partition and obscure almost every element of one’s cultural identity at the drop of a hat. To set aside the body language, dialect, the physicality, the casual modes of communication, and the unspoken values that all those things are used to express, as a daily act of survival. It’s about learning to do something monumental with casual ease. The fact, however, remains that this is actually anything but casual. It can often feel like a low-level but ever present source of stress.

If anyone thinks otherwise, take a gander at white folks’ reactions when a beloved celebrity of color decides not to obscure their cultural identity.

White people lose their damned minds.2

What happens when we reverse that? Do we, as white people, have the same kind of insights into POC experiences, that PoC have into what it is to be white? We do not.

How would you respond if someone you didn’t know started telling you about your identity? As Doselle Young puts it:

Would you, as a writer, really expect someone else to do better job with the most telling details of YOUR autobiography? What forces would they need to marshal in order to pull that off? How many interview hours, how much research, thought, blood, sweat and tears would it take to get YOUR story right?

Everyone’s identity is complicated. All of us belong to different religions, cultures, subcultures, groups, clubs, kinship networks. We all come from particular families. One of the most common complaints I hear about white people writing Indigenous and PoC characters is that we leave out their families and friendships with people like them. We tend to give them absent brown families and present white friends.

All of which leads back to step one: Why are you writing this book?

Maybe you shouldn’t.

TL:DR: Think long and hard before you write a book about a community not your own. Listen to your sensitivity readers. Whose story are you really trying to tell?

NOTE: Thank you to Mikki Kendall, Scott Westerfeld and Doselle Young for all your hard work, brilliant writing, and wonderful conversation, and for your truly excellent notes on this post. Any remaining lack of clarity etc. is all on me. Thank you also to the too many people to name in the YA, SFF and Romance communities who have shaped my thinking. I.e. pretty much all the folks I follow on Twitter.

  1. Though it can certainly be hostile to other parts of our identities as many white women and most LBGTIQA and disabled and poor and working class and fat whites can attest. But our society is not hostile to our whiteness. []
  2. As an example of what Doselle is referring to think of the furore over the Obama’s “terrorist” fist bump. []


  1. Julia on #

    THANK YOU. I will use these steps all the time.

  2. Caroline on #

    “In YA, not only are the majority of books by white people, so are the majority of books about PoC and Native peoples. When we write these books we are literally keeping books by PoC and Native writers off the shelves.”

    Out of curiosity, is there any data to support the idea that white writers writing POC is a driving factor in keeping POC authors off shelves? Or, if white writers turned to writing white characters, would the publishing industry just trend toward keeping the same number of white authors on the shelves, but now they’re just writing all white people?

    • Justine on #

      I’m not sure what that data would like. Publishers tend not to release a list of all the books they reject. I can tell you of many Writers of Colour who’ve been told that their book has been rejected because that publisher already had a South Asian/Native American/African American book. Only for them to discover that the book the publisher already had was written by a white writer.

      • Ben Langhinrichs on #

        This must be so frustrating to hear. Of course, it would be best if publishers didn’t act like have “a” book about a particular race met some quota. But that may be wishing for the impossible.

  3. Ben Langhinrichs on #

    I agree with much of what you have written, and your post provides a lot of good insight into how an author of any race or group should think about writing from the POV of another race or group. But I do mean any. Saying “We whites do not know as much about Indigenous people and People of Colour as they know about us” is a fairly questionable contention.

    The most that a Person of Color or indigenous person can really know about “white culture” is the theoretical white culture of TV and movies and the media. That doesn’t match my life or that of anybody I know in any substantial way. An author writing outside their very close community is responsible for being sensitive to that other community, even if it is the dominant one.

    That said, I do agree that white authors needs to be especially careful because the one big difference is that minority cultures and communities tend to have more negative stereotypes in a majority culture.

    • Veronica Schanoes on #

      The most that a Person of Color or indigenous person can really know about “white culture” is the theoretical white culture of TV and movies and the media.

      That’s not true. In order to survive and succeed in a majority-white, white-dominated, white-supremacist society, people of color and indigenous people need to learn how to understand, read, and talk to white people. Their formal education is an education in white culture and white history and what white people think of it. Their interactions with people in authority are usually with white people. Since white people often hire people of color as domestic labor, those people and their families have huge insight into how the households and families of white people of a certain class function. I could go on. But the structure of a white-supremacist society dictates that in order to survive, people of color and indigenous people need to know and understand white people in a way that whites simply don’t have to know or understand anybody else.

      • Ben Langhinrichs on #

        That may be true of some People of Color, but certainly not all. I live in a very diverse, stably integrated neighborhood. I know PoC (black, Latino, Iranian, Indian) here who are professors and doctors and the principal of a local school. They have no more way of knowing what it is to be White than I do what it is to be their race. Our cleaning lady is white, so perhaps she knows what it is to work with white people as a domestic.

        I think it is inherently racist to assume that all people of color, or even most, have any great understanding of “what it is to be white” simply because some have been servants or played menial roles. I have had bosses who were black, and I didn’t learn how “black people think” in order to get along, I learned how that boss thought.

        As minorities, many people of color or otherwise disadvantaged communities have learned how to adapt to a society that is primarily white-focused. That has zero to do with being able to write authentic white voices. If anything, it has taught some how “blacks are supposed to behave”, which is abhorrent, but different than understanding how the majority feels. Caucasian is simply another race, one which (like all races) is split into a thousand fragmented pieces that are often wildly different.

        • Ben Langhinrichs on #

          Sorry if that was somewhat strongly worded. I certainly don’t mean that you are being racist, just that sometimes in a well meaning effort, we step into territory that isn’t so simple. We all struggle to understand others. Sometimes that is a little easier when the person is a lot like us, but not always even then. We all have to strive to be authentic, especially because in a novel that reflects our world, the diversity is too great for anybody to encompass. If you are black, you don’t inherently understand the life and culture of the Latinos, the Arabs, the Indians and so forth around you, yet they may appear in your novel. Assuming that only white people need to worry about this doesn’t make sense in that context.

        • Justine on #

          Sir, your misunderstandings and ignorances here are so many I don’t know where to start. I strongly recommend that you learn what systemic racism is. Start here. Come back when you have learned what the word racism actually encompasses.

      • Nevis on #

        Yes Veronica, it is true we have to know how people who are White think, talk, etc. And other groups of people, too. (A Latino would have to know how to speak to Whites, Asians, Blacks, etc. Ditto for any other group of people).

        In fact a central issue is that people do not really understand one another. I know that people do not understand Black people or what motivates or interests us, by and large. But many unsuccessful people of color fail because they don’t understand Whites or others (such as understanding what triggers a cop to target you especially or what will create the trust you need to obtain a job).

        It is true that a person of color will NOT be successful without understanding the minds of other people well, even as they will NOT try to understand a person of color.

  4. Ashe Elton Parker on #

    This. I needed this article. I’ve been debating writing PoC and Indigenous characters in my own stories, and having doubts of my ability to do so. The very first question you posed in your article made me really think about it for the first time, and made me realize my reasoning was dubious at best; at worst, it’s insensitive and racist. Reading the entire article enlightened me to the justifications I’d been employing.

    Thank you. You opened my eyes to my own limitations and a good way of helping get more sincere and accurate books about PoC and Indigenous people onto shelves and into the hands of readers–by reading and boosting the visibility of those WRITTEN BY People of Color and Indigenous people.

  5. Petey on #

    This was such a helpful article! Thank you for writing it. If I may ask, I’d like to know how much an author should pay a sensitivity reader? Are there any accepted rates? Also, how does one find sensitivity readers?

    Thank you!

    • Justine on #

      The best way to find sensitivity readers is to be involved in your writing community. If you want to write YA or Children’s you can join organisations like SCBWI to meet other writers. Rates that people who critique work charge vary considerably.

      But I would also strongly suggest if you don’t know anyone of the culture you want to represent you’ll probably be better off not trying to represent them. The research you’d need to do to get it even remotely right when you’re that far outside the community is probably insurmountable.

  6. John Willks on #

    You could have saved a lot of time by just telling white writers not to write POC

    • Justine on #

      Well, sure, if that’s what I was saying but that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying it’s hard for whites to write from PoC and Indigenous points of view and if we get it wrong we can hurt people.

      I still write PoC characters. There are many in my latest book, My Sister Rosa. As I said above I no longer write PoC point of view characters if I’m writing a book with a single point of view. That was my personal decision. Other white writers will make different decisions.

  7. Patricia Burroughs aka Pooks on #

    I have been using Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward for information and inspiration. I assume you are familiar with the work but don’t agree with it?

    For those unfamiliar with it, here is a very short version:

    The reason I am assuming you don’t agree with it is because they tell us we must write the other, we must do the work, we must make the effort–even knowing that we will get it wrong, that people will criticize–because even then, we are moving forward, all of us. I like to believe that, not that there are lines we dare not cross.

    • Justine on #

      You have misread me. Writing the Other is an excellent text and Nisi is a good friend. We largely agree on this issue. Like me, Nisi and Cynthia argue that whites should do their research and work hard to cause as little harm as possible.

      I have never said white writers cannot write PoC characters. I would certainly encourage white writers who have little contact with PoC people to not write from their points of view but there are many other characters in stories and having them be all white does not reflect the majority of the world.

      • Patricia Burroughs aka Pooks on #

        Thank you for the clarification. I’m glad we’re on the same page with this, because it did surprise me before I understood your point. I am seeing this discussed a lot in private groups and there does seem to be a misunderstanding about what your point. I need to reread.

  8. Nevis on #

    This is very interesting. For the life of me, other than to capture the viewpoints of peripheral characters in a main story, I do not understand why someone White would not write about someone White.

    As an African American I can say that in many ways, people who are not White simply think as others do. BUT the POV may differ on certain subjects or ideas, here or there.

    For instance, my views on beauty, law enforcement, and certain legal issues are usually vastly different from people in mainstream media or “middle America”. However, my fan theories for Game of Thrones, fighting styles in martial arts or interior design tend to be the same as many Whites. LOL

    It is important to note that people vary not only in POV in relation to race, but also to age/generation, sex, region of the country, sexual orientation, nationality, etc. within races & cultures. (i.e. A Black person from “the Greatest Generation” is different from a Black person who is a Baby Boomer, Gen Xer or Millennial…)

    Economic and social circumstances contribute, as with Whites. And there are people who do not fit any sort of mold, too.

  9. Priya Sridhar on #

    What about for POC authors writing about POC cultures? The novel I just sent off is set in the Okinawa Islands, albeit with a white and a Japanese protagonist respectively. With that said, I am a desi writer and I did my research thoroughly, while putting a lot of myself into the Japanese protagonist.
    Also, how do you find a Sensitivity Reader? I want to find one from Okinawa who can help me write a story there inspired by Batman and Satoshi Kon.

    • Patricia Burroughs aka Pooks on #

      This is a particularly good point. I was on a panel called “The Right to Write” with five other writers, all of us from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. This particular discussion has been very slanted to a white pov.

      On the panel all present were writing about cultures other than their own, at least in some of their books and/or characters, and all felt they risked criticism for doing so. I know that some were speaking specifically of pov characters and others weren’t. Yes, do the work. Yes, yes, yes. It’s not something to be approached lightly. But an Indian-American woman was currently writing a Sri Lankan character. An African American has written historical French settings with white characters, Irish settings with Irish characters, in addition to books about African Americans and Creoles. We all felt strongly that we should do it, that to write our books the way they needed to be written, we had to do it.

    • Justine on #

      Sorry for slow response. I’ve been travelling.

      I can only speak from the pov of writing as white. When PoC write characters of a different PoC group from them it’s a whole other thing with very different power dynamics.

      As for finding sensitivity readers. It’s hard. I’d try contacting folks you’ve come across in the course of your research. The writers of the articles, books etc you used. I’d ask on Twitter. You could also contact Japanese schools or language programs at colleges and universities. Good luck!

  10. Sarah on #

    In America, perhaps society is not hostile to whites, but in my white society, white people are very hostile towards other white people. And Muslims. But a lot of them are white anyway. If you’re not from England, then you’re the wrong kind of white. Polish, Russian, Czech, German, it doesn’t matter. They will be racist to you. But it’s the same with the Welsh, Irish, Northern Irish and the Scottish-and we’re all British! Colour doesn’t matter. What does matter is where you were born. If you’re black and English, then you’re true British, but if you’re white and Welsh then you’re not true British and you get racist abuse hurled at you for speaking your own (very official) language. Or even just existing.

    • Justine on #

      Yup. Whiteness is complicated and varies from country to country. This post is about the USA with gestures towards my other country, Australia. I did not go into the ways in which whiteness is different in those countries. The biggest difference being that there is no racial category of Hispanic/Latino in Australia.

Comments are closed.