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.
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.
- 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. [↩]
- As an example of what Doselle is referring to think of the furore over the Obama’s “terrorist” fist bump. [↩]