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White-washing the world: trying to handle race in your fiction (if you’re white)

Pick up a book. Almost any book. If it’s a white character, does the author ever say “white”—or is it just assumed?

One difficulty (for me) when writing a character of a race (other than white) is that you have to be so blatant about it—because white is assumed. Racial identity is much more than skin pigment. People of different races, like people of different classes, in the same country have vastly different lived experiences.

I am writing about this topic, not because I am an expert, but because it’s something I struggle with. I live in a multi-cultural world, but I don’t know whether I know enough about other cultures—ethnicities, races—to write well-rounded characters of other races.

So far this is how I’ve handled it: I’ve avoided it.

What this leaves me with is a white-washed world with class distinctions, gender distinctions, sexuality distinctions … but no race distinctions. It’s not a real picture.

I am, however, the type of person who wants to do a good job if I write a character of another race. I want to draw on cultural experiences to define actions and world views. Yet, I don’t know those experiences.

Here’s an admission. I tried once in college to write a black main character. I recently read the short story and was rather ashamed of the caricature I had created. I NEVER want to do that again.

So where does that leave me?

Certainly, I have grown in the years since college; otherwise I wouldn’t have seen how horrible my character was. That’s a good sign. I am aware of stereotype. That’s a beginning. I live in a diverse neighborhood and have daily interactions with all types of people. But are these interactions meaningful enough to help me write a character of another race? That’s the sticking point for me.

If I don’t attempt to write characters of other races, I will end up with a flat, unrealistic world. Certainly, that isn’t the goal of any author. I also don’t want to end up a “well meaning white person.”

In my mind, it is easier for people in a minority to write about the majority—because the minority is immersed in the hegemonic culture every day. It’s sort of the way I feel about being able to write female characters: my entire life I have had a mother and sisters. I have experienced it every day.

In the end, I still don’t have a solution—except to do my best to be sensitive to the pratfalls of stereotype—to avoid placing a flat character of another race, “just to do it.”

Ideas, suggestions, and feedback are highly encouraged.

6 comments on “White-washing the world: trying to handle race in your fiction (if you’re white)

  1. Red Haircrow
    May 8, 2013

    One of the best things is run your manuscript, idea, etc. past someone of the culture you are attempting to write, but especially someone who is moderate, knowledgeable and more objective and unbiased. And not meant to you specifically, but authors who do so should be willing to be critiqued, corrected or accept or consider suggestions. If they wish to be as conscientious as you’ve clearly displayed here.

    Early on, I used to get a number of writers in a certain genre who wanted to “consult” with me so they could write their Native American characters realistically but they didn’t seem to understand the suggestion that there would be natives who took understandable issues with their representations, which was primarily of sexualization.

    I think the basic question, in the end was, what is the motive for writing about someone a culture or race other than ones the author is personally and knowledgeably experienced with? Is the character’s race or culture inherently necessary for the progressive of the story or theme, or is it just prop or a crutch, just a vehicle for the author to drive home a point of their own? Again, my questions and comment is broad in this, not specific to you.

    I think that for many minorities, and being a minority within minorities as I am, that can be the crux of the matter. Why is someone from another culture writing about “me” as it were, how are they seeking to represent “me” or “us”? Why? Think of characters as human first, always first, simply that. Anything else comes later in details.

    • Adrian W. Lilly
      May 8, 2013

      Thank you so much for your insightful feedback. Your time and honesty are greatly appreciated.

  2. Anonymous
    May 20, 2013

    Try to think of the character as a person before his/her race. Give that person human characteristics. Minorities are humans too, we feel, fall in love, have deep thoughts, we get angry, sad, mad, we FEEL, and we are all individual. The main difference between minorities and white people is the different forms of prejudice in discrimination we face from living in a White Supremacist society. Being a Minority is different from being White in terms of your experience in society, however we feel, and think the same things. Don’t focus so much on the characters race, focus more on the characteristics. Remember race is not a personality. I would say focus on the characteristics, and personality of the person then the culture. If your character is from a different culture try to study the culture, talk to people, it is possible for a White person to write about a Minority, as long as they do not perpetuate stereotypes.

    • Adrian W. Lilly
      May 20, 2013

      Thank you for your feedback. Discrimination is a very important point — as not glossing over everyday discrimination (symbolic violence, from glances to racialized assumptions), for me, is a part of creating a realistic picture. Because we do live in a White Supremacist Society, with a long history of state-sanctioned oppression, I think it’s important not to make the world always seem like everything is a-okay, that as a society we’ve arrived, when we still have work to do. I guess part of what I’m saying is that I wouldn’t want to ignore the uncomfortable feeling of being the only minority in the room, of knowing you get extra scrutiny because you are a minority. I think some of those more complex feelings are what I grapple with. Another important point you make is that we are all humans first, what separates us is so little, but those societal divisions are powerful. To ignore them, because it’s easier or uncomfortable, doesn’t paint a realistic picture of society. As a final note, I also think it’s important to avoid tokenism.

  3. Lauren
    August 24, 2013

    I came across this thread via a Google search on how to handle race in fiction. As a white person, I relate strongly to what you said in your post. I’m busy getting my manuscript ready for presentation to publishers and dealing appropriately with different races has been something of a challenge. I haven’t yet been brave enough to attempt a main character from an ethnic background different from my own, but as you said, the world is a diverse place and capturing that is simply part of making a story believable.

    The dilemma now, is do I state a character’s race upfront or do I try to convey ethic features through dialogue, physical descriptions etc? I’ve attempted both and feedback has been mixed. One thing that I have noticed, however, is that most of the criticism for racial distinctions have come from fellow whites. Actual members of the ethnicities in question have been nothing but supportive, which got me to thinking that there is such a thing as being too PC.

    First impressions are highly visual and race is one of the first things we notice when meeting someone for the first time. The issue isn’t that we notice whether a person is Asian or African or European, but how we react to it. Speaking with friends and colleagues of other races, I realised that noting someone’s ethnicity when it differs from your own is by no means restricted to whites. EVERYBODY does it – and that’s okay as long as we don’t treat a person with less respect because of it. I think the same should hold true for fictional characters. I’ve allowed mine to “notice” other people’s ethnicities (as they would any other physical characteristic) and then carry on with the interaction as I myself would in everyday life. As you rightly noted, our ethnicity can have a strong influence on how we experience the world and I believe that fiction has a tremendous role to play in making those experiences accessible to a larger audience. In order to “celebrate our differences” as it were, we first have to acknowledge them, however. Race does not automatically equal “racism” and I think that realising that, is a critical step toward creating more diversity in fiction.

    • Adrian W. Lilly
      August 25, 2013

      Hi, Lauren. Thanks for your thoughts. I appreciate your taking the time to write a thoughtful reply.

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