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.