WGSS Paper: Writing Characters of Color as a White Author

The main characters of my book The Trembling Veil are mixed-race. My main character, Manee Montri, is half white and half Thai and the other lead character in the book, her love interest, Stephanie Pierce, is half Thai, half Black. I know that since I have white privilege that I risk writing these characters inauthentically and making ignorant and racist mistakes. But I believe that it is both important and possible for me as a white author to write stories about characters of color. The idea that as a white person I shouldn’t try to write a person of color because I can never hope to understand the experiences of a person of color would just be an excuse on my part.  I will explain my reasoning for why I believe it is important to write a lead character of color even as a white person and I will also explore strategies to help me write a character of color in a way that will not disempower or appropriate from people of color.

I believe that it is my duty as a person with privilege to look outside myself. As a white person, I live in a dominant framework. In the culture I live in, white is treated as the default and people of color are treated as the other. I can easily fall into the trap of thinking of myself as dominant, as “normal” and see people of color as something I do not have to deal with. My culture teaches me that as a white person, I do not have to look outside my viewpoint and consider other races and cultures because my culture teaches me that I will always be privileged above and listened to over those other cultures. I have the privilege of being able to ignore people of color if I so choose to, but they do not have the privilege of ignoring white people. They have been colonized by whites and exploited by whites. We have made ourselves dominant in every aspect of their lives and forced them to constantly consider us. As Neesha Meminger says “People of color know more about white people than we know about ourselves and one another because everything we are taught in the schools is by and about white people”. Meminger also says “On white authors writing characters of color: because the power imbalance leans so heavily to one side over the other, white authors absolutely must support the efforts of authors of color. White authors absolutely must people their stories with characters of color to reflect a reality they often have the privilege of ignoring, if they so choose” (Meminger).  I have to acknowledge her point. If I only write about white people, I am choosing to ignore people of color and refusing to look outside myself. In doing that, I am reinforcing the dominance of the white worldview. I must acknowledge and exploring the importance of narratives outside my dominant framework if I ever hope to contribute in dismantling it.

Another important reason for writing lead characters of color is that there is an imbalance of power in our culture’s fiction that needs to be addressed. The dominant narrative of out culture is a white one. As Meminger puts it, “Everything we see on television is by and about white people. Everything in magazines, on film, in books and on book covers is created by and about white people. Writers of color in the west almost always have white people in our books because that is what we know; it’s what is all around us.” A writer of Young Adult fiction, Kate Hart, looked at 2011 YA book covers and found that 90% of them had only white characters. This imbalance is part of the framework that reinforces white culture as the default and most dominant culture (Hart). This diminishes the diversity and authenticity of our mythology and contributes to silencing of the voices of people of color. Many people of color such as Neesha Meminger have expressed frustration at seeing only the stories of white people being told in literature. Many authors have discussed the reaction they get from people of color when they write. A white author, Justine Larbelestier, wrote that she writes characters of color “Because a young Hispanic girl I met at a signing thanked me for writing a Hispanic character. Because when I did an appearance in Queens the entirely black and Hispanic teenage audience responded so warmly to my book with two non-white main characters. Because teens, both here and in Australia, have written thanking me for writing characters they could relate to. “Most books are so white,” one girl wrote me” (Larbelestier). I am not looking for accolades or a pat on the back for writing characters of color, but this story shows that it is important to a lot of young people to see themselves represented in fiction for once, no matter who the author is. So I will write this because the world isn’t all white, because everyone deserves heroes like them and because it’s important to address the imbalance in our narratives.

The argument that I shouldn’t write people of color because I can never hope to completely understand their experiences has some unfortunate implications. The idea that I cannot possibly relate or understand a person of color dehumanizes people of color by classifying them as “other”. It encourages the racist school of thought that people of color are alien and monolithic. Uma Narayan covers this in her essay “The Project of Feminist Epistemology: Perspectives From a Non-Western Feminist”, saying that not all marginalized people share the same experience or viewpoint and she also points out that it’s not impossible for others outside that context to understand those varying experiences. She states that “our commitment to the contextual nature of knowledge does not require us to claim that those who do not inhabit those contexts can never have any knowledge of them” (Narayan 220). She says the only thing certain is that it is far more likely those living in those contexts will have greater knowledge and I acknowledge this fact. I know I have to listen and learn from people of color who live in these contexts in order to greater knowledge.  Fortunately I have a lot of resources made by people of color that are compiled for the express purpose of informing privileged people how to research the contexts people of color come from. There are also resources educating the privileged on how to write characters of color non-offensively. One of these resources is the list “Gee, I Don’t Know How to Write Characters of Color Tastefully”, an online compilation that is very helpful (“T.R. Wexler”).

It should also be mentioned that the concept that I cannot write an experience I am not completely familiar with is antithetical to the practice of writing itself. Writing itself, unless it is an autobiography, is all about exploring experiences and points of view that are not one’s own. Writers write about experiences that are not even possible and can write from the points of view of beings that are not even real. None of the characters I write are going to be exactly like me. If they were, that would be dull. As a writer, I need to challenge myself and grow and that requires writing a variety of characters that come from different contexts than my own. No character I write is going to be authentic and accurate to everyone’s experience, regardless of who they are.

But I know if I want my portrayal to be respectful and accurate in any way I need to have the perspectives of real people of color incorporated voluntarily into my work.  I need to acknowledge my own ignorance of the issue and learn as much as I can. If I go into this without incorporating the voices of people of color, I may end up doing a portrayal that offensive and inauthentic. I need to be respectful of my audience and the people I’m representing. I want to empower marginalized people, not exploit or demean them. Therefore, my strategy is to post an open invitation on the internet for a person of color to review my work before I publish it. I have a very wide audience on my blog, which is mainly focused on writing and intersectional feminism, so I’m confident someone will be willing to do so. I feel this is the best way to get the input of a person of color. I want to represent people of color, but I don’t want to offend anyone in the process of asking for their input. I don’t want to appropriate their stories or end up speaking for them. I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable or make them feel like I am just using them as a guinea pig. That’s why I feel that the best strategy is to do an open advertisement.  I am only inviting those who want to give me feedback to participate, rather than forcing feedback from an uncomfortable participant. I’m also writing my story and doing the research myself before putting it up for review rather than simply putting the burden on the person of color to educate me. This way, I can gain valuable input but I won’t force people of color to educate me or give up their stories. They can just give my work some constructive criticism if that is something they feel they want to do.

But it is important for me to remember I’m discussing a sensitive subject with marginalized people. It is important for me to account for the possibility of offending and appropriating these voices and making the people I’m working with feel like I am using them.  After all, I heard about an incident once that showed me a creator asking a person of color for input can make that person of color feel ignored and exploited in the process. A comic book author asked for input from Indian people on how to write an Indian woman. I don’t know what happened, but the Indian woman who offered to help the creator came out of the interaction feeling hurt and angry. She felt that the author had largely ignored her input and reacted badly to answers she didn’t like. She felt like she’d been used and thrown away by this author. If I don’t want to do the same thing to the person I work with, I’ll need to remember and employ the following strategies. I will have to make it clear up front that this person is able to back out any time they feel uncomfortable and I will also make sure that I have permission to use everything I gain from the experience. I will make it clear that any time they feel offended or uncomfortable; my reviewers can communicate this to me without fear, make any request of me they want and withdraw from the process any time they want. I will have to make sure that I don’t take any of their feedback personally and that I don’t challenge them about their feedback either since they’re doing me a favor. If they do suggest something I vehemently disagree with, I suppose what I will need to do is after trying to consider this feedback from all angles and if I still find that it doesn’t seem right to me, I will tell the person involved that I’m finding the suggestion difficult to understand and ask the person involved if I can ask other people of color what they think about the topic. I will air the question publically and consider all the feedback I get. If I find I am wrong, I will be wrong. The important thing will be to remember my privilege at all times, remember they have the authority and experience I do not and keep an open mind. I will also credit the people who help me in the final product if they feel comfortable with that.

In order to gain even more knowledge, I will have to do research into the cultures of my characters. I need to be aware that a person of color would have different contexts and power dynamics than I would and not whitewash them. Even if the characters grew up in America, there are power imbalances and obstacles they would have faced that I would not as well as a cultural history and background that could affect my characters in either overt or subtle ways. I must make sure to research information about the contexts my characters would live in from the perspectives of people of that ethnicity. I must become familiar with the cultural cues and specific experiences of people with that cultural background growing up in America and choose for myself what would be most authentic to my character, since the stories and experiences I discover are of course not going to be monolithic. The person who helps me will also contribute to this .of course, letting me know if my interpretation or choices in how I implement what I find are inauthentic or too limited by my privileged perspective.

I also need to be aware of common stereotypes and offensive tropes employed concerning characters of color so I do not employ them. This means reading more criticism by people of color and becoming even more familiar with why these stereotypes are harmful. I am already aware of several things that I have stopped myself from doing, such as describing the appearance of my characters of color in terms of food or using the word “ebony”, since that is really overused to the point of being offensive. There is a lot of writing about how a lot of work starring characters of color still assumes white is the default. As such, I make sure that my character always points out someone’s skin color, whether they’re white or a person of color. She doesn’t assume white is the default, especially since she’s a person of color herself. She describes two people she meets in this manner- “Her “new friends” were two others. One was a bubbly white girl sporting a nose piercing and a oversized pink sweater. […]There was a skinny black kid with a shaved head as well, but he didn’t even look up from his drawing to greet Manee.”

I also need to remember stereotypes like “angry minority” or “smart Asian.” My main character is more depressed (about things unrelated to her race) than angry and she is not particularly smart or particularly unintelligent. She’s an artist and a dreamer. I initially made Manee’s sister interested in science, but after some thought I recalled the common stereotype and switched it so she was interested in sports instead. Thinking hard and reading more and more will make me aware of more unfortunate implications and stereotypes I want to avoid, as will input from other people.

An important thing about the process is being open to the fact I might and probably should be criticized no matter what I do. I need to be willing to accept that criticism and learn from the experience. I cannot silence critical voices. They are not bad and they will help me grow as a person. The writing of characters is a sensitive subject because it has been done so badly and in such a harmful way in the past. People of color have every right to be critical of how characters representing them are handled. I can’t possibly please everyone and I do have my own privilege to deal with, but as long as I put forth a genuine and thoughtful effort to avoid in authenticity and offensiveness, I can be content with whatever discourse originates from this. I’m human, I make mistakes and I can learn from them. People have a right to their criticism and anger and if they are engaged with the text, that’s all I can ask. If a dialogue is started because of my work, that’s a positive thing and something I can at least feel is an accomplishment, even if that dialogue is about how I messed up.

The most important thing I need to do is write my characters as characters first- as whole people and not as representatives of their ethnicity. The fact that my characters are rounded and relatable people and not just some token gesture or stereotype is of major importance. I think I’m pretty much on track with doing this. I thought of the plot, the personalities of the characters and their roles in the story before I decided on their race (I will admit I may have defaulted to white before making the conscious decision to make them characters of color. I was fourteen when I began crafting this story and obviously my privilege and lack of education at the time was the reason I defaulted in this manner). Right now, it’s my strategy to write the story first and then do research on specifics of the experience of people who are mixed-race in America, people who are Thai in America and people who are black in America afterward. This way I will have time to do the research thoroughly without getting impatient to write, and I also won’t take one aspect I find out and run with it, making it an overriding trait of the character rather than an aspect that shapes them. I’ll be able to stop and remember that not every person of color lives in the same context and think about whether any cultural information I learn would apply to my character, rather than force my character to comply to any assumptions about their culture I might make, regardless of whether it works. Of course, even in the first draft it’s important to not write my characters as I’d write a white person. That would be whitewashing them and that would be inaccurate representation. I need to show my characters as aware of their ethnicity, but I will not have their ethnicity be their sole defining feature. Therefore, even in my first draft I try to integrate my character’s ethnicity and their awareness of it into the plot. I want her struggles to be acknowledged, as well as the context she lives in. I have included a couple scenes that address her ethnicity in my story so far, but I have tried to integrate them into her larger character arc. For example, there is this scene where race is bought up to illustrate the different attitudes of my two main characters.

Steph shrugged.  Then she jumped up, examining the pictures on the mantelpiece. Manee sighed. This girl had no sense of personal space.

“You’re mixed like me!” Steph said, pointing at a photo of Manee’s Dad, smiling brightly as always. “Thought you might be.”

“It’s fifty-fifty whether people notice, cuz Dad’s dad was mixed too,” Manee shrugged.

“Yeah, you can pass for white with people who assume “white until proven guilty”; though I guess your name’s kind of a giveaway. I look black so people usually assume that’s all I am. It’s a rare person who’ll get right off “oh hey she’s a mutt,” Stephanie said carelessly.

Manee flinched.

“What, even with your pale ass, I’m sure you’ve heard worse,” Stephanie flopped down on the couch.

“Yeah, but you shouldn’t talk about yourself that way.”

“Ha! I’m owning it. That’s what you have to do when the world is against you. Be proud of who you are. Take what they tell you makes you bad and wear it with pride. We’re better than all of them!” She crossed her arms. “This mutt isn’t housetrained.”

“As always, you make your point passionately,” Manee couldn’t help but give a slight smile. The cookies tasted pretty good. “So you’re black and…?”

“Thai.”

“Really? That’s what Dad is, too!”

“Yeah, duh.”

“Oh! Right. Well, like you said, most people just go for “Asian”, so, I mean I guess you were able to tell-” Manee was blushing and stammering.

Stephanie laughed. “Simmer down, I know what you mean.”

“Well, it’s kind of cool isn’t it?” Manee couldn’t help her excitement. She’d never met someone else outside her family who was half-Thai. “Like…like half of us is connected!”

“Connected. Huh.” Stephanie twirled a lock of her hair around her finger. 

“Which parent is it for you?”

“My Mom,” Stephanie hesitated and then said, “Can I ask what happened with yours?”

The scene is a bit awkward right now, but hopefully I can improve on it later. I want to show that Manee’s ethnicity is a part of her and that it’s integrated in her life in various ways. That scene also acknowledges she deals with racism and there are a couple of others that touch on that. I try to do it subtly without coming off like I’m trying to make a public service announcement that my character is a person of color and therefore her life is awful. I just try to show that my character realistically has to deal with micro-aggressions as part of her day to day life. She’s mildly aggravated by them, but not shocked by them because it’s an experience she’s had a lot. My main character, Manee, was given a first name that originates from Thailand by her father. This name is one I had to practice pronouncing myself, so I think it’s realistic she would meet people who have trouble pronouncing it and would even be pretty obnoxious about that. So I included a scene that acknowledges this in passing and also characterizes the person Manee is interacting with as tactless and a bit airheaded. I also based the scene off things I’ve heard people say about Thailand that struck me as uninformed. I think it also seems to serve as a rocky start to Manee trying to interact with people besides Stephanie and show some justification for her cynical attitude about interacting with others.

“What’s your name?”

“Manee.”

“Money?” Emma puzzled, and then snorted. “You’re cash?”

 Manee was used to this. “No. Mah. Nee.”

“MAR nee?

“Manee.”

“So it does sound like money but with more ahhhh?”

“Not really, you’re supposed to stress the nee…but…yeah, fine whatever.”

“Are you like, Indian, or…?”

“I’m half- Thai,” Manee sighed. She was already tired.

“That’s so cool! The place that used to be Siam and stuff? So you’re Siamese! Like the cat!”

It was all Manee could do to keep from rolling her eyes. She hated people so much.

            If there are problems in these scenes, hopefully my eventual reviewers will let me know. Overall, my goal is to make Manee and Stephanie good characters who feel authentic to everyone reading them, including people of color.

I believe the sum of the discussion and resources I found prove that I should be able to write a character of color even as a white person and that it would in fact be wrong, privileged and racist of me not to do so.  I have found plenty of strategies for doing this that hopefully include and value the perspectives of people of color. I hope I will be able to use the resources I have been given to their full potential and employ my strategies successfully.

 

  Works Cited

Hart, Kate. “Uncovering YA Covers: 2011.” Kate Hart: ya writer, treehouse builder,

internet magpie. N.p., 16 May 2012. Web. 25 Apr. 2013.

Larbalestier, Justine. “Why My Protags Aren’t White.”Justine Larbalestier: writing,

reading,eating, drinking, sport. N.p., 22 Jul 2009. Web. 25 Apr. 2013.

Meminger, Neesha. “From Margin to Center: Writing Characters of

Color.” Racialicious. Latoya Peterson, 25 Aug 2009. Web. 25 Apr. 2013.

Narayan, Uma. “The Project of Feminist Epistemology: Perspectives From a Non-

Western Feminist.” Ed. Sandra Harding. The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies. New York: Routledge, 2004. 213-224. Web. 25 Apr. 2013.

“GEE, I DON’T KNOW HOW TO RESEARCH WRITING CHARACTERS OF

COLOR TASTEFULLY:.” T.R. Wexler. Tumblr, 02 Nov 2012. Web. 25 Apr. 2013.

 

 

 

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