This is not an article on how to”write the other” (a phrase that’s a short trip down a depression slope for me as a queer woman). This is about the importance, as a white writer, of trying to do as little harm as possible while writing people of other colors and cultures.
It’s more or less a direct response to V. Roth’s recent whitesplain about how she didn’t intend Carve the Mark to be racist. Intent doesn’t matter: I don’t have to intend to harm to do harm. And a lack of intent doesn’t excuse the harm that is done.
So. Writing while white.
To write while white means we are going to screw things up. Privilege blinders are a very real thing, and we’ve already hurt people enough with our history of colonialism, enslavement, past and present racism, and so on. Fantasy settings aren’t exempt from ways we can do further harm. We take our biases in with us, we take them out of the story with us, and harmful rep is just as harmful in speculative fiction as anywhere else. Fiction is not a license to reinforce harmful stereotypes.
Fiction writers still need to educate ourselves about harmful tropes so that we can avoid them. We need to listen when people tell us what we’re doing wrong and, if they’re feeling charitable, how it’s harmful. We need to educate ourselves to avoid mistakes others have repeatedly made.
As hard as we try, we’re going to screw up. We are going to do unintentional harm. But that’s not an excuse to not try. If anything, it means we need to try HARDER.
I’m not going to make a list of tropes to avoid simply because I’m not an authority on this topic. You’re better off getting those lists from black people, brown people, First Nations people, and other people who have a wealth of lived experience that I don’t. The way to do this is to read their writing on the topic, learn from them, and accept that when someone says “this is harmful,” it is, so try to avoid it.
And none of this is an excuse to avoid writing diverse characters. I have a whole continent in the Tattoo Magic Universe. Parts of it are near the equator, parts are near one of the poles, so it’s just not going to be racially homogenous. Therefore, I need to teach myself, try to do the least possible amount of harm, listen to criticism, apologize when I screw up, and do better. If all white writers listened more and tried harder, the world would be a better place.
(PS: My goal in writing characters of color isn’t to give people of color representation–they do a fantastic job of this without my help.)