Writing While White

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.)

Some More Diversity Thoughts

My Twitter was blowing up this week over this article on writing people of color while white. Since its on my mind right now, I’m going to offer a few thoughts on what I find wrong with yet another white “how to write POC” article.

Other than advice that should be self-evident, like “do your research” and “ask friends and acquaintances of close backgrounds to be sensitivity readers,” I’m not really sure what can be said about this issue by a white person that couldn’t be said by the very people of color (whichever specific color and background that is) we are trying to represent. I’d much rather read articles by people who live an experience, addressed to authors who do not, about things to avoid.  Such as this article on writing people of color, or this article about writing disabled characters. Articles by white people for other white people about writing outside their lived experiences strike me as well-meaning but part of the problem.

That isn’t to say that I think white writers should entirely avoid writing characters of diverse backgrounds. There’s value in white writers writing characters of color: for me, my world isn’t entirely populated by white people and I don’t know why my characters’ worlds would be either. But if the writer’s end goal is supposedly more representative fiction, instead of trying to add token diverse characters, that writer should instead go out and buy books by authors of color, LGBTQ+ authors, disabled authors, and women. And who knows, maybe by reading authentic voices, the writer might also learn something.

When I started writing the Plague Novel, I didn’t actually give much thought to the issue of writing outside my own experience. When I was thinking about a geeky main character, my mind immediately went to a geeky childhood acquaintance who happened to be black. So first-draft Robbie initially was black, but in redrafting he ended up being biracial as I explored his background more.

That whole thing where I didn’t consider race at all while writing my story? A bunch of privilege went into that. I’m not proud of it, but that’s what happened.

However, once I realized that my protagonist was from a historically oppressed group that I’m not a part of, I was generally educated enough to know that writing characters of other backgrounds is a delicate thing. And I’m also in enough systematically oppressed groups to know how upset I get when women, queer characters, and people with depression are portrayed by straight male able authors. I knew that I wanted to avoid that as much as possible.

Even knowing all that, writing a biracial character turned out to be a lot harder than I thought it would be. Like many of my experiences as a privileged person trying to be a good ally, it involved a lot of admitting that I screwed certain things up and could do better. And you know who clued me in to how and how to fix it? Hint: it wasn’t more white voices.

In sum, continuing to elevate white voices with white how-to guides misses the point. But feel free to link me all kinds of own-voices guides on how to be a better ally. I find those very helpful.

More on Sexual Orientation Diversity

I’ve previously written about sexual orientation diversity in fiction, but my recent exposure to this graphic (from Lee & Low Books) has it on my mind again:

Diversity in Publishing 2015 E

As someone who falls on the asexual end of the sexuality spectrum (demisexuals unite!), I found this graphic to be jaw-dropping. Are there really so few asexuals in the publishing world?

If so, is it just that no one wants to admit it, if they even know that there is something to admit? Because I didn’t realize that I’m demisexual until I was in my mid-twenties.

One of the reasons that I struggled for so long with my own sexual orientation is that I knew I was different, I just didn’t have the language to describe it. For a long time I thought I was a lesbian (my closest friend was a woman), then I thought I was bisexual (turns out I can be attracted to men, too), but never asexual. I have a sex drive, after all, and everyone knows you can’t have a sex drive and be asexual, right? I pretended to have crushes because everyone else had them and I desperately didn’t want to be different, but deep down I thought I was broken in some way.

One of the ways that a child learns is by finding people that they like and saying, that person is like me. For 12-year-old me, that “person” was Elizabeth Moon’s character Paksenarrion. Spoiler alert: her stories have no crushes, no love triangle, almost no love angle at all. She’s a bad ass who does cool deeds and just doesn’t care about all that other stuff. In the first book, she falls in love and wonders whether she should have given her love sex because he wanted it, even if she didn’t. And while I’m not quite that asexual, her story resonated with me. It was like being in my own brain.

This is why queer characters are important to me. This is why I have a burning desire to write LGBTQ characters. Not because it’s a platform, but because somewhere out there, there’s a kid who likes fantasy/sci-fi/horror who might pick up a book and feel a little less different. She might not even know why she felt different before because she might not have the language to describe herself yet, but she’ll have someone to identify with, and that fact will be as comforting to her as it was to me.

Even More Diversity Thoughts

A while ago, I went on a tangent about diversity in fiction.  At that time, I was thinking a lot about diversity because one of the main characters in my plague novel is brown.  So in some ways, I was writing about something completely foreign to me.

One of the topics that is near and dear to me is sexual orientation.  And one thing we have seen more of in fiction lately, particularly television, are characters of diverse orientation.  It’s becoming mainstream to have a tendency to have at least one, if not a couple, if queer characters in whatever story you’re telling.

But these characters are sidekicks or secondary characters.  For instance, in Marie Lu’s Legend series (which I read recently,) one of the main characters has a gay brother.  And that’s good!   But where are the main characters in mainstream fiction?  Why do they only appear in the gay and lesbian section of the bookstore?  And don’t even get me started about how uninclusive that section title is.

And the characters are usually gay or lesbian almost to the point of being stereotypes.  Where are the bisexuals, the asexuals, the demisexuals, the people who are questioning?  With the occasional exception, they aren’t usually the main characters.  I can only think of one bisexual main character that I’ve read in fiction.

This bothers me.  Toni Morrison is quoted as having said that if you can’t find the stories that you want to read, then you need to write them.  Maybe these are the stories I need to write.

More Diversity Thoughts

Keeping close to my theme from last week, I was thinking about other ways to add diversity into my fiction. One of the things I may try to experiment with in the future is trying to experiment with writing non-Western/Westernish cultures. Again, this would be going at least one step outside my comfort zone. It is definitly something that would take some research to do well.

And I mean research on the process of writing other cultures as well as the actual research into what may be realistic. I don’t want to portray a shallow culture, or a culture that’s too homogenized, or one that doesn’t make sense from a social development perspective. At least I have a solid history background and have an idea of where to start.

It’s somewhat less intimidating than thinking of trying to write more diverse characters based on real people because of I’m making it up from the beginning, it will be a lot harder for people to tell me that I’m doing it wrong.

Diversity in Fiction

Writing more inclusive fiction by providing more diverse characters is a topic that I keep running across lately. Maybe I’m just noticing the topic more since it piqued my interest and therefore I’m noticing it more, or maybe it actually is a hot topic right now. I’m not really sure how I feel about it.

Obviously authors want people to identify with their characters. Having more diverse characters means having more characters that people are likely to identify with.

One of the problems I come across with the thought of writing diverse fiction is that, like anyone who has taken a class on writing ever, I’ve had “write what you know” pounded into my head by armies of well-meaning writing teachers. While I’m intimately familiar with the experiences of highly educated queer white rural females from low-income families, does that mean that I shouldn’t write have characters that have different backgrounds and perspectives than mine, as long as I research them and write deep characters? (Writing caricatures is a whole different problem that I won’t even try to go into right now.)

Which leads into a whole different concern of mine. I can get into the head of a rural brown youth growing up in a mostly white environment because I happen to have grown up with some I can use as models, and it’s only a couple of steps removed from what I know (or can I). But am I going to be able to accurately portray the mindset of an elderly urban black man? Even if I write a deep character, is the character going to come off realistically? You can hand-wave environments you’re not familiar with. Since the characters make the story, it’s a lot more difficult to hand-wave the characters.

Ultimately I’ve decided not to go out of my way to attempt to make my fiction more diverse. I’m just going to let my characters be who they are and try to write them with as much depth as possible.