5 Stages of a White Person Trying to Write a Person of Color
This article first appeared as a Chick on the Draw column Nov 7, 2014 at Luna Station Quarterly
I am white. I make drawings and stories. I get some of these published. I take up bandwidth. So I try to make those drawings and stories reflect the people who are stuck looking at them. Continually I discover the areas in which I could be better at this, particularly when it comes to representing people of color.
Drawing a person of color is one thing. If a character doesn’t have solid anatomy, expression, and appeal, it’s a failure of skill, not empathy. Plus, in the cartoony style I tend toward, disbelief is suspended, character conflicts are simplified, and if my comic strip characters express no diversity in their food choices, observed holidays, language, or beliefs, I have a handy “it’s just a cartoon” blanket to hide under (despite all I’ve said about why cartoons matter.)
But in writing every word matters. Every omission matters. Each character makes decisions informed by their experience, or they don’t. There are no big eyes or Dreamworks smiles to smooth rough edges. There’s no blanket.
This past year I went through five stages of a white person trying to write a person of color.
1. Realizing diversity matters
I don’t suspect anyone reading this disagrees that story matters, representation matters, and humans have a deep need to see themselves reflected in their culture. But for me Kayla Ancrum’s How to Write Women of Colour and Men of Colour if You are White article on Media Diversified last winter was a hell of a call to action, with a key declaration:
[C]haracters within your text will also be perceiving your POC character as Ethnic, even if they are heavily [Western Neutral]. There is NO SUCH THING as colorblindness. A great example of this is the relationship between Alai and Ender in Ender’s Game. Alai and pretty much all POC characters in that book are WN as hell, but Ender (being white) is constantly commenting on their ethnicness. Not because he’s a racist child. But just because he can SEE it. Do NOT have your white characters pretending that POC aren’t POC. It will fall flat and seem heavily unrealistic. Plus there are the racist implications of “colorblindness” to consider.
2. Realizing omission isn’t harmless
BOING. Wait. So mentioning once that a character has brown skin isn’t the same as writing a PoC? Putting a PoC in a room full of white people and giving them no opinions or feelings about that is dishonest? Pretending racism doesn’t exist is actually pretty racist? OH MY GOD. But my intentions were so good!
3. Realizing good intentions aren’t enough
Last February I had the honor of having a story published by Strange Horizons. It was a month after publication that I realized the story hinged on a marginalized secondary character throwing all her effort into supporting the publicly-acceptable main character, at great personal cost, for sort of vague “it’s the right thing to do” reasons. I’d trotted out a tired, racist trope. I’d written a Magical Negro without the tattle-tale Blackness.
The most galling part of this problem is that it would have been so easy to fix. If I’d explored the secondary character a little more deeply, a dozen solutions would have presented themselves. Righting an old wrong! Financial gain! Anything!
But I didn’t meet my responsibilities. I didn’t have the perspective to do what needed to be done.
So I took Ancrum’s advice. I subscribed to new blogs and followed new people on Twitter. I read and refrained from commenting. I did think a lot of new thoughts and realize a lot of new truths.
4. Realizing research isn’t enough
At some point I thought I had enough of a sense of the way a young Black woman would speak and act, what she would want, and what she would be worried about, to believe I could write a novella with a young Black woman main character. I wrote the novella. I deployed AAVE with no understanding of whether it was appropriate for the character. I deployed my jokey prose with no consideration of whether that voice was consistent with the main character’s POV. I also wrote a Black African man secondary character as a Saint Yoda. Fortunately before the work could see the light of day there spoke a still, small voice: “I’m not sure you know what you’re doing.”
Thank God for small voices.
5. Finding a solution
About that time, Mary Robinette Kowal shared her experience collaborating with Joanne Hillhouse to create the Antiguan Creole English in her latest novel. It became clear what I had to do: find another human being with the knowledge I needed, ask for her help, and compensate her for her labor.
I’ve seen it suggested that white writers put their stories in front of their PoC friends to vet. This must be good advice because I see it so often from real live PoC creators. But I personally can’t imagine doing this, because
- 1) I have precious few friendly acquaintances who are Black. I have precious few friendly acquaintances that I would subject to the request of “read this and give me notes.” There is no overlap between those two groups.
- 2) The “read this, give me notes, unpack the PoC representation issues from the general story issues, and stay my friend” favor is several orders of magnitude larger than any favor that any of these acquaintances has asked of me. That would be up there with U-Haul packing and 4:00 AM rides to the airport.
It’s not that I wouldn’t ever dump a story on a friend this way. But I would put it in front of a couple of other pairs of eyeballs first.
But if not a friend, then who?
Kowal used social media to ask for help. That seems like a sound approach to me, but my social reach is not that big and, we have already established, pretty white. Fortunately there are a lot of websites that can connect a writer with an editor. I used one. I found two editors that now I wouldn’t dare write without. I hope I never submit another story without putting it in front of one or both of these women. Through them I get education, sanity checks, perspective, and just damn good story notes. I’ve used workshops. Workshops are cool. These editors are better.
I’m not suggesting this is the necessary or right or even reasonable course of action for anyone else. But it’s working for me. If anyone else is interested in making it work for them, but doesn’t have discretionary funds, there are other ways to compensate editors for their labor. Swap work? Barter? But IMO compensation is key. I would never have the guts to ask what I ask of my editors if I couldn’t reciprocate the value of their labor.
I’m also not suggesting that my writing problems are solved. If the best indicator of future behavior is past behavior, all signs point to me finding out in a month what else I’m doing ungodly wrong. When I do, I’ll let you know. But until then, I’m in a better place than I’ve ever been.