Monday, February 7, 2011

Why White People Should Write About People of Color

I've been thinking about this topic for awhile, and since it's Black History Month, it seems like a good time to blog about it.

First, my Person of Color cred. I'm Latino, third generation, non-Spanish speaker. Most of my friends are white, I married a white guy, and I'm often told that I'm white (including by the census).

But I've never felt "white." I'm olive-skinned with dark hair. Strangers have asked me if I'm Greek, Persian, Jewish, Pakistani, Indian, Eastern European, Turkish, Filipino, Italian, and, occasionally, Mexican. I obviously don't look white. I look "other," even though people have trouble figuring out what that "other" is.

I grew up feeling that "other" because there was no one on television who looked like me except Maria on Sesame Street. There were no books about girls like me. I read Wonder Woman comics because at least she was a brunette.

Yay, 21st century! Now there's Dora the Explorer and Cheetah Girls and a double rainbow of diversity. So white people, don't be afraid of making characters, even main characters, people of color.

"But why should I?" you may ask. "If there is so much great diversity coming from people of color, then why should I, as a white person, write about people of color, too?" Good question, and I'm glad you asked.

The simple answer is because it's the world we live in, used to live in, and will be living in. If you're writing historical or contemporary fiction, the people who populate your book have to reflect the real world. Just recognize that even in your book about 18th century London, there were Asians and Africans and Arabs living there, too. If you're writing dystopian or paranormal or science fiction where there once was the world we lived in, then people of color lived there, too.

Another answer is more complicated. Many of the strangers who asked me if I was a particular ethnicity belonged to that ethnic group. A Pakistani busboy in Italy who asked me if I was Pakistani. A Persian woman in Macy's asking me for directions in Farsi. I've had this happen to me all over the world. Because people want to know if I share a common language, a culture, a connection with them. And readers want to share a connection with your characters.


"But how do I write people of color? I am from (fill in blank) and my family is (fill in blank)."

Lynn Capehart has a wonderful article to help white people write people of color. But the two things you really need are research and empathy. A recent story in the Los Angeles Times showcases how a white male soldier wrote a YA novel about an Afghan girl.

I haven't read the book, but from reading this interview, it's clear he respects his subject, feels for her story, and has the real-life research to write a compelling story.

He wrote the story because it's a story that needed to be told and no one would unless he did. If you have a story to tell about a person of color, don't be afraid to tell it because you're not that particular ethnicity.

Don't put people of color in your book if there is no reason to. But think about what would happen to your story if you added some diversity. Would it be fuller, richer, more complex, more real?

Do the research. Have the empathy. Tell the story.

6 comments:

  1. Good point!

    Non-Caucasian characters and topics can absolutely be written about by writers outside of the corresponding ethnicity or culture, as long as the writing is respectful, accurate, and authentic, as checked by * experts * from the culture--or not from the culture. Which leads me to a word of caution: just because people are from a culture doesn't * automatically * make them experts on that culture. A Caucasian scholar with a lifelong passion about a country in Asia might know far more about it than someone who's merely from that country, but has no special interest in its culture. So check your experts' qualifications and enjoy painting colorful pictures (literally and figuratively) of our beautiful, real world.

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  2. Monica

    This post is super thoughtful and inspiring. Thank you!

    Sara

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  3. Since I'm named after Mexico's most Holy Virgin, I try to write from that perspective. I wish I could admit it ain't easy, but it is. Sigh...
    Sincerely,
    El Senor de Guadalupe

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  4. Bravo to this post!! And also to the comments!!

    Thank you for sharing. I'm off to read the articles you linked to.

    Cheers,
    Rita

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  5. Thanks to everyone who commented! This post means a lot to me and I'm glad others appreciated it.

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  6. Thank you. It was great to hear your perspective on this important issue.

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