On writing about race when you’re white

 In I'm Kind of Ranting, Politics, Public Service Announcements

“You can’t tell white people a story about white people and expect them to understand.”

A girl I dated almost twenty years ago — a wonderful, strong, brave woman of color — told me that.  I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but I remember that I was the white person in question who didn’t understand.  I remember being in trouble.  And I remember thinking it was unfair.

And then rethinking that it was unfair.

And deciding it probably *was* fair.

And then feeling like the asshole.

Ever since then, I’ve tried as hard as I can to be sensitive and understanding around the topic of race.  The position I’ve tried to adopt, for the most part, has been one of listening.  Just listening.  Not trying to explain or discuss or say those two frustrating, idiotic words:

“I understand.”

No, you don’t.  Don’t say that you do.  Don’t take some part of your own experience (like being queer) and then try to equate it to the experience of being brown in America as a way of glossing over the gap in your understanding.  You can legitimately say,

“You can’t tell straight people a story about straight people and expect them to understand.”

and you could also probably say,

“You can’t tell a femme girl about being a butch girl and expect her to understand.”

but you cannot take your experience and then paste it over top of race.  You cannot.  In fact, because you know that straight people / queers who pass do not understand your experience, you should also know that you will never understand what it means to be brown.  If you want to take any part of your experience and apply it to race, *that’s* the part that should be your takeaway.

So then… why the hell do I keep writing brown people?

This is the question I keep posing to myself, both as an artist and as a person who’s trying to do the right thing.  Especially now, considering that I just yesterday finished an entire novel told in the voice of a mixed-race brown person.  The gremlins of self-doubt are already nagging at me, and the fact that I, as a white person who will never fully understand the POC experience, just wrote a 300-page novel about a POC protagonist, is one of the biggest gremlins of all.

Yet I keep doing this.  Out of my seven published works (eight if you count the one I just mentioned), I have… let me count… seven main or major characters who are people of color.  Or another way of putting it:  I only have two books that feature a completely white narrator.

I must be nuts.  I grimace a little each time I come up with a new POC main character, because I’m waiting for some POC to call me out —

“What are you doing?  What do you think gives YOU the right to write about MY experience?”

Maybe that criticism is totally legitimate.  And yet…

Well, here’s how I answer that question:

“Why are they always white children?”

That question, posed by a 5-year-old African-American girl in 1965, begins Nancy Larrick’s famous “The All-White World of Children’s Books.” In it, she documents the lily-white landscape of children’s literature. At that time, just 0.8 percent of the children’s books told contemporary stories about African-Americans.

Today, things aren’t much better. The market is still dominated by white authors and publishers. And content has changed little, too.

In 2012, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center reviewed 3,600 children’s books. Only three percent were about African-Americans. Asian and Pacific Americans were featured in two percent, followed by Latinos with less than two percent, and American Indians at less than one percent.  — From a Washington Post article published in 2014

And then there’s the fact that the “show me the ugly doll” experiment is still returning the same results as it did half a century ago:

Sigh.

Most young adult authors, and from what I’ve seen so far, most lesfic authors, are white women.

I write in two genres that are dominated by white women.  In fact, I’d guess most of modern literature is dominated by white women:

“Nearly 90% of the books reviewed by The New York Times are written by white writers. That is not even remotely reflective of the racial makeup of this country, where 72% of the population, according to the 2010 census, is white.” — Roxanne Gay of the Rumpus, cited by Malinda Lo (see source link below)

And the thing about white women is that they tend to write about white women.

Which, I mean, from one point of view, that’s understandable.  For all the reasons I mentioned at the top of this post — the very legitimate worry that as a white person, you don’t necessarily have a right to represent the POC experience.

But here’s the net effect of white authors writing only about white characters:

…the Cooperative Children’s Book Center has been compiling data on the children’s books it receives since the mid–1980s. In 2013, multicultural children’s book publisher Lee & Low examined the CCBC data and concluded that over the past 18 years, the percentage of children’s books by and/or about people of color has remained virtually constant at 10%. In comparison, 37% of the U.S. population consists of people of color — a huge gap. — Malinda Lo on Diversity in YA

I think white writers are figuring out that they need to make the universes inside the pages of their books reflect the universe of diversity our society has become (or has always been, actually).  But Lord, I find it so obnoxious when we see the same stereotypes of people of color / LGBTQ people trotted out in a “token” sort of way again and again in books and TV.

The pretty black best friend / sidekick.

The nerdy Asian stock character, or the Asian with martial arts skillz.

The flamboyant gay guy sidekick / best friend.

It’s like people of color and queers exist mainly to give sage, predictable advice to the white characters, who are still the ultimate stars of the show.  Sometimes, a show or a book comes along that breaks these stereotypes, but most of the time…

So, yeah.  I write protagonists who are POC.  I do it with trepidation, I do it recognizing that I’m treading on thin ice, but I still do it.  Because someone has to if we are going to move the needle on that 10% statistic quoted by Malinda Lo.  Because making art comes with a responsibility.

“But it’s not *your* responsibility to take on, you uppity, liberal white girl,” you complain. “Nor is it your right to try to represent *my* experience.”

I hear your point.  And it makes me grimace a little.  But I feel like Toni Morrison was right when she told Charlie Rose in 1998, “Anything can happen in art.”  I can be gay and write straight characters, right?  Is it okay to be white and write brown characters?

I don’t know.  Maybe it’s not.

But… maybe as artists we also have a responsibility to create first with our imaginations the mutual respect and mutual understanding that we eventually want to experience in our society. Therefore…

Oh hell, I don’t know.  Maybe I’m trying too hard to justify.  Maybe I should just say, “I write brown characters because I think their experience of ‘otherness’ is more interesting and because I think more writers should do it and because most of my closest friends are minorities of one sort or another and I can’t show them my books if they’re all-white, all the time.”

Boom. End of post.

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Showing 4 comments
  • Andrea Zepeda

    Interesting POV you have going on here. I was just arguing with my white friend yesterday (I’m Afro Latina btw) about authors I like: yourself of course, Daya Daniels and Jade Winters. The latter 2 are brown of some sort and primarily, rather they only write about white characters. I’m interested in why you chose to diversify your characters and also do you research the nationality and culture beforehand. Also curiosity is killing this cat….do you prefer and find yourself attracted to women of color? More so than your own race?

    • Eliza

      Sorry for taking a few days for getting back to you, been traveling. To answer your questions —

      “Why do I choose to diversify my characters?” For all the reasons I mentioned in the post. To summarize: (1) Because my world is multicultural and my books simply reflect my experience. (2) Because the lack of protagonists / POV characters who are people of color makes me nuts, especially in the two genres I write in. (3) Because I feel like art has an ability to impact life, so if I’m going to impact life, I want it to be something positive that reflects my own values.

      “Do I do research?” To an extent. Probably not as much as I should.

      “Am I more attracted to women of color?” In general… yes. Sigh. Which also makes me feel guilty. It makes me feel like one of those white people who fetishize people of color. But what are you gonna do? At the end of the day, we’re attracted to who we’re attracted to.

      Hope this answers your questions. Thanks for commenting. 🙂

      • Andrea

        I should be thanking you for taking the time to respond. You did answer my questions. I had no logical reasoning behind my nosey inquiry, just being my usually curious self! I appreciate that. I look forward to more of your books

        • Eliza

          I don’t mind your nosiness. Neither, I’m sure, does my Vietnamese girlfriend, who informs me that using “brown people” as a catch-all is not okay as it does not apply to all Asian Americans. “Yellow people” obviously doesn’t work due to its derogatory history, so we decided that from now on I am to limit myself to “POC” unless I am specifically talking about people who are actually brown! 😀

          My education continues. I am grateful. Because how else are we going to learn and progress as a society without having these kinds of conversations? And if they are to be had in the comments section of blog posts, well, that’s a place to start. Right??

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