“White People, Just Don’t.”

I belong to several online Facebook writing groups. Mostly I just lurk. Sometimes I’m encouraged by the activity I read in these groups, such as when someone posts that their book is finally self-published – so what if it’s not selling, it’s FINISHED – or when someone reports that they finally found an agent (these are really encouraging, since it seems from all the self-publishing buzz that it’s virtually impossible to snag one anymore).

Anyway, one particular thread in one of these groups really caught my attention. Someone, a self-reporting white person (ha!), was asking for tips on how to write black characters. There were some seemingly helpful responses, such as “make sure you’re hanging out with black friends and just watch them” and “get black beta readers to ensure that you don’t say something stupid or insulting”.

This type of feedback of course essentially applies to any form of writing outside our own experience. If you’re writing about a certain socioeconomic group, or geographical group, or age group for example, of course you would try to place yourself within that group as much as possible to learn about how those people live, act, speak, move, dress, look, and think. And if possible, you’d get feedback from either people in those groups, or people who are very close to those groups: experts.

However, one response to the question of whites writing black characters really shook things up and started somewhat of a debate. This comment, with the small profile picture of a clearly black woman, simply said: “White people, just don’t.”

This sparked some conversation, but the gist of her position was she felt it simply can’t be done well. White people cannot know the experience of the black community, and therefore their writing of black characters will always at best fall flat and miss the mark, or at worst, perpetuate negative stereotypes, causing actual damage.

And furthermore, not only did she think it can’t be done well, she seemed to be saying that it shouldn’t be done at all. Almost as if writing black characters is a privilege that should only be reserved for those who share the black experience.

Now, at the time I read this thread in this writing group, I had begun writing bits and pieces of my own novel, which — while the time and place changed from the 1930s to 1968 — has always centered around black characters. So my attention was definitely snagged by this exchange.

It’s not that I hadn’t already thought about how my being white and writing about primarily black characters might be a problem. It was always in the back of my mind, but I didn’t give it a whole lot of attention beyond knowing that I would need at least some black beta readers when the time came — and I’d need to be prepared to change some things that I was unable to recognize as off-base, unrealistic, or offensive.

(Let me interject here that my trepidation about writing black characters is not primarily being offensive, in the purest sense of the word. I believe people have the right to be offended but that doesn’t curtail others’ freedom of speech and action as long as real damage is not inflicted. Being offended is not being damaged, necessarily. And being offended is not the same as mental damage. The type of “being offensive” I fear in my writing is contributing in any way in perpetuating negative, harmful stereotypes of any group of people because of my lack of real, lived experience — and beyond even that, I realize as I am delving deeper into this subject matter, because of my own blindness to what is perceived as negative and hurtful in the first place! More on that as this blog progresses…)

So this topic is definitely on my mind. I’ve decided to move forward with writing this novel, regardless — for many reasons which I plan to detail further as I continue writing in this blog. However, I am making certain changes to the story as a result.

For example, I’m expanding the story to include many more white main characters. The two black boys who kick off the story are now mixed race. I’ve slashed out some early scenes that were just frankly SO poorly written (I’m getting better at recognizing stereotypes). And… I’ve stopped writing for the time being, so I can as fully as possible immerse myself in researching the events around the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike and the civil rights movement of the times. Hopefully this conscientious effort will make my writing palatable.

Finally… honestly, I don’t think black people are my audience. White people are. I hope my story will shed some light on the events of the time and their effect on race relations even today, from our perspective and for our knowledge. I want to write about human beings, and maybe help find some common ground somehow, or at least better understanding. I just need to include black characters to do that.

I hope that woman in the writing group will understand.

3 thoughts on ““White People, Just Don’t.”

  1. I am sure that woman will eventually understand. I come from a country and a background where racism has been a living issue. Since the day I was born until now, for 4 long decades this problem does not seem to go away. As for me. let’s just say that I am a minority of a minority and I hated the fact that I was bullied and harassed for being a lesser race. And growing up I hated existing in this country. but as I have grown mature, I have come to realize that the color of the skin or the religious beliefs are all presets. And sometimes you have to make an effort to understand why the other party says or does what they do and say. It is because of what they have been taught, seen, and experienced themselves or by their immediate loved ones. So partly, what I am saying is that it would be hard to write or portray a character in terms of a different race or belief to yourself or what you are closely associated with. But from your commitment to read, research and learn, I am very confident that you can pull this off. All the best.

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    1. Thank you for your comments, Dew! I’m so sorry to hear about your experience as a minority. Your comments really hit home, and your points are exactly what I’ve been thinking about a lot lately – especially the understanding why the other party says or does the things they do. And on both sides: I’m striving to understand the black experience as much as possible, but also the “why” of why WHITE people say and do the things they do, too. It’s fascinating. I feel like I’m getting a degree in sociology over here – ha!

      I appreciate your vote of confidence in my ability to pull this off successfully. I’m certainly going to try!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You are welcome. I am glad my experience gave you some insight. This is something I have been baffled about all my life. “Racism” should not exist in this world. We are all the same. we all have the same blood. But people make such a big fuss about where they came from and how classy their ancestors were , hence they are the majority etc etc. I hate that stuff. so go on and write that novel. Am sure there will be kind people who will help you out with some insight into their community.

        Liked by 1 person

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