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.