Lately in my writer’s groups and circles I’ve been seeing a lot of white writers saying that they feel as though they can’t write POC, or it will be inherently seen as offensive. They bemoan POC as being controlling and over sensitive, or even rightfully concerned, but that it shouldn’t be that way. White authors, they posit, shouldn’t have to fear that their work will be taken the wrong way. They didn’t mean it that way. They are really trying, or they’ll just only write white people then. The story I see is they’re told by friends, editors, etc. that they shouldn’t write POC as a white person. How goddamn un-American blah blah blah. The funny thing is if they looked around plenty of white folk are writing great and enjoyable POC characters that are praised on the page and screen. So what gives? Why can they write POC and be white, while other white authors can’t?
Well, I’m here to tell you why and that reasoning you think is correct can’t be your shield anymore. This one is gonna hurt, and it should.
The reason you are told this is because you talk about POC in a way the demonstrates to those people you can’t present POC without the loaded baggage of centuries old systemic racism and stereotyping. And you never want to listen to that being pointed out. It isn’t just POC trying to stop you from writing freely. We don’t care about that. We care about what you’re saying about us because we’re sick of the same bullshit being peddled as truth. It is POC hearing your words and hearing how you have internalized and attached race to certain stereotypes and beliefs.
If a POC says you need to stop writing, and think about how you even asked them their opinion then you said something way off the mark. You demonstrated to them your incompetence on race and/or your ingrained prejudices. You say you don’t really like to write black characters, or you begin describing a character idea and it becomes increasingly clear you have tied stereotypes to race. When called out, and people point to this baggage the response is intense defensiveness. No one likes to be implied to be a racist. However, we live in a world of ethnic and racial baggage that crawls into our language and very concept of race.
An example(not linking because of privacy) would be a recent role playing game forum online where someone asked if their black character would be a stereotype. The asker was thoughtful, but the question was still worded to be concerned with how they were seen, not the stereotyping. A responder asked “why did you make her black?”, and people were sincerely flummoxed that the question would be asked. It didn’t make sense. They didn’t see what was obvious to the black responder, and refused to. The character in question was a sex worker, a formerly teenage mother of two, from the ghetto; described as strong, courageous, and devoted to her kids with a smart mouth and street smarts. Things kind of rambled out from there and the question never got answered. People said don’t put on a “faux-black affect of speech” during the game, and then people started asking why not. To those people, these elements, stereotypes, were inseparable from black people. It can’t be wrong if it is the “truth” and that character was a “truth”. Yet that character could have easily been any other race.
The question they couldn’t fathom asked why did those traits become attached to a black character, and no one understood that because the baggage is glued to race in their minds.
It’s part of why it is so common to hear nerdy POC be called coconuts, oreos, bananas, etc. The very concept of X race even in creative media is still loaded down, and if an author cannot transcend that it shows.
So what of the white writers who can write POC? They listen, they learn, and they don’t just sympathize they do their damnedest to empathize. Because the truth is it ain’t all white people, and the white authors who say they can’t write POC because of POC responding to their works are lost, at best, and willfully delusional, at worst. In America blacks may be a smaller part of the population, but that smaller part still numbers in the millions. Same with latinxs, east Asians, and virtually all peoples. There are sources you can turn to conquer your “fear” of being perceived as racist.
In building this blog I’ve stumbled upon so many posts about people of color and how to describe them. At this point dozens if not hundreds of easily available blogs talk about describing POC like Writing with Color, Springhole , or words from reflective authors of color like N.K Jemsin . Yet it seems like there are more people wanting to complain or ask the same questions ad nauseum. And asking this question isn’t a problem, but one begins to wonder about how isolated white folk are when this comes up.
As a person of color in America, my life has been drowned in consuming white culture because white culture is mainstream culture. In a few days I’ll have a post that goes into more details on this, but the short version is POC in the west can’t escape learning everything about white culture as simply existing, neutral. White isn’t just white it is beige, khaki, and as a result I’ve learned a lot about it. I’ve worn it and studied how it’s shaped. Yet as a black person my culture has been whittled down to pockets based on kernels of truth filtered through white perceptions of my body, my life, who I am, and what blackness means. Even in the black community that filter has traces everywhere.
I have countless examples of not only white friends and lovers, but the whole of the film, television, and literary industries to inform my white characters. The depictions of black, brown, yellow, and everybody in between is historically and currently limited. But before you go saying “Well, D that’s why white authors shouldn’t be judged or penalized or critiqued,” that still isn’t an excuse in 2017.
There are authors of color online on every platform. There are Meetup.com groups, universities with POC students, and essays like this that can inform you. If you choose not to listen, to continuously defend yourself before listening to what POC are telling you– that your words are filled with old stereotypes– then the problem is you. You can choose to change, to learn, to be open to listening, and to know that it isn’t POC’s job to educate you all the damn time…or you could not, but you don’t get to use the same excuses anymore.
I know tons of white writers who ask these questions about how to portray POC better. They seek out POC and POC writers and learn from them. These writers, if they can, travel and live with the people they wish to write about. If they can’t they find resources, meet people near them, and explore the many cultures of the world and how race impacts perceptions. They don’t come in with an attitude bemoaning POC telling them they need to learn better. Of course all humans can be defensive…but they still try to really listen. In the end they learn to listen to themselves because they begin to notice how odd it is they tend to use “savage” when talking about black folk or African inspired things not just as a colloquialism. They notice how odd it is that they keep writing Asian characters as though Asian cultures are interchangeable; or like all Asian parents are the same and not just of a particular cultural background. They notice how they keep making innocent characters white and light, and cast antagonists as darker from hair to eyes to skin.
The white authors who listen have the courage to actually challenge themselves, and learn how to navigate stereotypes and their own prejudice. They accept they will make mistakes, and listen enough to try to learn from them in order to become not only better writers but better people. They know they have baggage, picked up from society, that they may not even realize is racial baggage because it is their normal…and they realize it shouldn’t be normal, and it can’t be allowed to flourish unintentionally in their writing.
But second to all this is, you have to accept that POC can criticize you as much as we please. This may surprise you because you choose not to think about it, but I’ve meant hundreds of white folks in my short life who truly deeply are offended that POC would dare have negative opinions about them. They aren’t even aware of how differently they respond to, usually, immigrants and dark people. They don’t hear the patronizing or condescending attitude that accompanies their defensiveness. The insinuation that POC just don’t get it, isn’t racism…it’s just anger? But it usually ain’t and people of color, especially black people, have been forced to learn the difference over the centuries. POC aren’t stupid or hysterical. The critique of a POC, especially an immigrant or a dark person, has been coded in our society as doubly insulting, a diminishing of character or intellect. (And let us not forget that other POC engage in this behavior as well against black and dark people)
This attitude doesn’t just belong to the 90 year old grandmother whose racism is excused as “that’s just grandma”. It’s the 20 something year old white coworker who sees my critique of their plan as more insulting, who denies that they treat black coworkers differently when they have a tendency to try to report them to their boss for “unprofessionalism” or acting maliciously. So let me say this:
If you are more afraid or mortified by the thought of a POC saying your work is disrespectful or stereotypical than actually dealing with why you created a problematic and racist work then the problem above all things else is you.
Repeatedly, the undertones of the defensive remarks from white writers frustrated at the responses their works– filled with passive veiled racism– is that they shouldn’t be critiqued this way. This in part goes back to the first problem of connecting a stereotypes being part of how different races are defined. They believe they shouldn’t be critiqued because they don’t see what’s wrong or erroneous about what they’ve made. There’s a voice going “But this is true!” or “But this is just how black folk are described” or “Well I think Asian guys who break dance are cool!”. They destroy the conversation by rendering POC into being inherently wrong, liars, or fascists opposing their creative freedom.
This I one of the most insidious legacies of racism because it seems so harmless. No one dies. No towns get fire bombed like parts of Tulsa. Generally no one gets denied usage of anything public. It simply relies on one socialization, one life lesson, one gift from the past to white descendents who can be as liberal or as nice as they want. That one thing is the belief that POC don’t know as much as white folk even when it comes to the experiences, the trends, and the linguistic/creative issues surrounding race or ethnicity. So they should not be questioned, and this thought isn’t necessarily conscious, but it is pervasive because of that very reason. If you don’t acknowledge it or disarm it then you won’t challenge it. Then when you encounter a black person saying, “It’s very odd and racist that you made this character black and then also have her be this series of walking stereotypes even if you perceive some nobility about those stereotypes” it becomes a personal attack deeper than a standard critique.
The result is half of ya’ll seem stuck here alternating between using ignorance, denial, and defensiveness as a shield. Sometimes using other POC as a shield because a handful agree with you as though we’re a monolith, and they come rolling out not realizing how you just used them as a tool or a dog to be summoned at your leisure. The other have are still having to explain this shit, and look at us POC like “I’m so sorry.” and experience an iota of what it’s like to be a POC because we get that fairly often(especially if you’re in the south in a “nice” part of town the other ethnic family acts up and all eyes fall on you. It is total bullshit). And it isn’t. It’s an observation, a critique, a perspective, and if a hell of a lot of people are explaining why and saying why your work is deeply flawed in a racist way then something is probably actually wrong.
But there is all this other shit in the way, bogging down your writing and your life. Being nice to a POC or even other POC doesn’t free you from prejudice. I grew up in the southern U.S, sweetheart, we bleed nice and that ain’t NEVAH stopped racism or prejudice. Plenty of people were nice to my kinfolk when they cleaned their houses and talked shit in the next sentence. Plenty of writers can create amazing innovative worlds loaded, unintentionally, with the stereotypes and associations of the real world. It doesn’t make a difference. A person can be nice and talented, and that has nothing to do with if they’re capable of showing people as people, or if they write hurtful, lazy, and incredibly problematic aspects to their imagined species, cultures, and real world races. Whether it is Earth or Nabu, a human colony or Vulcan, if your characters read like caricatures or have dubious elements you will be critiqued. POC , like anyone else, can critique you how ever the hell we like…and I can assure you POC know a lot more about racism than you. It is an entirely different experience to be white in the world, and in the U.S, than black or dark or yellow or what have you. The slights inflicted on others are taken for granted as truths, but they are not.
You can be more than wrong. You can create and incorporate out right racial lies and prejudices in your work. IF you’re called out on it you can either be a coward or not. You can listen and consider….or not. You can get an attitude….or not. But if you keep writing X race and it sounds eerily stereotypical you should question yourself. You shouldn’t get mad that people noticed.
But I doubt that many of you will. Instead you’ll do something else, something better writers don’t do…
You resent. You justify. You assert in a thousand different passive to overly aggressive ways that your work is correct, valid, and even reflective of POC. It can’t be racist or come from stereotypes, you say, because there are blacks like this. She just sort of happened to be black, right? You’re a good person, and a good writer, and all of those nasty POC don’t know what they’re talking about, right? They don’t get what you’re saying, and you just have to make them understand. Now you’ve tried, and they still don’t change their tune? Oh well they just don’t get you, right? Who cares what they think about your work! After all you have those two or four black people you know and they like you? They get you and the nasty ones are just not capable of understanding your genius and even if you did mess up it doesn’t matter because it wasn’t intentional maliciousness! You spout shit like that, and then wonder why POC don’t want to deal with your trifling ass writing anymore.
In short you don’t give a damn about POC. You only care about looking good, and anyone with a lick of sense can tell the difference.