Reading and Writing While White – Part One: Writer Perspective

In the past 2-3 weeks I ran across some great articles about perceptions of diversity in both reading and writing. Normally they would have only shown up with some brief commentary by me in a Saturday Summation post, but since I hadn’t been updating those this past month, it allowed me to see the various posts all together, causing me to formulate some broader thoughts on this topic. I’ve turned it into two posts this first one addresses writing across differences (as a white person, in this case) from the perspective of a writer. The second addresses the idea of reading across differences and can be found here.

Perspective: Writer

A couple of weeks ago I was referred to a couple of posts that ended up blindsiding me with their blatant, unapologetic white privilege. They were older posts (from 2014) and came from writers who have large followings which is what threw me. I expected better of them and instead was profoundly disappointed.

I use the word “unapologetic” not in the sense that I or any other white person should feel guilty for being white. It’s more that I think it’s important to be aware of our position and respond to our world accordingly. For example, both blog authors essentially criticized the need for “political correctness” in terms of race and other related diversity issues in our reading and writing. One tried to give the argument of “I have had one of each of these kinds of non-white, non-Christian friends” (as though this absolves one of cultural sensitivity) and the other tried the “all characters are different and diverse in their own ways” (which kind of reminds me of the oft-used, but ill-understood “love is colorblind” expression, and quite frankly, is a lazy argument all-around).

First of all, if someone is using the term “politically correct”, we already have a problem. This is an awful term. I admit that I did not always think this way. I’m pretty sure that back when this expression re-gained popularity in our lexicon (I want to say late 80s/early 90s, although it was coined much earlier than that and used sporadically during different times in its history), I was a bit droll with my use of quotes of what we were deeming to be “PC” terms.

I was wrong.

Because seriously, being politically correct has taken on a negative connotation for being socially sensitive. We should use proper terminology to describe non-dominant groups because it’s the right thing to do and not because we’re trying to “not get in trouble”, which is what “PC” generally tends to indicate. By using this term, culturally dominant groups are already dismissing the non-dominant groups or individuals.

In my kinder efforts, I realize that both of these blog authors might simply feel defensive. I know I screw up and say wrong things without thinking or fail to represent a non-white character like I should. In the past, I would probably come across much more defensive, too. I hope that I have been growing past that. I’ve certainly been trying.

In that vein, I saw hope the very next day when I read this post by author R.C. Lewis on the “Challenges of Writing Diversely”. This is the attitude we need, not the self-righteousness of pretending that “write what we know” doesn’t include non-white/non-straight characters (because truly, does that realistically represent your world?). For some of us, writing across differences may not be a huge challenge, but if it is, that does not mean we shouldn’t try.

Author Roxanne Gay recently reviewed a novel by a white author that has non-white protagonists. In her review she says:

Writers can and should write across difference, so long as they do so respectfully, intelligently, with some degree of accuracy. They may not fully succeed, but a good-faith effort and a demonstration of empathy are generally all that is required.

Respectfully, for obvious reasons, is the top key element. I’ve talked before of immersing ourselves into an environment where we can take advantage of our observation skills. “Respect” means, of course, that we don’t make assumptions as to where those environments will yield the diversity we seek. Also, are you trying to change up the dialect of a character of color? Err on the side of no change rather than creating a caricature of speech patterns that you might not understand. I have mentioned in the past that middle grade author Rick Riordan has made strides in diversifying his character set, but he has thus far avoided distinct dialect differences. As a result, without other cues, a reader might not actually know the racial background of a character. There are numerous pro and con arguments to be made about this, but my point for the time being in this post is that if we don’t know, don’t make that part up. Aforementioned author R.C. Lewis says, “It comes back to my belief that we don’t need to write what we know, but rather know what we write.” This, I believe, is essentially what Roxanne Gay is driving at, too.

Lewis also says, “We probably won’t get it completely “right” (and that’s if everyone can agree what “right” is in that circumstance), but we won’t get better unless we try.” Ronald E. Franklin wrote about how it came to be that Charles Schulz added in his first black character, Franklin, in his Peanuts comic strip. In an exchange of letters between a woman and Schulz in 1968, Schulz responded to the woman’s suggestion that he include a black character in his comic in this way:

I appreciate your suggestion about introducing a Negro child into the comic strip, but I am faced with the same problem that other cartoonists are who wish to comply with your suggestion. We all would like very much to be able to do this, but each of us is afraid that it would look like we were patronizing our Negro friends.

Schulz shows empathy. Did he always get it right with Franklin? Probably not, but if you check out the end of that article, you’ll see how far off the mark Ketcham was instead.

Have I always gotten it right with my characters? Also probably not. It’s important to remember that we will never get it right for everyone, but the “good-faith effort” will hopefully come through. My current novel features a trans-female and without a doubt I worry that I’m getting some things wrong, but I am doing my best through experience and research to do right by her.

Recently I came across the Writing with Color Tumblr site and if you want a way to start learning more in a non-threatening, behind-the-screen manner, this looks to be a great place to go. They field questions of all sorts and even host a “People of Color Profiles” which showcases reader submissions of personal experiences that might help writers better understand both universal and individual human experiences that can influence our writing.

I’d love to hear from you about your experiences with writing across differences. Is it a challenge for you? Why? Is it easy and natural? Why? Or throw in any other variation on this theme so we can learn and grow.

What song to match this post? I turned to K’naan, feeling pretty sure he had a song that could tell a story – offer one individual profile – and sure enough, he came through. “In the Beginning”:

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6 Responses to Reading and Writing While White – Part One: Writer Perspective

  1. Jen (@JSQ79) says:

    I so appreciate this post. When you tweeted about the “political correctness” blogs, I knew exactly the ones you were talking about. Even though I read them months and months ago, they still bother me. At this point in my life I feel like people who complain about the world being too PC are really just trying to say “How dare you ask me to stop being an asshole?”

    Writing about people of color (or from a marginalized perspective) when you are not a member of that community is something that I think about a lot. I go around in circles on how I feel about it. I think it was Mitali Perkins that said, “Before you write about any community, be sure you’ve held a lot of babies in that community.” I think that goes along with what you’ve said about it being more important to know what you right rather than write what you know. This is an important discussion. Thanks for starting it, and I look forward to the next installment.


    • ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) says:

      Ooh, I like that quote from Perkins, especially if it means I get to hold some babies soon (that aren’t my own).


  2. MJ says:

    I have a fairly important character who’s biracial and I struggle with how far I can take that (which is an awkward phrase but I don’t know how else to put it it). For instance, I have several drafts of a chapter in which her husband (who is white) has a Moment with one or more of his sons when he realizes they will experience life in a way that’s different from him. Sort of a recognition of privilege that hits him unexpectedly and powerfully. I have this image in my head that as a parent in that situation, you’d feel worry and guilt and determination and fear and love and God knows what else but to be honest, I’m afraid to write it because I don’t want to get it wrong and worse, get it wrong and be disrespectful. It’s a struggle. I rework those drafts repeatedly and nothing has felt right yet. Oy.

    Thanks for the Tumblr link. I’m following now!


    • Jen (@JSQ79) says:

      I am a white parent with two black daughters, and I know that moment, and I get how you feel about it. If you ever want to chat about it, I’m on twitter.


      • MJ says:

        Thanks very much! I just might take you up on that offer! It’s only fanfiction but I take my universe pretty seriously. I’d like to get it right. 🙂


  3. Pingback: Reading and Writing While White – Part Two: Reader Perspective | It'll All Work Out

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