Thursday, October 29, 2015

Should the Privileged Write From the Marginalized's Perspective?

I got an email a while back from an author concerning a topic that has been quite prominent in writing circles today: Should white authors write people of color narratives?

I don't have the answer, mostly because I do not speak for anyone other than myself. I'm not going to give my opinion, either, because I know  people will assume I do speak for more people -- even if I say many times that I only speak for me. So, this is a discussion for you.

Here's the letter:
Hey there,

I found your blog through a Twitter rabbit hole that started with @tehawesomersace feed. She linked to some important pieces about the need for diverse writing but how we need to de-center whiteness in this discussion, which I get and agree with. Here's my problem though. I'm white, mostly (my father is mixed race with non-African American heritage, but I look white and benefit from its privileges.) I'm also a writer who has found that my passion for stories is two-fold; 1) YA characters and genre, and 2) Books that are based on real events that deal with heavy issues. My first novel is currently in the query process and was inspired by a story I read in the news about a religious fundamentalist family. And the idea I want to pursue for my 2nd book is based on this news story about a small town that of last year STILL had a segregated prom. 
So the reason I'm writing you is, before I start, I want to get the opinion from a few writers of color if me pursuing this novel is something a white writer can do well. I've been outlining/writing character profiles while I decide, and I plan to make the MC a black student who moves to the town from a bigger city, to help her father care for her ailing grandmother. She'll befriend a white student and convince her to help her fight to desegregate the prom. The "best friend" will be white, and the protagonist will be black. It will not be a white savior story. I also plan to be very, very careful and do a ton of research to make sure the MC isn't a) basically a white character that I claim is black or 2) a conglomeration of stereotypes. I'll also make sure to have as many POC beta readers as possible, prior to trying to get it published, should I get that far. 
I should also clarify that I'm not just a white writer who wants to tell a story with black characters because it's a good story, or because I want to be "inclusive." I'm someone who is extremely passionate about the Black Lives Matter movement, pretty much since it started, and has worked hard to educate myself on how to be a better ally to POC. I read POC, I follow activists on Twitter, I try to educate my white peers on ways their thinking/speaking is problematic, I'm a Ta-Nehisi Coates fan-girl, you get the idea. Black Lives very much matter to me and I want to honor them in my writing. 
Basically, I want this story told. If I knew that a black YA writer was already telling it or working on it, I'd drop it immediately, because I wouldn't want my work to overshadow theirs, as their perspective would almost certainly be superior. But if no writer of color (that I can find) is interested in telling this story, do you think it's possible for me to do it, in a respectful and powerful way? I've been ruminating on this question for about a week, and it's keeping me from starting it. I figured it couldn't hurt to ask someone else whose perspective I value. 
Anyways, thanks for your site, and for being open for questions and interactions. I'm glad you're a resource for writers like me. 
- Anonymous

Here are some points I have that hopefully lay a platform for the discussion (and please discuss in the comments).

  •  A fiction writer's job is inherently to express and convey realities outside their own realities.
  • But this gets troublesome when a person writes from a privileged position (for example, non-black people writing about black people).
  • Writers do not exist in a vacuum outside of society, and neither does their work. Writers' actions have an impact on society, whether for positive or negative.
  • I'd like to push back on the idea of "If we get a lot of beta readers of color!" If you have 16 people of color read your novel, it still doesn't guarantee that your book with a character of color is "okay". People of color are people, not magical "Not Racist" stamp-givers. The onus is on you to be responsible for your own book. 
  • Your beta readers of color are probably not going to share your royalties. There is very little you can give them in exchange for what they can give you. Seeking betas of color is a messy business. You don't exist outside a power vacuum.
  • A book concerning race written by a white person is almost guaranteed to be of lesser quality than a book on race written by a person of color. Yet, these books will be promoted, propped up, and celebrated more than books written by people of color.
  • People have written from the perspective of characters with marginalized identities well before. It is very rare, but it happens. (I am thinking of Jandy Nelson's I'll Give You the Sun.)
  • ^This is very rare.
  • Books concerning race written by white people are allowed to have a few mistakes because "how would they know otherwise?" Meanwhile, all books written by all people of color (and especially Black and Latinx people, and even more, women of color) are expected to reach a much. higher. standard and even then, will not get the praise they deserve.
  • Writing from a position of privilege about marginalized people is almost, by definition, cultural appropriation (since you will get the royalty money/fame/recognition). 
  • Can this be avoided/done justly? 
This is what I mean when I say writing and publishing doesn't exist in a vacuum outside the racist systems in the USA today. Things. get. complicated.

Disclaimer: the above letter discussed only race as a marginalized identity. I'd like to open up this conversation to writing about all marginalized identities, centered on people of color with intersecting marginalized identities (because, you know, there are queer, disabled, low-income, women, trans people of color too).

So this is a discussion for you. What's the point of this discussion? Not answers, because I doubt we'll come to an answer. The purpose is to centralize this discussion in one forum to make a resource for writers wanting to learn more about this. Ultimately, each writer by themselves will make their own decision about their books' substance.

Here's a list of things I'd like you to follow as you write and discuss:
  1. Take Space, Make Space. If you have lived experience with a marginalized identities, you are encouraged to take up space in this discussion thread. If you don't, you are encouraged to listen, ask questions (please do!), and not expect answers.
  2. What Do We Need From Allyship? Writers with marginalized identities: this is a space to make your demands. What do we expect out of allyship? What can writers with privileged identities do to help us out? (I think we can expect more than simply buying/promoting our books, which is literally the bare minimum to be considered "not racist". Because if they weren't buying/promoting our books in the first know what I mean?)
  3. Share Yourself, For Yourself. I'm talking to writers with marginalized identities: you are not obligated to partake in this discussion. I do hope you do (because I want to make this a space for our empowerment) but share yourself only for yourself, only if it empowers you. You can drop out any time, pick up any time.
  4. Use "I" Statements. We all speak only for ourselves. Make sure that is reflected in the way we discuss. For example, instead of saying, "Apple pie is awesome," say instead, "I think apple pie is awesome."
  5. Listen, ask respectful questions. This is for writers discussing marginalized identities they don't hold. Writers with these identities should take up the most space, and others should listen, ask for clarification, and not speak over them. This doesn't mean go silent - this is a discussion, and it'd be so so awesome to see a ton of comments being generated! Start off by asking questions (but please don't expect writers with marginalized identities to console or comfort you).
  6. Self-educate. The writers with marginalized identities that will partake in this discussion do not have to teach. First use Google with your questions. If you still are confused, feel free to ask, but don't expect an answer. These are tough issues. If they all had answers, we'd be in a much better place.
This is the first #WriteInclusively discussion. So please: Discuss! 

If you would like to stay updated on Write Inclusively (I'm in the process of building a platform from which we can do activist work), please subscribe. The subscription form is at the bottom of this link. I rarely ever email!

**I reserve the right to delete comments if they get hateful. It's up to my discretion (but honestly, I won't do it often).**

**this space is unapologetically centered on writers of color and writers with marginalized identities**

**like, it may seem like it, but I honestly don't have an answer/opinion that I believe in because this is a hard topic, please trust me**


  1. There are some points I agree with but also disagree with. I think as a sincere advocate for race relations in writing and society, Anon is on the right track with the story they want to write, and I thoroughly appreciate their willingness to step aside for a POC who wants to tell this specific story (I remember hearing about that school and still can't believe it). In my opinion, I don't want people to feel like they can't advocate by writing a POC MC because they aren't of that color. If it's written well and written in a way that makes me say, "Thank you for this," me being selfish obvs., I want them to write it and keep fighting for us.

    Beta readers: That's a fine line to walk, because if you have beta readers of any color for any story, it's not going to guarantee anything for you as a writer anyway, so no matter what, get a good ratio of people you're trying to reach to read it to see if you're doing it right to SOME extent. Point blank.

    Quality versus Subjectivity: Will a book about race written by a white author be promoted more? Yes. Celebrated more? Most likely. Of lesser quality? Ehhh, I don't know about that. No, they don't know what it's like to walk in my shoes as a young black woman, but if they take the time to research, hear people's stories, learn from as many different POC as they can--because also, not every POC shared the same experience either--they should be able to write a successfully qualitative novel about race. There will be POC who are against it even if it's top quality simply because, "You're white, and you have no idea," but I don't know if it's fair to label it off the bat as not good enough because of that.

    I think we also need to differentiate between cultural appropriation and appreciation. It's the thinnest line in today's pop society, and appropriation can be avoided, but it also needs to be examined to determine if that's what the author's purpose was. Back to what I said earlier, if they're legitimately and sincerely for the cause of the marginalized, I don't want their voice silenced. Look at BK the Artist (no idea if he's just white or not but I think he is), a lot of his art is to present societal issues and race relations in our country. He's a very serious advocate for civil rights, and his work is powerful no matter what race he is. A non-race book example with a POC MC: Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys. That was the first book of his I read, and probably my favorite. It was a spin off of American Gods, but it's not often that I ever see a non-Greek or non-Norse mythology story out there, and even though Neil is white, I felt like he portrayed the sons of a West African/Caribbean god, and their family, in a believable way and made me forget I was reading a white writer. Not that there are no POC writing non-western myth-based stories, certainly, but Neil's being white didn't diminish the story for me, and of course I can only speak for myself on that.

    Back to Anon, I'm glad they're not writing a white savior story. I'm glad they feel the need to write this story in particular (segregated dances happening today?!). Something I want to say about this particular tidbit they want to avoid:

    a) basically [writing] a white character that I claim is black

    Again, not every black person has had the same experience. If I myself tried to write a black character from a perspective of how I grew up, I can guarantee the majority would say, "She's forgotten who she is. She's out of touch with her people," etc., because I grew up in a predominantly white town and then moved to a more diverse city, so who I am as a black person is different from who even my cousins are as black people. Don't limit what blackness is, and I believe this is where research can come in handy, because moreso than worrying about appropriation, worry about writing a stereotype.

    I hope I've helped a little. lol

    1. "Don't limit what blackness is"
      Thank you.
      Because I feel that in many (not all) discussions about writing POC, we are insisting on NARROW perceptions of POC.
      And so, if your black beta readers read your POC and don't relate or tell you it's not authentic because (insert reasons ABCD ) ... it doesn't necessarily mean that "I" as a black person wouldn't find it authentic. It just means that different people have different experiences and opinions.
      There's a shocker.
      Does that make sense?
      It's another slippery slope in the marginalization issue - how black is black? What is black behavior? If I don't use urban slang and I grew up in the Midwest, am I no longer black enough to be represented honestly in diverse fiction?
      I STRONGLY urge us as a writing community not to insist on a litmus test.
      And for what it's worth, I am fine with a white author writing POC as long as he or she is doing what Anonymous is doing. I think it's terrific that she wants to tell the story and is working so hard on its honesty and authenticity.

  2. I just want to reply to this: "People have written from the perspective of characters with marginalized identities well before. It is very rare, but it happens. (I am thinking of Jandy Nelson's I'll Give You the Sun.)
    ^This is very rare."

    It's really not true. It's not rare, and great writers have done great work writing from marginalized identities. Madame Bovarie (Flaubert) was written by a man. Light in August (Faulkner), written by a white man. Neil Gaiman wrote Ananzi Boys and writes frequently about Ananzi in many of his books. It is not rare, and it is not true that it is rarely well done. I'm a woman and an immigrant. I choose to say that I will write in whatever race I choose to, because to let you or anyone else tell me otherwise is censorship. You said you would not expose your opinions, but the list of discussions that you have is nothing if not opinionated. If you want to have a discussion, rather than restrict who can participate and begin with a series of misstatements based on personal prejudice, you ought to invite everyone to participate. And check your facts.

    1. Welp, I'm gonna go ahead and point out a couple issues here, apologies if any of this comes across the wrong way.

      First, to be blunt, you've named three examples dating between 1856 and now. That's three examples over the last 159 years. Haven't read them and I happen to be about as white and boring as a loaf of Wonderbread, so for now, I'm just operating on faith that those are worthwhile examples. I think we can both agree that there have been *more* than three reasonable portrayals of marginalized people in the last century and a half.

      But the point I think you're missing here is that for every respectful portrayal, there's approximately *five billion* harmful portrayals. It's not considered rare because it's impossible for a non-marginalized person to do. It's considered rare because non-marginalized people, like myself, are really good at messing up marginalized perspectives, even with the best of intentions, and we do it *prolifically.*

      For every Granny Weatherwax, I could point you to whatever putrid caricature of a woman Franzen is cashing out this week. For every Jandy Nelson, there are five Kate Breslins. There is one Kamala Khan; there are so many racist depictions of Pakistanis you could build a fort out of every book with a Vaguely Middle-Eastern-South-Asian-??? villain/lackey and probably put Fort Knox out of business.

      That's why it's rare.

      As for censorship... This isn't censorship anymore than it would be for a professional park ranger to say, "Writers usually don't do a great job portraying living off the land, and irresponsible depictions of it could give readers the wrong idea, and then someone's gonna get eaten by bears."

      No one is going to walk up to you in a Starbucks, slap your laptop off the table, and arrest you for "writing what you want." But if you *do* get published, and people take issue with your depiction of their identity? They're gonna let you know that you're adding to the problem, not helping it. And they have no obligation to be nice about the umpteenth cruddy depiction of their heritage they've seen this month.

      Censorship isn't people discussing what is and is not harmful in literature on a public blog. Censorship is not saying "please listen to others who have experienced marginalization instead of talking over them."

      Censorship is when an institution (like publishing) actively prevents the circulation of narratives they deem unacceptable (like marginalized narratives.) If you were being censored, you comment would not have been published in the first place. Feel free to check your facts:

    2. [Full disclosure: I'm a white, straight, cisgendered male, chiming in here specifically in response to SC's call on Twitter for white writers to reply to this particular comment]

      Terry handled the whole "actually, this is what censorship really is" thing, so let me simply add a few other thoughts:

      1) Personally I didn't take SC's points or list as limiting participation, since *listening* is in fact a form of participation in a discussion (and a greatly undervalued one at that). So while it's true that people of different backgrounds might have been invited to participate in different ways, everyone was in fact invited.

      2) To the extent someone still feels limited from participating, I would argue the author of the letter themselves imposed the limitation as they were explicitly seeking the opinion of marginalized voices. It's not wrong for someone to seek the opinion of a specific group of people on a topic (especially when the topic is specifically about said group of people), and it's not wrong in such a case for those of us who are not part of said group to step aside. The simple fact of having an opinion, however good we feel it might be, doesn't necessitate the sharing of it in all circumstances.

      3) Although it should be inherently obvious, this being SC's blog, he gets to set the rules on how the discussion gets conducted. People who don't like it don't have to come here. And the fact remains, the voices of POC (including especially POC authors in publishing) are still continually sidelined even now in 2015 (see link below). Demanding equal say in every conversation when the playing field is anything but level is a failure to recognize that simple truth, and jumping into a space that has been created for underrepresented voices to be heard in an industry that still in many ways ignores them and suggesting it is somehow "censorship" is the very epitome of privilege (that is, denying a group a voice in the first place and then calling them out when they create space specifically for themselves to speak).

      Furthermore, I think all too often the refrain "nobody gets to tell me what I can and cannot write" (with which, incidentally, I happen to agree wholeheartedly) glosses over the question of "should I write X?" which again in my reading gets to the heart of the letter. The writer wasn't asking "Am I *allowed* to write about POC?" but "Given XYZ circumstances of who I am as an author and who I am planning to write about, is this a good idea? Am I doing more harm than good? Am I suppressing or otherwise overshadowing the voices of the people who actually live these stories and are in fact themselves trying to tell them and are still not being given space to be heard?"

      Because "having the right" to do something and "actually doing it well" are, in fact, two different things, and even if one can "do it well" it's not necessarily wrong to ask the question "Should I do it?"

      And not at all meant as snarky, but if we're going to play the "check your facts" game one good place to start might be the CCBC yearly stats published here regarding both authors who are POC and books who feature POC as main characters in children's books:

      We still have a long way to go.

      Anyway, that's my two cents worth (or, since I'm Canadian, my nickel, since we officially dropped the penny last year :).

  3. This is huge and a discussion (internal or external) that needs to happen anytime a writer pens someone that is not like them. I am white and I do have have works in process with characters of other ethnicities. My reasons are two fold: I wrote romance and too many books (mainstream, at least) are of white-white relationships. My second reason: I write Deaf/Hard of Hearing characters. I am Hard of Hearing myself. There are not enough books with these characters. Deaf/Hard of Hearing individuals are not all white and I want to represent a cross section of the real community in my novels. I have and will do my research, and put respect first and foremost. And I will worry, because without worry I won't be able to check myself to ensure my words help and support, rather than hinder.

    As far as others writing about hearing loss: well, too often the results fall short from everything I've known. And not because the characters have a different experience than me but because the facts aren't there. The hearing loss is not portrayed accurately, the research wasn't done, the respect wasn't put in. Hearing loss is one of those things people think they know, but they don't. And I'm sure those from other marginalized communities will say the same. While I don't have a problem with a hearing person writing about a character with hearing loss, it all boils down to the execution. And, like many others, I want my voice heard, my voice seen as authentic. And hope others with hearing loss with pick up their own pens.

    With that said, does it make me hypocritical to write a character that represents a marginalized group that I am not? Maybe yes, maybe no. Yet I'm writing characters who have a hearing loss first and foremost. Is it better that I'm writing a Deaf POC, instead of just a POC? I don't know. I've thought it though, over and over again. And I will continue to think it over.

  4. It is critically important that we all try to write characters who are different from us. But yes, we need to do that carefully, with honesty and after lots of observation, listening, and research. I'm a white writer married to an Asian American and with two mixed race kids. My husband agrees with me that we must be able to write from the perspective of "the other." Writers have done this since the beginning of time. It's important because imagination is the foundation of empathy. As writers, we have to work hard to imagine the lives of others not like us--people who are not our gender, age, race, culture, sexuality, etc. If we do it right and well, the particulars of our characters' situation help the reader get at the commonalities we all share--wanting health, happiness, freedom, justice, love. I don't take writing in the perspective of POC lightly. I will always be nervous about getting it right, but because my world is actually very diverse, it is also natural for me to want to imagine and convey these characters' lives.

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  6. This is an honest and comprehensive discussion. I am an African-American cis female. Many posts have adequately covered the issue of permission. So, I would like to address how I decide.

    And by the way, congratulations on the completion of your first novel. Good luck with your query.

    Your story appears to need a Black MC who is also an outsider.

    General Consideration: Can I tell this story as well using an MC from my group?

    Other Considerations:

    1. Can I present a respectful portrayal of a Black community that lives with segregation and oppression?

    2. Can I accurately identify the adaptive behaviors required to live in that environment? Do I respect them?

    3. Why am I bringing in an outsider?

    4. Do I know how a small Black community would respond to an outsider?

    5. Will my MC have anything in common with this community besides her skin color?

    6. Can I accurately portray the constant barrage of covert and overt racism that my Black POC encounters? Do I understand what will trigger my Black characters and what won't? Do I understand why?

    My unwritten story:

    I have had an idea for a story set on a Native American Reservation for years. The story idea sparked after viewing a documentary concerned with sexual assaults on a reservation. Through research, I discovered that many Native people had a negative view of the film. Primarily the issue revolved around balance. However, it was enough to pause further progress for two reasons.

    1. I lacked adequate information about life on a reservation.

    2. I lacked understanding of how a First Nation woman might experience a sexual assault differently than someone from my culture. I did not understand how history, culture, and community would influence her reactions and those of others.