Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Why Writing People of Color Is Hard

We don't live in a white world. We live in a world full of color, and that goes for people as well as things. So, why do so many books end up mono-ethnic? Truth is there's all sorts of reasons. In a lot of ways, people naturally segregate. It sucks, but it's true. Books about family don't get a lot of options unless it's about a person of another race coming into the family. Sometimes, because of the story the author is telling, it just "doesn't work" to be multi-cultural. And that's fair.

But what of those books where there's room for everyone? Why don't more writers put in people of color? Because it's hard in ways it shouldn't be.

Statistically, most writers in the US are caucasian. (I did a very quick and dirty google for some stats and the best I came up with was this article on TV writers. 12% are minorities. That's it, and if that's representative, it's kind of sad. But, onward...) The old adage "write what you know" shouldn't apply here, but it does. Sometimes it applies because authors are racist (sad but true). Sometimes it applies because it's just easier not to do the research on other cultures. And sometimes it applies because we aren't racist and we are afraid no matter how hard we try, we might come across that way.

I want diverse casts in my work. My world is multicultural and richer for it. The same can only be true of stories where that is the case as well. But often, when faced with those characters, I freeze up. Let's examine this for a minute...

In my YA series, Trey Harper is Cass's boyfriend. He's African-American and a basketball star. <---- I know this is a stereotype and I made a conscious choice to use it anyway. He also likes to talk like he's a street kid even though he's not. And Cass calls him on it every time because she knows that's not the real him. Trey is smart, funny, and pretty much not afraid of anything. I love the guy. But he started as a stereotype--and that's how Cass originally saw him too. (Then again, Cass starts out with everyone as a stereotype :P) My biggest issue when dealing with Trey? Describing his hair. He has awesome High School Musical era Corbin-Bleu-hair. I had no clue how to describe it. Stupid as it sounds, that was the moment I almost made him white. But that tiny bit of description stalled my writing for a long time.

In the Badlands world, Mahala is an escaped slave. Again, I love her. She's a fantastic character--the one who doesn't take shit from anyone (including Ever). And her history is traumatic and... let's just say I'm really geeked to write her story (hopefully soon). But there are difficulties with writing her. For starters, the language used in the time period would be unacceptable today. No one would say "people of color" or "African-American." At one point, she refers to herself as a "nigger." I didn't do it for shock value. I did it to be true to the time period and the character. And I agonized over it for days. I don't like that word. It's too charged with hate and negativity. But then it wasn't. The history of the word is beyond crazy. I don't know if it will be in the text whenever that manuscript gets published, but I left it there for now because it's what she would have said.

But soon, I'll be on her story, and that presents a whole new set of problems. For starters, much of it will take place in the Confederacy. By definition, it will be racially charged. It can't not be. But more than that, it's a romance, and that creates a whole new set of problems for me. In the first two installments, she was a minor character, and one most of the main characters were used to being around. Her skin color might be something they "noticed" but it wasn't a big deal to them--she's just Mahala. And that's how it should be, except in a romance, the love interest will notice everything about her. He will love her hair, her eyes, her skin... all of it. In his passages, he should see her in somewhat poetic terms. And like it or not, "dark" and "brown" and "black" in themselves are not poetic. The problem is, most of the more poetic phrases to describe skin color are food based: chocolate, coffee, caramel, peaches-and-creamy, milky. That tendency isn't just a PoC issue--it crosses racial lines, but it's been brought up time and again that people of color don't like it and find it offensive. That means in order to write Mahala's love story, I'm going to stall over and over again searching for ways that the hero can describe her--because he is the poetic type.

And right now, I'm faced with an antagonist who happens to be a PoC. First, I have to describe her from another character's point-of-view who knows nothing about her other than she's fawning over the hero. At this point, she's not hated, she's just unknown, and there's a layer of jealousy involved. The point-of-view character, again, is going to notice every amazing thing about this gorgeous woman. So... wording problem is rearing its head again. Plus, I'm beating myself up with the knowledge that I made the "bad guy" a PoC. Every time I think about it I get twitchy, because I'm anticipating backlash over this of the "Why couldn't she be white" variety. She's not white because when I closed my eyes, and thought of her, she wasn't. At the time, she was just a extra. It wasn't until I started writing her that I realized she had a slightly bigger role to play, and by that point, I already had her in my head. Is she world-ending evil? No. It's not that kind of story. Quite frankly, she's just a college girl who thinks really highly of herself and is convinced everyone else should too. But... she's the antagonist. And if I let myself think about that fact too much, it stalls me.

The thing is the world isn't just white. But just like there are good white people and bad white people, there are good and bad people of color too. If I made every bad guy African-American, I'd say it was a good sign I was racist. But, quite frankly, if I never make a bad guy a person of color, I'd say it's a pretty good sign I'm a coward who's too afraid of offending people to write real characters. I don't want to be a coward. But I really really wish making my cast multicultural wasn't so damn hard.

***With Larry's permission, I'm attaching a link to a blog post he did on this topic recently. It's the first one that ever made me feel like I could breathe and just let the characters tell their stories. So, thank you for that, Larry Benjamin :) ***

6 comments:

  1. I love you. I love that you aren't a coward. You have great instinct and intuition when it comes to your characters, and your "bad guys" always have a great depth.

    As a white girl, I too find myself double and triple checking all PoC I write... But, I do the same when writing from a male PoV or when I'm writing about fighting styles. I think it's important to be as accurate and true and non-stereotypical in everything we write, not just race. To be honest, I'm just as sick of the stereotypical white girls too.

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    1. As a woman with many many redneck relatives, I can say for certain that stereotypes are common for a reason :P

      But yes, I do the same thing writing any PoV that is unfamiliar. It's why every character I write tends to have something in common with me or someone I love. It helps me understand them enough that I can write them (...eventually)

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  2. J.R. Ward says, "Listen to the Rice Crispies." Write the story, write what you see, what you hear, smell, and taste. Write it as your characters tell it to you. Worry about the revising or correcting after... and that's of course only if you will need to revise or correct. And there has GOT to be some authors you can seek advice from. *hugs*

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    1. *hugs* Thanks, babe :) I think I've just been reading so many posts about what one *shouldn't* do when writing people-of-color that it stalls me over and over again. No more stalling.

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  3. I have to say I read this post over a number of times and I don't understand why you find this so hard. I say that having written my own book with a multi-cultural cast. About 2 weeks ago I also posted about race and writing on my Goodreads blog after a reviewer commented that she loved the fact that the one character's race was never a big deal (book is, among other things, an interracial romance. She was also the only reviewer/reader to mention race, which I've always found odd.

    It's a multi-ethic cast because that's the world I live in. But each character is above all a person, race, sexuality is just a facet of who they are, not all of who they are. Are you this worried when you write a male POV?

    Will some people be offended by a white woman writing a black caharcter? probably? Will some people opt not to buy a book with black characters? Probably. But so what? It's your story, the story you need to tell, right? A writer's job is not to please everyone but to create the worlds, the characters he sees in his head.

    I say stop worrying and write. I did and so far no one has come after me with an axe, either figurative or real.

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