Fiction: writing characters of another race

Jeebus mega storm front.

I feel a lot of pressure to do the polite thing and say fiction writers should write whatever they want. This pressure stems from the fact that I am inherently insulting writers by limiting their imaginations and telling them their imaginations *are* limited when it comes to imagining race. I’ve been told as much by writers when I broach the topic of writing characters of another race.

One specific response to my wariness about writers writing characters of another race has been, “That is such bullshit! That’s the PURPOSE of fiction—we’re supposed to make anything up, and nothing is off grounds. Why can’t I, a white woman, write from a black person’s point of view?” (This writer is married to a Famous Writer whose long awaited book includes characters of different races; said Famous Writer is white and writes from a black person’s point of view in his most recent novel).

Here’s the thing: writers often do each other a disservice by being polite instead of speaking their truth. We don’t make each other better by offering up platitudes. We make each other better by offering up our specific truths and subsequent challenges.

And well–it’s been awhile since I pissed people off, so I guess I’ll take a risk here and say that I don’t think writing characters of another race should be any sort of dalliance. If it is in any way, don’t write them. Writers should tread very carefully and thoughtfully (as they always should) when writing another race, because there is the added weight of social responsibility in that very act.

If you think social responsibility doesn’t belong in fiction, then that’s another place we might differ. Ever read Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha? It’s bad. It’s so bad that the geisha upon whom he based the book sued him for misrepresentation. And speaking of geishas, ever read Breakfast at Tiffany’s by the brilliant Truman Capote? Even Capote misstepped with the Japanese American Mr. Yunioshi (and don’t even get me started on the movie’s (and Mickey Rooney’s) very shrill and racist representation of the character with coke bottle eyeglasses and buck teeth). Or the recent controversial book The Help by Kathryn Stockett–criticized for its stereotypical portrayal of its characters of color. These are only one of many books in which writers wrote outside of their race and failed, because of writerly thoughtlessness.

To be frank, failing at writing characters of another race–and by failing I mean being thoughtless and insincere and not aiming to understand or empathize–comes off like doing Blackface. The only “successful” Blackface I’ve ever witnessed is Robert Downey, Jr. in “Tropic Thunder” and that was done completely as satire.

Literature should strive to tell the truth, and by turning a blind eye to social responsibility (and I’m not talking about making heroes out of our own race or other races—but about being genuine and authentic and multi dimensional and true), writers do harm with their writing. Thoughtlessness should be the last thing writers convey about any matter, and I don’t think thoughtlessness about racial identity should be excused.

I think that it’s nearly impossible to understand another race without BEING the other race, but if you are determined to write a character of another race, at least do the research. Travel. Live abroad. Live the life of. And still, realize you don’t assume the life of.

There was one woman in my MFA program years ago who insisted she could and should and would write whatever she wanted. This, after a heated class discussion in our craft of fiction class (incidentally taught by a writer of color) about writing outside our race. In that discussion, the class was divided between writers who felt that writing outside of our race was a singular matter of imagination versus writers who pretty much felt, “Noooo waaaay.” During that discussion, another (white) writer even went as far as to say, “Writers of color are so lucky. Your stories are so much more interesting. I wish I were a person of color as a writer. You have an advantage.”

I replied politely (I regret this), and murmured “That’s not true.”

The writer who left the class saying she was determined to write a character of another race? She wrote a first person POV piece where a Chinese male protagonist spoke Ching-Chong-ese (ah-so!) and submitted it to workshop. The professor-of-color leading that workshop was not amused. Classmates were horrified. I am not sure she proved her point.

I can’t help but notice that it’s mostly white writers who get angry when I say I have deep misgivings about writers writing chars of another race. (The woman who wrote the Ching-chong-ese piece was also white). I am not sure why this is. Why this need to appropriate race?

There is also the corollary thought that since minority culture has to live within the majority culture, it might be more possible for minorities to write majority characters–i.e., white expats living abroad in for example, Asia, might have better understanding because their lives are immersed in another culture. Or people of color in the United States might have better understanding of white culture. Not necessarily so, but possibly so.

In my opinion, the majority culture has a harder time understanding the minority on a deep level required for synthesizing great fictional characters than it is for the minority to understand the majority population. I don’t think Korean people in Korea, for example, understand mainstream (white) American culture. But vice versa? Perhaps. And people of color in America? Perhaps.

Maybe for some of you, the above is a matter of fact. It is definitely a matter of fact for me. But every time I bring this point up to someone in the majority (white) culture, I am often met with indignant surprise. And that disturbs me; that someone thinks they understand but does not.

This is not to say that ex-pats living abroad don’t have a minority experience in which they can absorb a new culture. To that end, I think most women write men better than men write women. (Maybe that’s the downfall of Arthur Golden–he not only failed while writing Memoirs of a Geisha at representing and writing Asian characters–he failed at writing female characters).

So take a minute before you think you have “the right” to write characters of another race. It isn’t “a right.” But you could make it an act of privilege and do right. And good luck.

Update August 2013: My thoughts on this subject are continuing to evolve, as all things do. But I submitted a panel proposal on writing characters of another race (“How Far, Imagination: Writing Characters of Another Race in Fiction”) to AWP 14 in Seattle–and it’s been accepted. See you in Seattle, where we can discuss this topic together!


Filed under Race, Writing

23 responses to “Fiction: writing characters of another race

  1. You just made me realize that every character in my books is white.

    • You bring up another point for me–should white writers white-wash their worlds just to avoid writing race? Not necessarily (and I know you write fantasy, Marlan–which often reflects Medieval times–which is inherently white). But if you’ve set your world in 1972 NYC (and my novel is set in such a time–and I’ve had to work on thoughtfully incorporating characters reflecting the diversity of NYC), then the reality is that your world isn’t 100% white, and you’ve got to come to terms with that, and take on the challenge. I guess my point is mostly wrt main protagonists.

      • I don’t bring up race at all in my writing, now that I think if it. This isn’t to say that I whitewash everything; it’s just that race never really comes into the picture. In BLOOM I go further in the opposite direction, mocking certain Central Valley white cultures. Race is just something I don’t feel all that comfortable playing with.

        But you are correct in that with genre fiction the focus is perhaps less about social commentary and modern cultural ideas. My version of fantasy is more “alternate history,” which would make you think there was a lot of room to play with African and Native American characters. NOPE.

        I think it’s just a place my writing brain doesn’t feel comfortable going.

        Any suggestions on venturing into this minefield? Read more non-fiction perhaps?

  2. Mona Washington

    I try to write about racism and its impact, not race. Having noted my preference, it is interesting that when some theatres found out that a play I wrote about racism with all white characters was written by Black me they freaked. Go figure.

  3. Well written. There is a responsibility to your characters PERIOD. For short pieces I tend to make my characters ‘colorless’ (meaning I give no specifics on physical details). For my longer works I have diverse casts because they represent a world as varied as the one I live in (NYC) and which is not often represented in literature (particularly YA) and that includes not just minority characters but Gay and Lesbian characters as well. As an African-American I feel a responsibility to represent fully-fleshed out characters of color because they are not always 3D figures in media.

    But the heart of the matter is making your characters fully-fleshed beings and not archetypes of what you’ve heard or seen. I’ve met Caucasian writers who have really wanted to do right by their characters and did thorough research if it was based on a living person and had the family involved or was used to having a variety of friends across the map.

    Glad you spoke about this subject as I think it doesn’t hurt to be real without worrying whether or not you’re being polite.

  4. Great post, Christine. I actually believe on a purely philosophical level that writers do have the “right” to do whatever they want, but I’m reminded of the famous Flannery O’Connor quote: “You can do anything you can get away with, but nobody has ever gotten away with much.” I hate to admit this, but it’s my experience: more often than not when I read a character of color written by a white person, I am dismayed (a recent example: David Mitchell’s “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet”; I ranted about this in my blog).

    I think about this issue all the time, as I’ve written lots of characters who are of races & nationalities & ethnicities not my own. In fact, I’ve only ever written about a half-Japanese/half-white person like me once. Maybe I’ve felt like being of mixed race has given me carte blanche in this regard? But maybe there’s no such thing as carte blanche when it comes to race? I don’t know the answer. I hope I do my research & that I always write from a place of openness & integrity. I have several eagle-eyed writer-friends who read my work and give me hell if I screw up. I’m so incredibly grateful for them.

    • I think you’re in a unique zone–and I love that you are writing from your perspective. Everything I’ve read of yours has rung true, so I think your gut has led you well.

      • Chris Tancredi

        In my experience (for what little it’s worth), people differ wildly in how much they understand of the people around them, regardless of the similarities and differences among them. I can’t imagine that writers are any different in that regard. There are those who can step into just about anyone’s shoes with comparatively little effort and see things through the other person’s eyes. Then there are those who can’t step out of their own shoes to save their life. If someone in the latter group tries creating a character of a different race, anyone of that race would see it immediately as hollow at best. Someone in the former group, however, could probably do a bang up job of it.

        Regardless of how good or bad a writer is at something, I wouldn’t even think of trying to prevent them from trying new things, or even old things they have so far been no good at. If they find an audience to connect to that way, so much the better for them. If not, they still might have benefited from the attempt. I often feel that when people react negatively to a writer or a piece of fiction, it is not so much the work itself that they react to as it is the reception that that work found. It shows how widespread (or narrowspread) certain sensitivities are in society at large. And let’s face it — when it comes to race there aren’t very many highly sensitive societies at large out there.

  5. As a white woman who lives in Hawaii, I am living the experience of being a minority while still in America. However, since it is still a US state, I am a member of the majority in the context of the larger Western Culture (and, often more divisive, a member of the upper middle class). So I feel like I can’t presume to know what it is like to be Hawaiian or asian or some mixture (as the majority of other residents are), since I haven’t lived it, even when it’s all around me. But I do feel like it has given me a unique perspective on these other cultures, since I am living immersed in it, as opposed to those who live somewhere that they observe the minority cultures from the outside.

    Thank you for your article, and I will keep it in mind as I write my story. Luckily I have a number of close friends from varied backgrounds who have agreed to share their stories and help proof my writing. I hope with their help I can stay authentic.

  6. Nate

    First off, I am a white man and I am married to a third-generation Asian woman. I have many friends of other races (groan) and I have lived overseas, but I never really committed much thought to race issues (beyond “I’m not a racist!”) until my wife became pregnant, i.e. until I had to. So I’m don’t feel righteous in the least, embarrassed certainly, but I am genuinely seeking understanding here, which I hope counts for something.

    If by “White Culture” (bristle), we mean white –Christian, urban/suburban, upper-middle class, educated, consumerist– culture, then I completely agree with you, writers of minority races should have no problem at all relating to that. The primary reason being that in America one must navigate within White Culture for several years in order to access the education needed to become a serious writer. Also, because those people (not necessarily white and/or Christians, but usually everything else) are the ones writing, reading, and buying books and lit mags. Does that mean you’ll ever be comfortable within or totally accepted into White Culture? Probs not, obviously.

    That being said, I’ve seen writers of all colors completely miss the mark when it comes to the other white culture, i.e. “my” white culture (the one that can’t name one lit mag and knows how lay-away works.) It may not be obvious to all readers, but it is to someone who’s lived it. I have even taken to deriding first-person stories of this kind as “Tourists” (Look at what I stubbled into!) and “Missionaries” (Thank God I’m here to set them straight!) –so it seems that I’m unconsciously co-opting other’s cultural mythos, typical white male behavior, but there it is.

    I think we agree that it is more a matter of disrespect, i.e. the lack of due effort, than the lack of understanding that is the problem. For instance, I’d never expect you to write kick-ass Rust Belt realism a la Bonnie Jo Campbell, any more than I’d expect you to move to SW Michigan and build go-carts for a living, but if you did want to write those stories, I’d expect you to do whatever you needed to do to get them right. Of course, I, too, should be held to that standard when I write about another race or culture.

    Or perhaps, it’s not so simple. There is one important aspect of all of this that you’ve hinted at, I’m sure M gets, but that cannot be overlooked and that is my, i.e. the white man’s, knowledge of the long, long, long history of literary wrongs perpetrated by the white man.

    Ever since your post about white men submitting to minority lit mags (a year or so ago?), I’ve been taking it to heart and pushing myself to write outside of my race and/or gender. CZ, I’ve been scared shirtless the whole time, and not just my usual “this is no damn good and I should go work at a Tire Barn” scared, but “if this dickish Native American character makes it into print, then Sherman Alexie is going to beat my white ass into pixie dust” scared. Keep in mind my first reader is my wife and I am utterly safe in her confidence, but even then I’m never really sure that it’s okay, that everyone will take it the right way, that I, the white man, am allowed do this.

    Speaking of, Have you read Adam Johnson’s novel about North Korea? I like his stories and was going to check it out. Just curious if you could give it a thumbs up.

    Damn, that was long! Sorry, CZ.

    • I haven’t yet read Adam Johnson’s novel yet–there was some hubbub about that book, and since then my brain went kaput (my reading place has become glacial). I will get to it, I know.

      I think it’s totally cool when writers push boundaries and our own comfort zones. When we are aware of doing so is half the journey.

      • Nate

        Ah, the brain kaputs! I read a lot of paperback mysteries during them days. I think my mom was churning over Stephen Kings and Daniel Steels for 10 – 15 years or so (five kids).

        Yeah, it’s been freeing in a way, and tough. I definitely think a lot about what race does to a story (and everything else) and that’s been fun to experiment with. I just wish I knew I was bringing every reader along with me, perhaps when I’m better at the job that will be clearer.

  7. When I was a teenager, I wrote a story from the POV of a character of another race. It won a local award and the local newspaper sent a reporter to interview me. It had occurred to me that they might have assumed *I* shared my character’s race, and in fact maybe this was even partially why they wanted to interview me — in my white bread hometown, this could have been significant to them, who knows. I of course have no confirmation and it’s a complete assumption, but this made me kind of uncomfortable even then. In retrospect, the story was not such a bad attempt, especially for a 15-year-old — there was nothing over-the-top about race that I can remember and it was fairly subtle — but I never forgot wondering, in those initial moments when the reporter and photographer came to my school, if they had to quickly reframe their story once they realized they were meeting with a white girl. I felt like I had done something wrong (but it hadn’t felt wrong to me to write the story) and it was all so confusing to me.

  8. I try to be aware of what my limitations are (which changes over time, of course). For example, I’m very comfortable writing female characters in third person limited, but I’m not sure I could do it in first person. So, I don’t. 🙂

    I generally write about a world where race doesn’t matter, and in a lot of cases I don’t reveal characters’ race right away (I’m pushing very gently against the fact that many readers assume all characters are white and straight unless clearly specified otherwise).

    Oh, and I agree completely about Topic Thunder. I thought that was a very sharp satire on this specific question. (In movies, the opposite point of view is represented by Kill Bill, Vol. 1, which is basically an argument that you _can_ master another culture and race if you work hard enough.)

  9. A.

    Boy, is this a complicated discussion (in the academic sense, that one has complicated a topic).

    There are so many ways people have tried writing characters that they can’t, hm, embody. Race and gender are probably the easiest to screw up, from the writer’s own lack of research, sensitivity, or *trying*, to, at the other end, the experience the reader brings to the text, especially the legit “you don’t get to say that” reaction.

    It’s interesting how much more fraught race and gender are, even though the same challenge crops up in all writing. The less-fraught examples seem to hint that it might be *possible* to write well from the POV of another race. For example, it’s okay, but still hard, to have never worked with your hands but write from the POV of a union plumber. It’s okay, but still hard, for childless writers to write from the POV of a parent.

    The difference between those two examples and race and gender seem to be twofold. Plumbing and parenthood are (usually) choices, while it seems less acceptable to write about something someone else had no choice about. And there’s the level of perceived otherness, a kind of spectrum. A white writer writing from a black POV seems prima facie offensive, because the perceived otherness is so very, very other. (The white writer and black character could have everything else in common–gender, class, education–but it would still give us pause.) A white, immigration activist writer in El Paso writing from a Jaurez POV runs the same risk, because the perceived otherness is still so strong. But what’s our reaction when a white American Catholic writer is writing a WWII novel set in Poland, from the POV of a Polish Catholic main character, when, in chapter 5, the Pole discovers he’s Jewish? We get that knot in our stomach, but we also ask ourselves, “This is already a great character. It’s not okay for the writer to make that turn?”

    Or put another way, is there a Trojan horse technique available where a writer establishes their bona fides for writing a good character and *then* writes a fleshed-out “other” character? I wouldn’t think it would avoid some of the same problems, but it seems like a legit option to mitigate their negative effects.

    And, in a totally different model, does it work to write the “other” by distributing authorship? Greek epics do a good job of honoring non-Greeks, but there’s no one author to question. Characters are often abstracted stand-ins for universal human experiences, but no one ever said, “Please, centuries of Greek oral storytellers, you don’t know what it’s like to be Trojan.”

  10. I have to agree with you. I’m always horrified when someone tries to write from a point of view they don’t understand. That is just bad writing in general. I’ve seen it in movies too. I’m from New Orleans, and I’m always horrified by they way they make us all look like old southerners from a Margret Mitchell novel…but I digress. I think it is a crime against identity to misrepresent anything (this includes places as well as people). That is simply the danger of fiction, and a responsible writer will be aware of this danger.

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