There’s a question that frequently crops up within white-centric writing circles. “I’m white. How can I write a character who isn’t white? Won’t I do a bad job? Won’t it be inauthentic?”
Left unstated within this question is the true concern, “Won’t people experience my characters of colour, and realize that I don’t know what I’m talking about? That I don’t even know what I don’t know? Won’t they think I’m racist?”
I get it. I’m white people. I know that we’re more afraid of being perceived as racist than we are of hurting people with our racism. So I’ll tell my fellow white folks now: Being told that you did something racist, even being told that you are a racist, is not the end of the world. That doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to do racist things, or that we shouldn’t feel bad when we do, but we need to be taking these times when someone has the patience to engage with us and tell us that we’re being racist as moments where we can learn and grow. If someone is stopping you to say, “that’s not okay,” they’re extending the benefit of the doubt to you that you care and want to be better. That’s not the end of the world; it’s the beginning of your opportunity to grow.
Now hold on, this isn’t the part where you get to badger the person who spoke up on how you can improve. They’ve done their part. Seriously, I can hear the “Okay, well then what do I do???” lingering on the tip of your tongue. Swallow it, apologise, promise to do better, and then do your research so you be better.
“But Rosalind, how do I know I’m getting the right resources? How do I find the right answers?” That’s a good question (to direct at a white person, not to demand from a person of color). It can be tricky to find vetted resources, and while Google is free, Google is also how you can find conspiracy theories, bad twitter takes, and cherrypicked or misquoted examples of black people saying that race doesn’t matter and we shouldn’t discuss it. As a white person who isn’t personally harmed by discussions on race, I try not to tell people just to google something unless I know what they’ll find. And so, I’ll give you what you asked for as best I can. Resources. The “right” ones, inasmuch as a white person can be trusted to vet those. They’re resources I picked up on how to craft characters of color, most of them given to me by friends of color.
The list is below, but first: Please do try to write outside your comfort zone. Please try to write characters that aren’t your own demographics, and please be ready to screw up monumentally, and please be ready to accept criticism. It’s going to hurt, but it’s going to hurt your readers of color more to not ever see you write people like them. For them.
Final note, I do think it’s important to note that you’re never going to write a black character better than a black author, for example. There’s good reason for #ownvoices to be a movement, and just because we’re trying to prioritize writers of color doesn’t mean your story is invalid, or that you can’t be supportive by having characters of color. Think of it like priority boarding on an airplane. They get to board first, but it’s not like that stops you from flying in general. Planes are pretty big.
Anyways, the resources:
So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo
The first book I want to share isn’t writing specific, but I do think it’s a fantastic introduction to how to discuss race (and even includes a section on how you will screw it up, and how it will suck, and how it’s not the end of the world). After all, our writing is discussion. We aren’t just writing a character with certain visual features. We’re writing people with lives and motivations, and we want them to feel real, and not reinforce stereotypes, and not hurt our readers. You can’t separate your character having a race from discussing race, so it’s best to learn how to discuss it right.
Available on paperback at Bookshop.org, Blackwells, and as an ebook off Amazon. (I’m going to try to not recommend Amazon when I can help it, but if fast delivery is what you need to read about race, go for it)
Writing The Other, by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward
This is one that I can’t personally vouch for, but it is one I’ve had recommended. It’s full of exercises and education specifically for writers facing this conundrum of “how do I write someone who is marginalized in the ways I am not?” I have started reading it, so perhaps look for a more detailed review in the future. For the record, this is not just a book on writing race, but writing any character is “other” to you. Sexuality, gender, etc.
There is also a website for writing the other, which curates its own resources (including classes and workshops!). Definitely check it out here, which is also where you can find the book in various formats and from various stores.
How To Draw Black People, by Malik Shabazz
This one might come off as an odd recommendation for authors, but from what I’ve heard it’s a good resource for understanding visual characteristics as well as stereotypes. It’s actually one that I hadn’t been able to find a copy of for the longest time– apparently UK Amazon doesn’t carry it– but as I compiled this list I discovered that there is a digital edition available for purchase. There’s also a physical edition available in the same store. I’m definitely grabbing my copy as soon as I finish this blog post, because as a visual artist as well as a writer, I’ve wanted its knowledge for a long time.
Basically, if you want a resource for creating visual descriptions of characters that are both accurate and sensitive to stereotyping, I bet this book can help. I originally found it as a resource linked in a discussion on how white people color black people’s palms to be the same colour as skin in other areas, when that’s… not how skin pigmentation works. So if you’re worried you might make a similar not-knowing-what-you-don’t-know error in your character’s depicition, there ya go.
(A full review will likely follow this post once I have a chance to read it!)
Writing With Color on tumblr
Writing with Color is a tumblr blog that has a PLETHORA of resources on how to write people of color. It’s an amazing resource that I personally frequent. If you’re familiar with books like The Emotion Thesaurus, I honestly feel like they’re comparable in how helpful they are. Tired of describing your dark-skinned character’s skin as “dark”, but know you’re not supposed to use food-comparisons? Check out this enormously helpful post. (also, yeah, don’t use food and coffee and such to describe a person’s skin. That’s discussed at length on the tumblr, but it’s worth emphasizing). Or maybe you want a complete profile of a person of color to acquire more understanding? You’ll want the POC profiles. Seriously, it’s an amazing resource that every writen needs bookmarked. And being a blog and not a book, it’s free.
A sensitivity reader
This feels like a cop out on my end, but sensitivity readers are a fantastic resource. After you’ve read your books, done your character specific research, and tried your damnedest to make a three-dimensional non-stereotypical character, your sensitivity reader will let you know what issues have still slipped through the cracks.
They do cost money to hire. That’s pretty non-negotiable. You’re asking someone to expose themself to potential bigotry so that you don’t have to risk hurting other people down the line. And you’re asking them to tell you nicely what you’ve done wrong. That costs money, full stop.
I do have some recommendations for sensitivity readers: specifically, Salt & Sage Books host a whole crew of sensitivity readers. I had a fantastic experience having my first book edited by them, and I will be trying out their sensitivity readers in the future, and I’d highly recommend you do as well.