Writing What You Don’t Know: Diversity as a White Author

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Lots of people are talking about diversity in publishing these days. I see a huge #WeNeedDiverseBooks banner on the wall when I walk to the office in my son’s school. Kindergartners now read books about women who code, boys who wear dresses, and princesses who style their hair into afros. The #dvpit Twitter event showcases traditionally marginalized and underrepresented writers. All over, I see folks trying to shift the demographics of publishing closer to the demographics of our world.

I also see some white writers wondering where that leaves us. And I want to be clear: diversity isn’t a trend. It’s a realistic portrayal of the world around us. For example, a writer friend of mine sets many of her stories in Arizona. She always includes Native American and Hispanic characters. This isn’t diversity for its own sake. An all-white cast would erase many of the cultures who call that land home.

However, being a fiction writer doesn’t give us a license to write from any perspective we choose. While you shouldn’t ignore traditionally marginalized people in your writing, you also need to avoid overstepping.

Don’t assume every character should be straight, white, and able-bodied unless proven otherwise.

Our mindset plays a huge role in the characters we write. Most novelists will tell you, we know a lot more about our characters than ever makes it onto the page. To make a character feel believable, we need to draw from a rich, complex backstory.

With that in mind, challenge your perception of normal: your default setting, if you will. If you describe color in your setting, avoid terms like nude or flesh-colored when you really mean beige. And be careful when you mention characters’ skin color. If we only describe the appearance of non-white people in our fiction, it perpetuates a habit of normalizing whiteness while noticing and commenting on anyone Other.

Likewise, don’t make a character’s minority status the most interesting — or the only — thing readers know about them. I’ve never met a white, heterosexual, cisgender person who defines themselves only by those descriptors. People want to be known for their interests, their work, and their character traits, not just their biology.

Avoid using stereotypes as shorthand.

As you write with the above advice in mind, you may catch yourself using a character’s minority status as a shorthand. A way to imply a stereotypical backstory or set of attitudes. Don’t do this.

While we tend to focus on diversity we can see with our eyes, it’s equally important to write the diversity we can’t see. Our mental health, skin color, sexual orientation, and gender do not give us a predictable set of traits. While these qualities certainly inform people’s life experiences, never assume they tell you who a person is.

Give all your characters a rich backstory with a few surprises thrown in. Diversity isn’t a selling point or a prop in your fiction. It should contribute to your stories in a way that makes them feel more complex and believable, not less.

Make sure you’re the right person to tell this story.

Some people believe a white writer should never write a non-white main character. Valid points exist on both sides of this debate. However, be aware that writing stories outside your own experience can expose you to accusations of cultural appropriation.

Imagine a book like The Hate U Give coming from a white writer. It’s hard to ignore the historical and cultural context of a privileged person profiting from a story about such brutality and oppression. Some stories are not ours to tell.

Regardless of the story, we also need to remember that despite recent efforts, underrepresentation in publishing remains a very real problem. Not everyone will accept protagonists from historically marginalized groups written by authors outside those groups. These stories raise the question of why we’re maintaining the status quo instead of promoting work by writers with firsthand knowledge.

If you’re unsure, take a moment to put yourself in your characters’ shoes. Would you feel comfortable if someone wrote about you that way? And do your research. Often that means enlisting beta readers from the group you’re writing about to help you catch your missteps. Don’t be afraid to ask for this kind of help and feedback. It’ll make your story more complex, more believable, and more appealing to a wide range of readers.

 Image by rawpixel from Pixabay

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About Author

Jaclyn Paul is a fiction writer and blogger based in Baltimore. You might know her from The ADHD Homestead, where she writes about building a good life and a peaceful home with adult ADHD. She's also a staff blogger for INKITT and author of the book Order from Chaos – The Everyday Grind of Staying Organized with Adult ADHD. Her writing has appeared online in Offbeat Families, The Write Life, ADDResources, Better Novel Project, and ADHD Roller Coaster.

5 Comments

  1. this is ridiculous. a “white” author?? Why is it that only “white” writers need help with “diversity” do black writers need hand-holding to write white characters?

    • As a white author myself, that’s the perspective it felt appropriate for me to take. There are certainly hazards to writing outside your own cultural experience no matter what, but to answer your question: no, I don’t think it’s as important to educate black authors on writing white characters, queer authors on writing straight characters, etc.

      In mainstream American society, which provides a hub for much of the publishing world, we have a history of under-representing or outright silencing/oppressing certain groups. The onus falls on the more privileged to correct this. Marginalized groups don’t need an education (or what you refer to as hand-holding) on how to be sensitive to those in power here because the people in power control the messaging.

      • Heather Rigney on

        Dear Jaclyn,

        Your article is poignant, current, and speaks to the work I’m doing right now.

        Also, you answered the above comment beautifully. As a fellow white female author, I fully recognize my privilege and make daily strides to realize the role I need to play. People of color and other minority groups (that are not white) do not need any aid in recognizing what it means to be white. The world we sadly live in constantly reminds them that they are not white.

        Therefore, I say to the anonymous commenter above whom I assume is white since you didn’t leave a photo or a name, what are you doing to create equity and diversity in your writing? What are you doing to make the world a better place?

        I suggest that you, commenter, check out this post, http://laylafsaad.com/meandwhitesupremacy-workbook It was extremely helpful to me and I hope it could help you as well.

        Peace, love, and donuts …

  2. I follow articles like this with intense interest. I’m mostly finished writing a story that has a central character totally unlike myself. She’s a 14 year old Somali refugee who has recently moved to a small town in rural South Carolina. I don’t know about other authors, but I rarely set out to write a story “about” a particular character. My characters usually come to me fully formed, as this one did. That said, the story is told via multiple POVs and the others are more like myself. All the POV characters’ stories intersect with this young girl’s. I didn’t sit down and decide to write a story about a Somali refugee and it certainly wasn’t done to write a story with a diverse cast. The story couldn’t exist without this character and she simply came to me. It’s not cultural appropriation because the culture is more southern in nature and I am a member of that demographic. I’ve done research, and continue to do so, and I intend to employ sensitivity readers. I hope to be able to present this story in such a way as to not be labeled as an “appropriator.”

  3. Lael Dorociak-Lehman on

    How do I write from a character’s gender outside my own? I’m having difficulty defining the thought process of the male character who’s POV I sometimes write in. Do you have any suggestions?

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