White Writer, Black Characters: Bad Idea?

Race Manners: You won't please everyone, but real-life relationships might make your stories more than stereotypes.

Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Alison Janney and Kathryn Stockett from the movie The Help (AFP/Getty Images)
Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Alison Janney and Kathryn Stockett from the movie The Help (AFP/Getty Images)

(The Root) —

“I’m a well-known writer of women’s fiction. I want to incorporate black characters into my books. How does a white woman write black women correctly? For example, is it disrespectful to have a black woman have a bit of a thing for white men? What’s the best way to introduce a black female character in a book? Do I write something like, ‘Despite being African American, Carissa found blond men attractive’? Or something like, ‘Right or wrong, Carissa loved white boys and had picked one out to take home with her’?

“There’s a sad dearth of people of color in romantic fiction. I doubt it’s racism. I think it’s mainly because so many white writers, like me, simply don’t know how to get it right, so we stay in our comfort zone. Any advice?” –Too White to Write?

If, by saying you want to write black women “correctly,” you mean “in a way that’s guaranteed not to inspire any complaints, constructive critiques or outright criticism,” you should probably just stick to your genre’s safely monochromatic cast of characters.

After all, views on depictions of black women in media are as diverse as their audiences. We aren’t all alike, and our assessments of whether your book should be awarded a Nobel Prize or used for kindling won’t be, either.

Of course, you’re right to anticipate heightened sensitivity surrounding the characters you’re contemplating, and that’s with good reason. Quick background reading assignment: Iconic: Decoding Images of the Revolutionary Black Woman. In it, author Lakesia Johnson chronicles how figures from Sojourner Truth to Gabby Douglas have had to counteract media-fueled negative stereotypes thrust upon them (angry, emasculating, Mammy and sex object, to name a few).

You’re probably familiar with those tropes, and with reactions to works like Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, the novel-turned-blockbuster film about African-American maids working in Mississippi in the 1960s.

“Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers,” the Association of Black Women Historians said in a scathing statement in response to the film, adding that it “makes light of black women’s fears and vulnerabilities turning them into moments of comic relief.”

To be fair, black writers don’t get a pass here, either. The ABC series Scandal, brought to us by Shonda Rhimes (and currently causing between-seasons withdrawal symptoms among plenty of African-American viewers), has been accused of “send[ing] the message through its high-powered protagonist that black women don’t deserve loving and healthy relationships,” and “continuing perpetuation of the stereotype of a black woman whose libido and sexual urges are so pronounced that even with an education and a great job, and all these other things, she can’t control herself.”