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)

And there’s not even room to get into all the ubiquitous teardowns of the work of Tyler Perry. As the Washington Post’s Vanessa Williams put it very diplomatically, his “films are often criticized for their cartoonish depiction of African-American life and, especially, his depiction of black women as either abused, struggling beings who are rescued by good men or ambitious shrews who are brought low by bad men.” Plenty of others take it a step further and call his portrayals flat-out “dangerous.”

Clearly, there’s no box to check and no source of permission that will guarantee your work doesn’t offend a single reader. But does that mean you should abandon your interest in making black women your protagonists and even — gasp — protagonists who are attracted to white men? (I can assure you, that’s probably not as controversial as you think it is, Scandal being one example.) 

No way, says Marita Golden, author of a dozen works of fiction and nonfiction, including Skin Deep: Black Women and White Women Write About Race. “White people, because of the emotional legacy as well as the historical and political legacy of racism, often feel that they do not have access to the black soul and the black spirit,” she told me, “but I think writers have the right to write about anything.” In fact, she said, “I really feel that white people should write about black characters.”

But the key is that “comfort zone” you mention. You have to get there well before you put pen to paper.

The best way for you to do that, said Golden, is to “stop saying to yourself, ‘I’m writing about a black woman.’ Just write about a woman.”

Easier said than done, surely. That’s the reason “write what you know” is a literary cliché. And also the reason that Girls creator Lena Dunham decided to skip including women of color in her show altogether (she stopped short of renaming the show White Girls as some have recommended), telling NPR in 2012 that “there has to be specificity to that experience [that] I wasn’t able to speak to.”

So here’s a start. Develop relationships that will allow you to become confident that can begin to speak to that experience, because you know African-American women as individuals. “Usually, white people who write meaningful books with black characters, they do have black people in their lives who they know deeply and respect,” said Golden. To be clear, that’s “as friends, not as research. Serious, meaningful, complete friendships with black people.”

This is your first step toward allowing your new characters to emerge more naturally. Not as science projects, in which you’re cautiously throwing in different ingredients and trying to predict the public reaction. And not through some sort of literary quota system. But by keeping their individual dilemmas, not demographics, in the front of your mind as their stories evolve. By seeing them as humans as complex as your real-life friends.

“Once you’re ready to write a story that doesn’t start with labels and stereotypes,” Golden said, “don’t worry about race, and don’t worry about the reception of readers. Just write.”

The Root’s staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life — and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter. 

Need race-related advice? Send your questions to racemanners@theroot.com.

Previously in Race Manners: “Doggie Racism Is Real! Here’s How to Deal

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