Should a Black Writer Write White Characters?

Race Manners: While some of your concerns as a young African-American writer may be legitimate, don’t let fear keep you from telling your stories.

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Dear Race Manners:

I’m a young black woman, a recent college graduate and aspiring writer, but I'm paralyzed by concerns about race that are keeping me from beginning my book: Is it wrong that I see the main character as white? Is that OK? If I make the character white, am I pioneering a new avenue for blacks, or am I perpetuating the idea that white is better than black? Do I make the character black because I’m black?

These are followed by: If I make them black, will that diminish my chances of being published? Does that thought make me a traitor to my race? Does it make me like that woman pushing skin bleaching? What if I don’t describe the character racewise? Would the publishing company put a black person on the cover because I’m black? Would they lump my book in the “African American” category even though there is no definitive proof that the main character is black, but because I’m black? There’s nothing wrong with the “African American” category, except that because it is purposefully named such, I feel that it doesn’t get as much traffic or notice as a book written by a white person in a general category.

I usually end this brain torture and my book idea with, What if I write them as white, but I use a pen name? And if I did take that road, would I be encouraging other black authors to stay in the shadows and hide their brilliance?

Am I a crazy, neurotic person, or do my fears have a basis? Where do I go from here? —Confused, Conflicted and Bemused

No, I wouldn't say you're crazy. You're not the first black author to contemplate what your main character's race will mean for your ability to tell a good story or for your career. And many writers have pointed out how silly (and damaging to sales) it is that black authors as different from one another as James Baldwin and Zane are often lumped together in the "African American" section.

But the very first thought in your question was, "Is it wrong that I see my characters as white?" so I'm guessing that's your primary concern.

And the answer is no. In fact, says Marita Golden, an award-winning novelist and author of more than a dozen works of fiction and nonfiction, we need authors to cross racial lines. And keep in mind that you wouldn't be doing anything new if you did. "Whites do it all the time and feel entitled to do so. They feel that they can lay claim to everyone's story and tell it well," Golden says.

She told me to encourage you to simply "tell the story you want to tell." Start from there, and then if the character turns out have a racial identity that isn't yours, go with it. After all, you may be black, but you've grown up in and been educated in America-–an experience that, almost by definition, means you have had a pretty good peek into the experiences of white people. These will inform your story and your character's identity. Because you're cross-culturally literate, it's not as if you'll be making these narratives up out of thin air (as white authors have sometimes been accused of doing when attempting to depict the black experience).

For inspiration, Golden says to think about and read writers such as Percival Everett, whose experimentation with nonracial characters in his books and short stories has been well-received. And there's The Returned writer Jason Mott, who told NPR that none of his characters even had racial identities until "very late in the editing process." (The Returned is the inspiration for ABC’s hot new show Resurrection.)

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