Vote 2020 graphic
Everything you need to know about and expect during
the most important election of our lifetimes

White Writer, Black Characters: Bad Idea?

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."

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

Previously in Race Manners: "Doggie Racism Is Real! Here's How to Deal"

Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter