A lot of white people in the US don’t know they’re white. They think they just are, they think they are the default setting.
Am I talking about you? Might be. Are you white? Do you realize how relatively easy your life has been when compared to people from non-Caucasian backgrounds? Do you understand the phrase “white privilege?”
If the answer to that last question is “not sure or “no,” do yourself a favor and read this classic essay by Peggy McIntosh.
White people have had a whole lot of blood on their hands for the last four hundred years. It is not my intent to address that right now. I want to focus on storytelling. Specifically, white writers writing outside their (dominant) culture.
This brings up the larger question: whose story can you tell?
How should we write about people whose experience is different than ours? Is it appropriate to write from the perspective of a different gender, a different sexual orientation? What about religion? What about age? What about someone from a different ethnic background or culture or country?
I believe the answer is yes.
I believe that artists are called to be humble and lower their own sense of self so that they can be open to the experience of others and transform that into their art.
I believe that artists are called to lead the culture, not to wait until it’s safe to take a stand.
Researching the experiences of other people means checking your assumptions at the door. You need to seek out primary sources that were composed and controlled by the people you seek. You must study the broader world of your character so that when you come across “facts” you can analyze them within the context of their time and space, and with a critical view toward the source of the data. You have to be willing to approach people who know more than you do and ask for their guidance and help. And you must listen to them.
We read to understand people whose lives are different than our own. Some writers will feel called to write about people who are unlike themselves.
You can do it, but you must do it with humility, respect, and a lot more research than you realize.
There are two bloggers you simply must read if you are thinking about writing characters from non-white backgrounds. The first is Debbie Reese, who is tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo. A former professor in American Indian Studies, Debbie is currently working on a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science with the goal of establishing a library and tribal archive at Nambe. Her wonderful blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature looks at the way Native Americans are portrayed and represented in children’s literature.
Her blog is a wealth of information. To start, check out “Authenticity and Sensitivity: Goals for writing and reviewing books with Native American themes,” which she wrote for School Library Journal.
The other blogger is my friend and wonderful author, Mitali Perkins. You should be reading her blog anyway, if you want to publish for children. But her posts Ten Tips About Writing Race In Novels and her “writing race checklist” are very good tools.
Sci-fi and fantasy author Nisi Shawl has a great post, Transracial Writing for the Sincere. And the almighty and ever-amazing Cynthia Leitich Smith (yes, she of one of the best children’s literature websites out there) wrote an “It’s Complicated” post about writing outside your culture.