Full Disclosure: This title is riffed on Dr. Christopher Emdin’s amazing book, For White Folks Who Teach In The Hood (and the Rest of Y’all Too), which you should read now. Like, right now.
“So, if I’m white, can I only write white characters?”
This is a paraphrased question I’ve seen and heard a lot over the past few weeks. “White” can be substituted for lots of different aspects of identity: men writing women, straight and/or cis people writing as members of the LGBTQ+ community, etc.
It’s not a new query– it’s a long-standing debate, but with the controversy surrounding American Dirt (which is discussed more here, here, and the pieces that best resonate with my feelings here and here), it has come up more and more. Should writers attempt to tell stories from characters that they do not share the background of?
And my gut reaction, to be frank, is no. Of course, that’s not my whole answer, because the situation is actually much more nuanced than a simple “no” implies. There are, no doubt, authors who have written wonderful characters who had vastly different backgrounds than they did. There is no hard-and-fast rule with this.
The place my “no” comes from isn’t a desire to restrict who can write what, but rather a story of hurt, frustration, and sadness. It comes from my own experiences as a reader and writer. It comes from my perspective as a Mexicana-Filipina-American, with all the beauty and hardship that entails. It has to do with two important aspects all writers (and people) should consider: authenticity and power.
If someone is going to write about a community they don’t come from, it has to be authentic. It has to reflect the actual, powerful, and nuanced stories that comes from any place or people. A novel that feels like it combined and repackaged a number of the same hackneyed tropes of Latinx people and concepts of “The Border” does not ring as authentic. A novel about Mexicans in a border town that felt inauthentic to many Mexicans and Chicanx readers should be a sign that perhaps the author’s story didn’t actually represent the people she claimed she wanted to.
The thing is, it’s really difficult to be authentic about something that you haven’t actually experienced. You can try to research and listen as much as you want, but actually being from and living in a community or culture will lead to a perspective that is honestly difficult to capture with research. It’s not impossible, but it’s really hard to do authentically. It’s hard to fully capture all the shades, subtleties, and layers of a situation when you only see it from the outside. It’s difficult to grasp the full context and history of a world when you were not involved in the creation or experience of living in it.
Which leads to our second, bigger problem: power.
Someone could write a story that, while inauthentic, is still seen as a great read. While that may not seem problematic, we don’t live in a vacuum. Because we still live in a white dominant society, we are more likely to advance, market, and accept ideas from white voices instead of writers of color. The publishing world is still incredibly white and the books that are bought, packaged, and marketed are still overwhelmingly white.
If readers are more likely to accept white voices, it means that stories about historically disenfranchised and underrepresented communities are more likely to be received when they come from white names. Society often accepts a secondary source’s narrative instead of reaching for the primary source voices who have actually lived that story.
Frankly, an outsider perspective is more likely to be inauthentic, yet white outsiders stand a better chance to be published and praised. So, the rest of the world gets to read and then believe that inauthentic narrative– tropes, stereotypes and all– instead of the perhaps more complex reality a community may really face. Because the majority of our stories are told by people that lack the lived experience, there is nothing to counteract these clichés. Inauthenticities are not just annoying byproducts of shallow storytelling, but instead become the very problematic beliefs that we internalize about an entire people, culture, or place.
Furthermore, most writers of color (myself included) can tell you a story where their name or identity automatically made their writing viewed as “niche” or “[Ethnicity] Lit.” Whether or not we want to admit it, the belief prevails that readers are more likely to see “Jeanine Cummins” as an author they think will speak to them instead of, say, “Reyna Grande.” We still live in a world where having a white name is more likely to get you an interview of any kind. What does it mean when the people at the top are mostly thinking about whether that name, splashed across covers and marketing materials, will “sell”? Power affects not just what stories are told about communities of color, but who is able to profit from telling them. Profit dictates trends, trends dictate public interest, public interest leads to profit– the cogs of the machine roll on and crushes the voices of people of color underneath it.
So, when I am asked, “Can white writers write non-white characters?”, my negative gut reaction comes from growing up in a world where I was given a cheesy narrative like Puerto Vallarta Squeeze long before I actually saw myself in a piece of writing at age 16. My reaction comes from understanding the pain my friends, who also failed to see themselves in the stories they were given, felt.
My reaction isn’t about restriction, it’s about pushing the person asking to consider their place in the scope of authenticity and power. What does it mean when a white person is more likely to get the chance to tell a person of color’s story? What doors opened for them because of their whiteness? If they walk through that door, whose space might they take and thus profit from once they enter?
For white folks who want to write our stories (and the rest of us too), I hope you ask yourself if your work will fully center and share the complex voices coming from the communities you claim to represent. If not, it is merely taking the easy-to-digest sound bytes and packaging them as truths that will unfortunately play on an overpowering loop that drowns out the real people living in the world you stole.