Episode 146: White Writers, Diverse Characters

On June 5th, Kasie and Rex took on the topic of writing characters outside of their own white, hetero experience. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day(s)

Diversity, inclusivity, and writing outside of your own experience

Agenda

  • Indie Bookstore Mention
  • SCWA upcoming events
  • Writing People of Color (POC) characters
  • How to do it (sort of)
Photo by fotografierende on Pexels.com

Link to the podcast

Segment 1

So in June we’re going to be giving you some Independent Bookstore names, locations, and other fun details. We’re starting the month with The Liberty Book Company in Rock Hill. It’s on Oakland Avenue, near Winthrop University. They’re closed on Sundays but run regular hours the rest of the week, 10 a.m. until 7 p.m. Go visit them and let them know we sent you. Support independent bookstores!

I loaded up some more podcast episodes this week. We have 90 episodes out there for your replay enjoyment. Most of our downloads are coming from Amazon Music and Apple Podcasts, so you can find them there apparently. If you’re listening to the podcast, please give us a rating. The more ratings we have, the easier it will be for others to find us. Please and thanks.

Today’s topic is about the blog I wrote for SCWA’s Cola II chapter in response to a recent discussion with a board member friend. Let me tell you about the conversation with Len and then we can pull apart what it means for writers.

The resource he shared with me was this one and from this one, I found this one and this one. Some compelling questions like:

  • Can white authors write characters of color?
  • Do white authors avoid putting persons of color in their work? If so, why?
  • Does the adage “write what you know” apply here?

Segment 2

The SCWA is back in action on Tuesdays at noon. It’s the Summer Series of Writing Conversations workshops. You can register for them here. They’re free and open to the public when they’re live. But recordings can only be accessed by members of the SCWA. Join for just $56 and get access to all of the Writing Conversations that have come before, about a dozen 1-hour workshops just waiting for you to view and learn from. That alone is worth the $56 rate. Writing Conversations are made possible by the SC Humanities.

On June 15th I’ll be leading the Writing Conversations, looking at Writerly Goals again. I led that goal setting session in January and so we’ll be doing a mid-year check in. Where are you with yours?

Also on June 15th, I’m the featured author at Words & Wine, the Columbia-area meet-up for writers and readers. They’ve moved to a Zoom format which is more convenient and we still encourage beverages, so that’s fun. You can register for that event here. It’s at 6 p.m. on June 15th.

Finally, June 8th is the release of Signe Pike’s newest book, The Forgotten Kingdom.  I did a great interview with her for the YouTube channel. You can watch it here. It’ll be live on Tuesday.

***

We’re talking about white writers and characters of color (mostly) but it’s not just color that trips up authors creating characters. Sometimes it’s sexual orientation, political perspectives, professions, and even origins (city, country, state).

When writers write outside of their own experience, where do they get the information they need to make the writing authentic?

Research is key, crucial. We depend a lot on Google for things like the weather in a certain city, even the map of Kansas I used to identify the town and the nearby reservoir. So, sure, we sometimes write about places we’ve never been. We fictionalize those places.

But ethnicity, race, and sexual identity are different. You can’t just Google, “How do Black people talk?” and get the cadence, the vocabulary, or the inflection for a Black character.

Some research is about knowing these people. Does that mean you can’t write an Asian character if you don’t know any Asian people? Kind of. Because if you use movies or TV to understand them, you’re just soaking yourself in the established cliches and stereotypes.

Can you read them? Yes. Sort of.

Segment 3

The biggest mistakes authors make when writing outside of their own experience is …

  • Adding diverse characters simply for the sake of diversity
  • Relying on second-hand experience to describe the character’s experience
  • Reverting to cliches and stereotypes
  • Attempting dialect 
  • “Whitesplaining” or white voices lecturing on what should and should not be considered racist (example here)

In case listeners think this is a recent topic, or something that’s only bubbling up because of George Floyd and last year’s protests and riots, just about every link in here is from 2015 and 2016. So the conversation has been going on for at least five years.

What should publishing do?

What should authors do?

What should readers do?

How important is a diverse cast in a book? Should it be an early consideration in your writing?

Segment 4

This is typically our “how-to” and we have a lot of advice on this from the blogs linked here. Some writers, like this one, are going to focus on white POV characters to examine the whiteness of their experience; he says some white writers think they can only work with the topic of race with a POC point of view.

So how can your white POV characters work with the topic of race without committing that “enlightened” problem Len identified? Without forcing POC characters into the scaffolding role, the position of teaching our white POV what the Black experience is like?

Make your POC characters authentic: give them backstory, ambition, quirks, habits, depth

Read more books by authors of color:

Get sensitivity beta readers — expand your beta readers list to include POC readers, LGBTQ+ readers, religiously diverse readers – whatever ethnicity, race, orientation, or religion you’re writing a character from, get a reader of that persuasion to take a look. 

Your book is not for everyone. And you don’t have to please or appease everyone. Just try not to make egregious errors. Try not to perpetuate harmful stereotypes.

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