Please welcome back author Elizabeth Stephens, who’s here to further the discussion of a somewhat controversial but important topic: Should white writers craft protagonists of color, or vice-versa? A little about Elizabeth from her bio:
Elizabeth Stephens–a self-acknowledged weirdo who has been writing since the age of 11–is a mixed race (black and white) romance and science fiction author and reader of all things that feature tough leading ladies. Her newest release, The Hunting Town, came out July 16, 2017 and is a small town, mafia romance. Last year saw the publication of Saltlands, book two in her dystopian romance series which began with Population. She is a big fan of inclusion and her books always include kick ass ladies of color.
Her day job is in communications for public and private sector clients across Africa.
When she isn’t writing or day-jobbing she can most often be found reading, drawing, throwing pottery, watching horror movies, and protesting for causes that she hopes will make the world a better place for all.
White Writers Writing Non-White Characters: Why I Vote Yes, for Commercial Fiction
I recently came across an article in which an author advocated that white writers should not feature characters of color as leading protagonists in their novels. This author made some compelling points that I believe are critical to consider for all writers of literary fiction looking to portray characters outside of their race. Are you a white author trying to tell the story of a disenfranchised Mexican immigrant? Maybe reconsider.
However, are you a white author of erotica looking to cast a dark-skinned black woman as your leading lady? Please, write on! Because when it comes to mainstream, commercial, and genre fiction, I would wholeheartedly challenge this author’s assumption. Characters of color do just as much for minority empowerment as the authors who write them. Thus, I urge this author and others who share the same opinion to place a small asterisk in their argument. Here’s why:
We need to acknowledge some (frustrating) facts.
In a US context, we have to acknowledge our country’s basic racial makeup: there are a lot more white people; therefore, it is natural that there would be a lot more white authors than any other race, or ethnicity. Should all of them be forced to only write from the perspective of white characters (or non-human characters as the article suggests)? If that’s the case, then as a person of color, should I be forced to closely examine every title I want to read in order to selectively determine which books were written by non-white people? This requires a lot of time and energy that the vast population won’t be interested in – and for the average reader of children’s books, middle grade, and even young adult, won’t be possible.
We don’t relate to authors like we do to characters.
I am a young reader of color and I’ve got my nose pressed between the dog-eared pages of a book. I don’t know who the author is and I don’t care. At my age, an author is about as elusive to me as Santa Claus – I know they must exist because the books do, like my presents, but beyond that they remain a figment of my imagination.
Who I do care about however, are the characters. These characters are as real to me as my friends, but I notice that among them, there aren’t any people that look like I do. In television, in movies, and in books, I constantly find myself fighting to identify with the protagonists. To have more of them – and not as side characters, but as leads – would boost my confidence. Imagine if Katniss Everdeen had been a black girl. For once, how empowering might it have been to see little white girls in Katniss costumes on Halloween regardless of Katniss – or her author’s – skin color? Maybe at my young age, seeing more principle protagonists of different races and backgrounds and abilities would give me the confidence to write more too.
We should do the best we can, and remember that nobody’s perfect.
At the end of the day, the most we can ever do to protect others is to self-reflect and acknowledge our own privilege in all of its many forms. In an ideal world, the percent of mainstream fiction across the world – not just that featuring characters of color – would better reflect the demographics of the country itself. In this world, everyone would have equal opportunity to contribute.
As readers in this world, we would be able to dig into a book about an Asian woman written by a black man and not worry about the opportunity he took away from an Asian woman. As authors, we would be able to do our research into the lives of others and walk in their shoes without worry that we’re stepping on their toes. And as young readers, we would read so many books, featuring so many different types of people that by Halloween, we could dress up as whatever and whoever we wanted.
What do you think about timidity for writing protagonists of other races? What — if anything — makes you uncomfortable, and why?