In response to the inevitable backlash from the title: yes, I realize it is not all white authors. In fact, some white authors do an amazing job of writing about race by doing research, being respectful, and understanding what lines not to cross. It indeed can be done. For a great example, see Underground Airlines by Ben Winters.
I’ve been reading for a long time. Before I committed to reaching out and finding more authors of color to read, I read a bunch of white authors. Heck, they make up the majority of published writers. Even if you don’t try to read all white people, you end up doing so anyway unless you actively search for authors of color.
And during my time of reading white authors, I internalized a lot of bad things. Some of these I probably still haven’t unlearned, and they’ve hurt me in myriad ways as I grew and learned to accept myself. What specifically am I referring to?
Thanks for asking. I made a list.
1. there aren’t any people of color in your giant, 400-page-long book that literally has firebreathing dragons
Maybe, if you’re a person of color, you’ve experienced this. You’re halfway through a book and you realize…there aren’t any people of color at all. And it takes place where? New York City??
And it hurts. Because hey, this isn’t an episode of Friends. It’s 2018. People of color can be heroes, can be villains (but not only villains), can be the protagonist of a mainstream book. Why are we not represented more accurately?
I can’t tell you the joy that came to me when I first read N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. My little nerd heart had an epiphany. Here was an eloquent, sweeping fantasy novel, and at the forefront were characters like me! Girls with my hair! Boys with my skin! People without binary genders at all! It was life-changing.
It’s hard to explain the importance of representation to someone who doesn’t understand. But it’s like not having a good parent to look up to. You don’t have a positive image of what you can be. When you’re a young child of color and all around you are stories and movies and television about white children, you internalize the idea that hey—maybe my story isn’t as important as theirs.
2. White is the color of everything good and pure and black is the color of everything bad and evil
I guess I can’t really attack some of the first culprits of this trend (the Bible, unfortunately, is filled with this rhetoric and was used to justify slavery and colonialism for centuries) because those writers are long gone. But it’s centuries later. You’d think we would see the problem with always associating white with the definition of good and holy and black with evil and sin.
3. When introducing characters, only the non-white races are mentioned
Have you ever seen something like this?
“The children at the school, two of whom are black—”
or something to that effect? The statement above predicates whiteness as the default. Too many authors never point out a character’s race unless it’s a character of color, as if the reader should assume all characters are white until proven otherwise. For a more in-depth explanation, check out this article here.
4. describing people of color using food
“Ms. Smith had skin the color of caramel.”
“The girl brought her coffee-colored hands to her face in wonder.”
So, with these sentences above, it might not seem that cringey until you realize two things. One: these types of descriptions are usually only applied to people of color. And two: people of color have had a history of being used for slave labor involving food, especially coffee, chocolate, and so on. The words you use have a historical context. Be aware of them. Overall, this is a fetishy writing technique that I would love to see die out.
5. Not doing research on a culture/dialect
“And then Jerry said, ‘Aww, yeah homie! I totally dig you, my man. Fo’ sho.'”
Every time I see black English/ebonics/AAVE in a book done badly, a part of me dies. Black people and our language is not a messed up version of standard English. Let me repeat. Black English is not standard English with bad grammar. Black English is a dialect of English, one to be studied and researched thoroughly, just like any other dialect of any other language. If you don’t believe me, believe this paper from Stanford.
Our cultures have been disrespected for centuries upon centuries. So much false information has been spread about non-white cultures over time. Just respect the people, the culture, and do your research.
The Asian person who is great at martial arts. The all-knowing wise shaman Native American. The black best friend who is only there to further the white main character’s plot development.
These, my friends, are the bane of my existence. I shouldn’t have to explain why this is bad, so I won’t. We are not your plot devices. We deserve to be fully-realized characters with hopes, dreams, and skin color described using something other than food.
7. the white savior
I really could do without another book/movie/anything where the white person saves “the Natives” because they can’t fend for themselves. This notion has a long, bloody history. This was the idea that many oppressors subscribed to: that it was the White Man’s Burden to save the savages. It led to assimilation and colonization across the globe.
Or perhaps a white person wants to teach a black man to take care of himself and play football like in The Blind Side, or to rescue a black homeless person like in The Soloist. Just one story like this doesn’t hurt. But when the trope is constant in the mainstream media, it’s a problem. It infantilizes people of color and gives them no agency or respect.
Nobody’s perfect. But some people don’t even try to be better. White authors, we all live in a terrifying time. People of color’s rights and dignity are on the line. We all have to work together to dismantle inequality, from the big things to the little ones. If all you can do is be more conscious while writing what you love, then do your part. I’ll be waiting.