Addressing White Privilege in Writing

As a relatively aware White person — that is to say, an individual who was raised in a dominant White culture and socioeconomic group, who both presents as White on the outside and identifies as White on the inside — I am on a personal mission to challenge myself in this world where, through no merit of my own, I have been handed privilege on a silver plate. Whatever your feelings on issues of race relations, or the social construct thereof; the heavy weight of history, the state of politics, or globalization, the simple fact remains: White Privilege is real. (Still not convinced? Take a look at the classic Invisible Knapsack checklist, by Peggy McIntosh.)

While there is plenty to be said about how White Privilege manifests in the larger world, my focus today is bringing it down to the arena in which writers and artists can make a difference: noticing, identifying, and addressing White Privilege in writing. And, oh, it’s there in a big way!

Remember when The Hunger Games movie came out? And there was all this racist sputtering from people who expressed surprise and annoyance that the character Rue was Black? If they’d actually read the book, they might have figured it out on their own… but maybe not. The author Suzanne Collins included information that a thoughtful reader could use to visualize Rue as the young, dark-shinned girl she was intended to be, but because this was not explicitly stated, people were able to form their own ideas. And those ideas populated the story entirely with White teenagers, because that’s what people expect. Hollywood reinforces this with their whitewashed casts of characters, and if we are not careful, book characters can easily suffer the same fate. Poor Rue.

White Privilege is precisely that: a normalization of white-looking people; the assumption that they are “normal” and everyone else, therefore, is “different”; the classic exotic Other. (By the way, this goes for Ablism too… when was the last time you visualized a character in a wheelchair? Or with leg braces? Or an amputated limb? Yeah, you didn’t, because disabled folks are also relegated to the “other” category.) The challenge for a reader is to remove themselves from the story. However tempting it is, we cannot imagine ourselves as the protagonist in every tale, because in some cases, the main character is vastly different from us. Then, the challenge becomes one of molding yourself into another person’s body, trying to live and learn from their experiences.

This especially irks me in historical fiction. I firmly believe — and research supports — that history has always been far more diverse than typically portrayed in mainstream media. When we think about cowboys, why do we always imagine them as tall, fit, white and blue-eyed, when a large proportion of them were, in fact, Black, Latino, or mixed-race? (The answer? Hollywood. And the general, ongoing white-washing of history.) People of all shapes, sizes, and colors have shaped this world, and continue to do so. Historical fiction should reflect that.

So what can writers do? Well, the first step, I think, is to combat the assumption that characters, unless otherwise described, are de facto white people. Take the time to describe your character in a rich, illuminating way: everything from the shape of their body, the texture and style of their hair, their features, their skin color, and everything else that makes them stand out. Each person is an individual, and as a character, should be presented as such. Next, push the boundaries of what kinds of characters you’re writing. Historical fiction can be a great avenue for this, since you can research and create authentic characters of various backgrounds, without necessarily digging into the can of worms that is modern-day racism and society. (Need some ideas? Check out my blog post on writing characters of color – for white writers.) Story by story, character by character, little by little, we can change people’s expectations and views. Push White Privilege to the background by putting diverse characters first. Right where they belong.

Flowers working cover.jpgI’m trying to do my part through writing. Some recent examples include my Flowers for the Ancients collection, which features women from ancient societies in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. In writing this, I was able to develop characters from diverse cultures and backgrounds, all set in fascinating periods of history.

major arcana coverAlso, I am currently working on a Tarot-inspired erotic romance set right here in my hometown of Seattle. Free to read on Wattpad, Major Arcana features a cast of characters I am rapidly coming to love. I had fun thinking about the diversity of my city and how that could be reflecting in writing, from the free-love Hippie momma (inspired by a friend’s mom… I’ll never reveal her name!), to the blended family and sibling relationships (there’s one in every family, right?), to the sexy, sensitive hero, a UW student from Yakima who also happens to be in a wheelchair. I had fun researching sex for paraplegic men, oh yes indeed! (Porn as education. Enough said.)

Anyway, I hope I am on the right track toward addressing and correcting White Priviledge in writing. (And in my everyday life, though that, as they say, is another story.) I would greatly appreciate any feedback and advice on how to do it better. We’re all works in progress, just trying to make this world better for everyone in whatever ways we can.

Advertisements

Writing Characters of Color (for white writers)

So by now it’s pretty obvious – especially for those of you who checked out my boudoir photos earlier – that I am white. Like, very white; the kind that’s see-through for most of the year. (Living in the Northwest doesn’t help, but hey, my Nordic skin can soak up even the measliest bit of vitamin D from our cloud-covered sun!) I grew up in a majority-white neighborhood, went to school with mostly other white kids, and even now most of my friends are, still, white. That’s the way White privilege has manifested for me, thus far in my life.

Which brings me to the subject of my blog post today. How can I, as a white writer, create authentic, powerful, believable characters of color?

As a fiction writer, I get to create worlds. Whatever I imagine becomes real on the page; people spring to life; stories unfold. With so much possibility at my fingertips, I am always tempted to push the edges of the mold. The old advice says: “write what you know.” Been there, done that. To challenge ourselves, we must sometimes write about what we don’t know. But carefully, respectfully, and with humility vis a vis our own limitations. It’s no coincidence that the majority of my protagonists are white – (with the exception of the Ancients, which features women who lived so long ago our modern conceptions of race and culture have no meaning) – because that’s my default “safe zone.” As a white woman, I can confidently write a white, female character and say, yes, I have been fair to her; she is not a stereotype, not some fetish; no one will say “oh, she’s acting that way because she’s a typical white American girl.” (And there’s White privilege again, right? The idea that a person’s actions belong to them alone, instead of as a representative of whatever cultural or racial group they happen to be part of… but that’s a whole different conversation.)

But as a creator of fictional worlds, I don’t want to be stuck writing only characters like me. (Of course, all a writer’s characters are somewhat like them. They are pieces of ourselves, refolded and adapted, but still us at the root.) I want to explore other perspectives, other ways of life. (Other love interests, too, since erotica is my thing!) Plus, I don’t want to live in a monochrome world, so why should my characters to do so? Fiction should reflect life on some level, and our world – thank God – is becoming more beautifully diverse, more multicultural and blended, every day. Can I, as a white writer, do that authentically?

This blog post is more about questions than answers, really. The only thing I can say is that each character must be an individual. Wherever they come from, however they look, they must be more than what’s on the surface. (Plus, skin-deep characters are boring as hell. We need soul, if readers are to care about them.) Interracial erotica has its own category on most sites, and there are plenty of readers looking for that. But real issues arise if “interracial erotica” becomes “racial-stereotype erotica.” It’s okay to have a preference – we all do – but once again, that character had better be a real person behind his/her fascinating physical qualities. (Plus, seriously? The “Big Black Cock” thing is totally passe. Also, silly. I can personally attest to the fact that you don’t know what you’re gonna get until you unwrap the package. And I’ve been around the world enough to have a fair-sized sample set from five different continents… ahem, moving on. Sorry, Australia. I never made it down there in my single days, but I’m sure you gentlemen have plenty to offer!)

Now I know I will never truly understand what it’s like to be a person of color. Just like I’ll never really understand the inner workings of a man’s brain… which is probably okay with me, on second thought. But I hope I can make an honest, sensitive, and respectful attempt to create characters who represent diverse cultures and backgrounds. I’m not brave enough – yet – to go all in and try to incorporate some real issues into my stories. Maybe someday… For now, at least I can assure my readers that in my stories, each character is a real person. Unique and wonderful, because of and in addition to their outward appearance.

I’ll keep writing what I know, and how the world really is. But I’ll also do my best to write what I want to know; and how I hope – and believe – the world can be.

*

(Fellow writers, I am hungry for your thoughts! (Especially writers who consider themselves a person of color…) Do you think we’re getting anywhere close to the mark? Or does erotica just perpetuate the normalization of White culture overall? What a conundrum! Erotica authors are only a small piece of it, but everyone can do their part to contribute – or fight – the status quo.)