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.
I’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.
Also, 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.