How to Write Race

I joined the writing community last year, during a period of peaked interest for diverse and inclusive voices. However, it seemed to me there was some confusion between what white creators should/could and shouldn’t/couldn’t write about non-white characters.

While there was heavy focus on being diverse in writing, it seemed there wasn’t a clear understanding on how to do so. There was a grey area in which white creators seemed almost alienated through fear of not knowing how to ask questions without fear of offence. I felt this through conversations with other writers and readers, when either asking me to be a sensitivity reader or commenting on posts I’d made. They thanked me for answering their questions and my openness about racial inclusion allowed them to question with respect, but without apprehension.

Firstly, I’m not claiming to be the figurehead or point of reference to what will or will not be considered offensive to all Black and Indigenous People of Colour (BIPOC) or even Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI). This is simply my take on how all creators can work towards writing better characters outside of their own race. This piece will of course be heavy on the black experience as this is my background, but if my perspective can help other writers, both white and non-white, then that’s even better.

Being accountable for ones’ actions should always be a focus whether in writing or everyday life. The purpose of this blog is to highlight what I think are two major points to be considered when writing about race: intent and purpose.

Before going into that though, I can admit that as a black writer, I don’t worry about offending white readers with my work. This is largely because – whether admitted or not – there is a privilege in there seemingly being no way to damagingly depict white characters in a negative light, based solely on race. That bold part is important.

While non-white characters’ fight stereotypes that pigeon hole them into various roles, white characters can be ‘the dumb jock’ or ‘the slutty blonde’, for example, but those negative stereotypes don’t stop them being the hero of the story or have an ongoing negative impact on the white character that comes after them. They can always redeem themselves where unfortunately, the black teenage drug dealer or busty, lustful Latina cannot.

This is why it’s important to create more in depth, multi-faceted non-white characters but, how do we do this?

Let’s go back to the two main points then: intent and purpose. If choosing to include a character or characters from a race other than your own, try answering some of the questions below and see what takes shape:

  • What is your intention in creating this ethnic/racially diverse character?

  • What is their purpose in the story?

  • Are you trying to be inclusive for inclusive sake?

  • Do you feel personally inclined to include them or do you feel pressured into it?

  • Is there a cultural/world building element to including this person?

  • Will your story make an issue of their race in an ongoing negative light?

Depending on your answers, I suspect it will become pretty obvious whether your intent for this character is positively motivated or not. That’s not to say anyone ever has ill intent but if for example, your answer to the last question is yes and there is no real purpose for that, then you may need to re think your intent.

What I would hope, is that there are ethnically diverse characters in your stories simply because that’s the way your world is (if we’re talking Fantasy of course) and this character happens to display that. If so, great. If not, take a moment to think about your intentions for this character and the purpose for including them in your story.

If your intent is positive and justified both by your own thinking and that of your stories purpose/world building, a lot of your concerns might not actually be a problem. If, when writing about a white character, you never mention them going to the salon, why would you consider doing so for a black character and creating a scenario that a) might cause offence or b) makes no difference to the story?