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White authors writing non-white characters

American fiction writing is over-indexed for straight white male voices, considering our rapidly diversifying country. A consequence of this has been painful examples of white authors doing a crummy job conveying the voice and experience of non-white characters.

This has been no better demonstrated than in Young Adult fiction. The deserved backlash has gone to a logical extreme: should white authors write non-white characters at all?

If you believe like me that there, indeed, will continue to be white authors and that we do not want all stories told by white authors to be exclusively populated by white characters, then the more productive question is how can white authors effectively and ethically write non-white characters?

I’ve been involved in my fair share of efforts and conversations on this matter. Though I’d like to share more in the future, I wanted to start by sharing a few familiar ground rules that seem to be forming as a kind of consensus on best practices.

For starters, listen to this recent podcast episode from John McWhorter, a Black linguist who teaches at Columbia (and, incidentally, is a northwest Philadelphia native). His focus is on white authors writing Black English. Find other timely and relevant pieces in the New YorkerWashington PostNew York Times and elsewhere on this topic.

Here are a few best practices to consider:

  • Bad writing is bad writing no matter the character. It’s just worse when that bad writing is by a white author about or of a non-white character because then it smacks of appropriation and stereotype. Show depth, nuance and empathy, as any great writing must. The stakes are just far higher when a white writer is writing beyond her experience.
  • Hire a sensitivity reader. One productive rule of thumb for all authors who are writing a character whose lived experience they don’t personally know: pay someone with that lived experience to review and give feedback on your approach. Here’s an example.
  • Be extra sensitive about first-person. White writers should be particularly careful when writing non-white characters in the first person, rather than from a third person perspective. Taking on the “I” viewpoint takes a far more detailed intimacy than even bringing interiority via an omniscient narrator.
  • Black English, like other non-standard English varieties and dialects, are languages with rules like any others. This is an issue of particular importance to McWhorter, who also wrote this piece in The Atlantic. Authors who do not have the diglossian experience of the characters they are writing (bilingual or one who uses a dialect, like Black English) are susceptible to making ignorant mistakes. This is a natural trap of showing a lack of nuance in character development. Black English speakers are almost always fluent in standard English as well; Writing anything else cheapens the character. Of course though there are fraught issues of classism, historical racism and stereotype. These must be understood and navigated.
  • If you write any voice, study it. I’m often taken with thorough grammars of dialects and other non-standard language variants — from the pervasiveness of regional German to Black English. An author’s characters should follow these rules, as native speakers know them intuitively. For instance, two example rules of Black English that linguists tell us are quite easily understood: the adverbial use of “done” is a marker of the counter-factual, showing surprise (as in “I was gonna give it as a gift but I done drunk your whiskey”) and the unconjugated “be” is a marker of the habitual (as in: “He be working there.”)
  • Like with anything, write what you know. White writers cannot have the lived experience of non-white characters. But white writers can have adjacency and research and a support network that can help them get there. The stakes are higher here, do not lazily leap. In short, if you haven’t done the work, don’t try for the credit.

Since I’m on a personal and detailed journey writing characters who code switch into Black English, I also appreciated this video from a linguistics streamer I follow.

(Photo by Janko Furlic via Unsplash)

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