Essays

I’ve been struggling with race: Inclusive writing for the white writer

I’ve been struggling.

I know my struggle as a white person pales in comparison with the struggles of People of Color in the United States and other parts of the world. But I am struggling. Because I know I’ve been brought up in a racial world, and I want to be a good person who treats all human beings as if they are equal. Because I know – intellectually – that we are. However, it’s hard to know the “right way” to go about this when you’ve been steeped in racist messaging your entire life.

I want my writing to be inclusive, but I don’t know how to accomplish this. I’m trying to learn how. I’m reading lots of non-fiction books on the subject and fiction by people of color (see brief list of recommended reading at the bottom of this post). I’ve also watched in horror as other white writers have been ravaged on Twitter for doing it wrong. What if I mess up, despite my best efforts? What if that happens to me? Or worse, what if I unintentionally hurt people with my ignorance?

So, I’m struggling to know how to proceed. I have two works in process that I’ve set aside because of this issue. Both have non-white protagonists. I love these characters, but I am afraid I can’t do them justice. One is a teenage girl from a single-parent home. That fact alone makes me worry that people might think I’m stereotyping Black families by writing a Black character who is the child of a single mother.

She’s a basketball player, too. Am I stereotyping? Perhaps I am, if I’m honest with myself. I got this idea for a feminist basketball story, and immediately the character presented in my imagination as Black. If I am truly committed to honestly examining my own biases and stereotypes, then I must ask myself why that is. And if my internal biases are my only reason for writing a Black character, then I am already messing up from page one.

I’ve put this story aside because – even though it is the prerogative of authors to hurt our characters – I do not want to hurt this character. At least, not in this way. I also don’t want to hurt my potential Black readers.

However, I also don’t want to completely swear off writing Black characters because of this fear. I want to be a good person and do the right thing. I’m just too aware of my ignorance to know how to proceed. That’s why I have committed myself to exploring race issues. But I continue to wonder if that’s going to be enough. Can I ever possibly learn enough to write Black characters “correctly” without having lived their experience? And if not, what then?

I’ll continue to educate myself and look for ways to be more inclusive in my own writing, but I don’t believe that is the only answer. In fact, I think there are two additional things that we white writers can do to advance inclusivity in the novel writing space:

  1. Make more room for writers of color to tell their own stories (#ownstories).
  2. Examine whiteness in our own writing instead of trying so hard to examine Blackness.

It seems to me that the onus has been on white writers to write the experiences of People of Color despite the fact that we can only imagine what those experiences might be. Why is this the case when the best people to tell non-white stories are non-white writers? As I read Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility recently, it struck me that maybe we white writers are going about this all wrong. Maybe we should be examining white culture in our writing rather than non-white culture. Maybe we should use our writing to conduct an honest exploration of our own prejudices and biases—our own contributions to the racist systems in which we live—rather than trying to explain to other white people what it’s like to be a non-white human being tying to make a life within these systems.

White People: I don’t want you to understand me
better; I want you to understand yourselves. Your
survival has never depended on your knowledge of
white culture. In fact, it’s required your ignorance. —Ijeoma Oluo

SOURCE: DiAngelo, Robin J.. White Fragility (p. 51). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.

What if the answer to writing inclusively is for white writers to turn their focus to examining their own ignorance? What if we white writers read stories written about People of Color by People of Color when we seek to understand People of Color and use our own writing to examine whiteness? What would that look like? And how would it be received?

I admit that I don’t have all the answers. My thoughts on this topic today will likely evolve as I continue to educate myself. So, I’m curious to know what you think. Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

And please, let’s keep the dialog respectful and our minds open to being wrong.

Recommended reading

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