Writing People of Colour

An essay looking at writing about people of colour from the perspective of a white author.

This is an essay I’ve wanted to write for a while, but it seems to be a very touchy subject when it needn’t be. This essay is primarily aimed at white authors who wish to write about people of colour (PoC) in their work, but may be afraid it’d come across as disingenuous, or token, to include them. Race is, of course, a very volatile subject for some (with good reason), but I believe that work has a lot to lose when every character and their mum is white.

First up, I am white. I won’t deny this and yes, I am aware that it may result in me losing some credit and/or validation in this area, but fortunately for you, I will also be referencing other writers and bloggers, and readers and so forth who have a lot to say on this subject.

Secondly, we’re people. We’re all just normal people. Don’t make a massive fuss about some being non-white or it’ll alienate readers. Fact.

Thirdly, I am not going to stand here and say that if your work doesn’t have a person of colour in it that it must be racist. That simply isn’t true. I know from experience that sometimes one just doesn’t imagine a PoC in their work, and I have felt that if I don’t include one I must be a bad writer, or person. That isn’t true.

There are a lot of ways that people of colour are written into fiction, but in all honesty, there is a massive (and I mean massive) thirst for good, decently written people of colour in fiction. People strive to see themselves represented properly and honestly. We live in a day and age when seeing another person of another race isn’t ‘exotic,’ so it shouldn’t really be treated as such in your writing (unless you’re writing a Victorian noir or something). I have one work in progress that is set in the Viking Age, and another which has no white people at all. Just didn’t suit the story.

A friend of mine, born to a Chinese immigrant family, writes regularly about how growing up in a predominantly white country bothered her. When we were younger I had no idea what kinds of hands she’d been dealt, or the stereotypes she faced daily. She taught me some basic Mandarin and about Chinese culture, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but she never really felt like she could open up to me about the racial slurs she’d be called when I wasn’t around (and twice when I was), or how she struggled to find books with characters that resembled her. People assumed she was either a martial arts expert or a chess genius, or both. She was neither.

Men looked at her like she was some exotic pet, and fetishised her for being what they perceived would be a muted girlfriend, “like in the movies.” She has one of the worst tempers I’ve ever seen and my goodness can she defend herself. Maybe because I grew up with her I never saw her as anything other than who she was. Her as a character would, however, be entirely different to a male Chinese character, if you were to write one.

My first love was bi-racial, and we still talk. He moved to Japan about eight years ago to study in space engineering or something ridiculous. He was always smart, but again, I don’t think that’s a race thing. He, however, had a different issue when moving to Japan. The country is quite homogeneous, meaning his half-white heritage resulted in him being labelled ‘hafu.’ He said, and I quote, “I went from being an Asian-kid in a white country to a white kid in an Asian country.”

He was mostly treated well. Japan (as a whole) prides itself on being a good host to those who visit, but there are outliers like there are anywhere. There is, of course, culture. In Japan, ‘fitting in is often preferred to sticking out.’ So one’s interaction with the world, a character’s point of view, can be changed by where they are. Is the area welcoming or is it full of tension?

He, of course, didn’t grow up in Japan. Miss Japan, Ariana Miyamoto, is half-Japanese and half-African American, and she shed quite a lot of light on the subject of growing up mixed race there. She also lost a friend due to the stigma of being ‘hafu’ in Japan and as a result is trying to raise awareness on the subject.

Writing a person of colour isn’t quite like saying, “Okay, so I’ve got one too many white dudes, let’s make one black. Done. Yay, aren’t I so multicultural and diverse?” The issue is that now your character has to be re-shaped by society, their culture and their view of the world as a result. There are a lot of African-Americans that cannot trace their ancestry line due to the slave trade, and they have had their cultural identity stripped until all they know about their history is that their ancestors were forced onto boats and sailed away. They cannot say, “My mother’s side is Irish but I’ve got some German in there somewhere too.” Something quite popular in America is telling people about your ancestry with some quite precise details. For some African-Americans that isn’t something they can enjoy, and that hurt often still lingers on.

At the same time, there are those whose families moved later, and as a result their culture is still very real and vivid. Ghanian culture is very different from Nigerian and so forth, and that may be worth making a mental note of.

There’s a whole host of new developments just from talking about people of colour from one continent. How they interact with people is now different, potentially. Their age group also changes how they view the world. Old and worn out, or young and desperate to prove themselves. Maybe they’ve faced racism in the past and it has made them bitter, or they’re still fighting the good fight regardless? There are Japanese citizens in America, like George Takei, for example, who still remember living in concentration camps after Pearl Harbour, as he has publicly described.

I’m not going to get into a debate about whether racism still exists. This isn’t an argument, this is stating that how your character perceives the world affects the way your character interacts with it. If they believe they are being profiled or prejudiced against, they will respond in kind. There are hundreds of Tumblr blogs ready for research if you’d like, from the perspectives of black women in America. They talk regularly about how small, inane-looking things slowly eat away at their confidence, such as skin whiteners, or being told they can’t wear their hair in its natural state. Some people experience overt racism (from neo-Nazis, for example), and others feel the niggling effects of the subliminal kind.

So they are people, who’d have thought it?

All this information is great, personally. It’s the kind of detail a writer goes into regarding a character’s social class, their gender and their religion. This adds welcomed depth to your characters and room for development as your story grows. Clashing of cultures is often a good source for tension or comedy. I embrace it as a reader when it is done well.

But beware falling into a small chasm.

“Even stereotypes of PoC that seem positive on the surface (a really smart Asian person! A sassy Black woman!) are still harmful if they are stereotypes. This isn’t about censorship or being PC, but being extremely aware of the fact that as a non-PoC person, your depictions (or lack thereof) of less represented people can carry untold consequences to the people of that community who do not have the privilege of having diverse mainstream representations of themselves to choose from.”

Yumi Sakugawa, author and illustrator of I Think I Am in Friend-Love with You

Unfortunately, the writing about cultures and so forth isn’t necessarily the area most writers slip up. It is describing a person of colour. Knocking out character descriptions that feel like after-thoughts are quite common. ‘Yeah, she was Asian,’ won’t do. Is she east-Asian or north-Asian? Is she from Pakistan or Thailand? This is also a major problem in fantasy writing. An author wants to design a race on a pre-existing race, but can’t use the words ‘African’ or ‘South American’ or ‘Indian’ or whatever. So here’s a few words on it.

There is of course the one argument that both my friends here regularly point out, and that is describing east-Asian characters. “We don’t have almond-shaped eyes.” Please, please do not refer to east-Asian people as having almond-shaped eyes. It is lazy writing, I’ll tell you that, and dead wrong. White people have almond-shaped eyes.

It is in a similar vein as to try to avoid cliché descriptors, such as describing a black person as being ‘coffee’ coloured or ‘skin as dark as chocolate.’ It won’t go down well with readers, particularly those who are more than aware of slaves being used to grow and harvest cocoa beans and coffee beans. It’s also another form of lazy writing, such as describing a white person as having snow white skin (that’s also a physical anomaly and/or extremely unhealthy). Even an albino friend of mine doesn’t have perfect white skin without rubbing talc on his face. You can do better, I know you can.

‘Colourblindness’ is also a defence that I’d try to avoid using, simply because it is another lazy one. It basically says that you’re blind to the plights of people of colour who have less representation in the media, that you are blind to their culture and to a lot of their identity. Just because you may not think about your own skin colour or colour or whatever, does not mean everyone else has that same luxury. Just because you haven’t witnessed racism or discrimination does not mean it doesn’t exist.

If you’re looking for advice, Writing With Colour offer all sorts of advice for writers who are looking to diversify their writing. I also recommend reading works from authors of colour. I know people would argue their race shouldn’t matter, but you’d be surprised how different it can be due to the different ways society sculpts us. For example, one Sino-American author I met was telling me how everyone thought her hair should be silky smooth, but in fact she struggles with the coarseness of her hair growing up because American shampoos weren’t designed for her hair type (small things, you know?).

There’s a part of me that wants this to be a really simple subject, but I also know that it can rub people the wrong way. This isn’t about being PC, as stated in the quote earlier. This is for writers who want to write people of colour (why wouldn’t you? It’s an amazing world out there, use all of it if you can for inspiration). And this is my small essay to help you open the door.

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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