Writing Outside Your Identity Group: Some Dos and Don’ts
In my last blog, I talked about my strong feelings about supporting and encouraging marginalized writers to share their stories, as well as my commitment as a white author to write books in which all young people can see themselves represented and affirmed. A great resource is the nonprofit advocacy group, We Need Diverse Books (WNDB).
When it comes to the challenge of writing outside your identity group, here’s my take on some important dos and don’ts:
Do Your Homework
First off, do no harm. Research is essential and needs to include both primary research (going to the source itself, members of the group you’re writing about) and secondary research (reading about the lived experiences of marginalized communities). Nic Stone, an African-American YA author, advises setting up interviews and asking questions. “Most marginalized people,” she says, “are more than willing to talk if you’re willing to listen.”
Ask not only about their personal experiences, but about the things that white authors often get wrong and that offend them. For example, I learned that it was offensive to describe the skin tones of Black characters in terms of food—chocolate, caramel, etc. It reminds folks of being a commodity and the horrendous experience of slavery.
We also need to educate ourselves about tropes that people of color find irritating, such as the White Savior trope, where the great white man swoops in to save the day. Or the Magical Negro trope in which a Black person’s role is solely to sacrifice himself to help all the other characters who are white (Think The Green Mile by Stephen King).
In my own case, I feel so lucky to have had close personal contact with non-white folks, especially my amazing grandkids! During my college years, I had life-changing opportunities to live and work in an African-American community and to spend time as an exchange student at an historically black college. Throughout my career as a touring dancer and dance educator, I continued to live with and work closely with non-white folks. That doesn’t mean I will ever fully know what it feels like to be a person of color in this country. But it helps.
Beyond personal experience, it’s so important to read both fiction and nonfiction by writers of color and other marginalized groups to inform our perspective and understanding. I feel fortunate to have a background in sociology where I had the chance to read and study extensively about the Black experience in America.
Take Advantage of Other Resources
Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward have written a book called Writing the Other, a guide to developing characters of varying backgrounds. Along with K. Tempest Bradford, Shawl also offers courses to help authors write inclusive fiction. In a workshop I took this past Saturday on “Creating Authentic Characters,” Bradford stressed the importance of considering the intersectionality of characters’ various identities, including: age, race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ability, class, religiosity, and body type. To create more fully fleshed out characters, we need to consider all of their identities and the intersecting issues that impact them and help shape their actions and reactions.
For more information, check out writingtheother.com.
Find Beta Readers
Once you’ve drafted your novel or short story, it’s time to show it to people of the identity group you’ve written about. Find beta readers from that group to review your manuscript—and listen and be open to their comments. And of course, don’t forget to thank them profusely, include them in your acknowledgements, and give them a signed copy of your book. In my own case, I was fortunate to have an African-American friend review my novel and then send it on to her teen relatives to review.
Invest in a Sensitivity Reader Prior to Submitting
Publishing houses routinely hire sensitivity readers, folks from a marginalized group who review the manuscript to check for accuracy, implicit biases, and tropes. I recommend investing in a sensitivity reader prior to submitting. Your writing network may have recommendations for good sensitivity readers, and you can also check out the Editorial Freelancers Association or the Writing Diversely Sensitivity Reader Directory.
Some Don’ts to Avoid
- Don’t stick a diverse character into your story to check a diversity box or because diversity is “trending.” The result will be unrealistic and flat characters. I often notice this in Hallmark movies. There is the obligatory Black sidekick who is there to showcase diversity but is otherwise not developed at all as a character. Interestingly, my African-American teen beta readers thanked me for making my main character in my forthcoming Leisha’s Song a person of color. They told me, “We’re so sick of being the sidekick.”
- Avoid one-dimensional stereotypes. All Black women are not sassy, all Mexicans don’t wear sombreros and do the “Hat Dance.” All Asian kids don’t do karate, and they aren’t all great at math. Also, be careful about stereotypical vernacular when writing African-American characters. Instead, vary speech patterns, according to your characters’ backgrounds and life experiences.
- Don’t assume that because someone is a minority, they’ve lived a certain kind of life. As writer Daniel José Older noted, “We can’t keep raising generations of kids of color on the notion that there’s only room for them to be bad guys or doomed sidekicks or another generation of white kids thinking they’re closer to God because of how they look. We can’t keep promoting hetero/cis-normative sexist and racist ideas in our literature.”
- Don’t hide behind the argument that you can do whatever you want to do, because it’s fiction. Misrepresentation can be harmful and hurtful.
- Don’t try to write racially-neutral characters. We are all deeply affected by the amount of power and privilege we do or don’t have in a society, by the subculture in which we grew up, and by how others view us. The experience of wearing a hoodie while making a run to the store, for example, has a very different meaning for a Black teenager as opposed to a white one.
- Don’t ignore your own biases or white privilege. When we work to be aware of them, we not only grow as writers, but as people. Peggy McIntosh has written a wonderful piece called “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” that I highly recommend checking out.
I guess my advice could be summed up this way: do the best you can, do a lot more listening than talking when you’re preparing to write about a character outside your identity group, and know that you won’t get everything right, and someone, if not an entire Twitter mob, will ding you for your efforts.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. In my opinion, writing books with an all-white heterosexual cast would not only be boring but unrealistic and exclusionary. Everyone deserves a seat at the table, whether in real life or in fiction.
Thanks, Lynn! I ordered the book since I usually have minority characters. If you write about TX (or most other places in the US), it’s unnatural NOT to.
Thanks, Kaye- so glad you thought this was useful!