One of the most asked questions and most discussed topics among authors who want to write the Other is:
Should White People Write About People of Color?
There is no one answer to this question, there is no one conversation that can provide definitive guidelines. However, it is a discussion worth having in the context of the classes we teach. After all, why encourage writers to write the Other if White people shouldn’t create characters who aren’t White? (Leaving aside for a moment that “The Other” is not always about Race.)
To this end, WtO teacher K. Tempest Bradford asked authors Jaymee Goh and Justina Ireland to participate in a roundtable discussion on the subject. Both of these authors write about literature, representation, diversity, representation, inclusion, and how problematic it can be when White authors seek out the help, approval, and emotional energy of writers of color. Watch the conversation below.
Should white people write about people of color? a Tumblr post by Malindo Lo with contributions by Jaymee Goh
How a little magazine for librarians caused a big debate about race and representation in literature by Danielle Wiener-Bronner
An Apartheid of the Imagination by Justina Ireland
On Writing PoC When You Are White by Justine Larbalestier
How to Write Protagonists of Colour When You’re White by Justine Larbalestier
No, I Won’t Write Your Black Character and Here’s Why by Justina Ireland
Beta Readers by Debbie Reese
There used to be a link to the Sensitivity Reader Database here, but that resource is no longer being maintained by Justina Ireland. She goes into her reasons in this post. Writing the Other now maintains a version of that sensitivity reader database which we make available only to students of our classes. When other resources for finding sensitivity readers become available, we will list them here.
Please Note: This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Tempest: Hello! My name is K. Tempest Bradford, and I’d like to welcome you to the Writing the Other Roundtable: How To Stay In Your Lane: Writing Characters of Color When You Are White. I am joined by two fabulous authors who have spoken at length about this subject before, and I wanted to have a conversation with them about it, given that Writing the Other is about to do a lot of master classes, and there are going to be a lot more students who are interested in figuring out how to bridge this divide, get this balance together.
So I am joined today by Jaymee Goh and Justina Ireland. And I’m going to have them introduce themselves. Jaymee?
Jaymee: Hi, my name is Jaymee Goh. I am a Malaysian Chinese international student currently at UC—University of California at Riverside, where I pursue a Ph.D. in comparative literature, where I write a dissertation on whiteness in steampunk. I’m also an editor of The SEA Is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia, and I also write assorted short fiction and poetry here and there. That’s me.
Justina: Hi, my name is Justina Ireland. I am a Young Adult author of two books currently published, both by Simon & Schuster, books for young readers: Vengeance Bound and my other book is Promise of Shadows. I speak out a lot on Twitter about depictions of people of color within YA/kidlit community, and also SFF community. I’m a SWFA Director at Large.
I also am an MFA student, and my current thesis is actually on the idea that depictions of marginalized folks within kidlit tend to be not good. The idea that we have a few token positions where we can occupy and everything else is kind of just for the white folks.
My writing has appeared in Story Magazine, also Fireside Magazine just recently with the SFF roll-up of the Black authors in science fiction. And I’m just excited to be here.
Tempest: Thank you both for joining me. This is really great. I’ve been wanting to talk to you both about this for a very long time. And that is because this idea generated, started because you both have these two separate Twitter threads that were both basically talking about the same thing. You were talking about white writers who were writing POC protagonists, and why do you either give that the side-eye or you just were identifying problems that arose from it. And so I’d just like to start by asking you what triggered those tweets, if you remember. Let’s start with Justina.
Justina: Thank you. So, actually, I do remember. So, the most famous recent string of tweets was from VOYA Magazine had a diversity issue, which is a great—VOYA Magazine is Voice of Youth Advocates. It’s a magazine geared at librarians, especially teen librarians—teen services librarians, and they had a diversity issue. And it was an amazing issue. They had articles from Debbie Reese, they had articles from Edi Campbell, you know, a real great gamut of articles.
And then they also had this article by Patrick Jones, who is a white guy from Minnesota who basically said, “Hey look, I work with kids who are, you know, kids of color. I got it. I can figure out how to write those kids.” And it was just—it was—he was coming from a good place, and the intent was good, but the impact was just so so so so bad. And actually there’s a line in there, where he talks about writing a story, and he had a line about Tanisha’s blunt, and he was like, “I had to take it out, because, you know, it was too offensive,” and, you know, “white guys aren’t supposed to talk about Black people doing drugs.”
It was kind of a mess. And it brought home this idea that just because you think you know a population doesn’t mean you actually know a population. We see a lot of that, especially in kidlit, where folks are like, “I know we need diverse books, so I’m going to go ahead and go out and write it!” They’re kind of missing that message that we don’t necessarily need you to do that, if you don’t know how to write it well.
There’s so few depictions of people of color, especially as protagonists, that when you have one of these just terrible depictions, it just kind of becomes the norm, it becomes the mainstream. And that was kind of what started my stream of tweets, is just seeing this magazine that had done this diversity issue where basically a white guy kind of came up and said, “Hey, look. I’m going to give it my best shot, and if I phone it in, then you don’t get to judge me, because at least I tried.” Which is that old GIF of the dude from Harry Potter, like, “At least I tried!” It’s like—no, no. Trying is not necessarily—’cause you don’t get a pass for trying. So that’s what started my tweets.
Tempest: Yeah, that… I remember that, and yes, just trying is not…
Tempest: How about you, Jaymee? The tweets I was thinking of were ones where you were talking about the hashtag #OwnVoices, and sort of riffing off that a little bit.
Jaymee: I actually have, within the months of March to June, had several Twitter conversations, and several threads, and participated in several Twitter hashtag conversations, so I’m not exactly sure which one you’re referring to. But the one that strikes, that I kind of went on for a really long time about, was inspired by two different conversations happening at the same time.
One—and this was in early April—in which I talked about people who ask for advice on, “how do we write minority characters well?” and “how do we do this respectfully and authentically?” They always mean so well when they ask about how to do it authentically, and I’m like: I don’t even understand what this question of authenticity is anymore. Because people look at me and they don’t think I’m authentically Chinese because diaspora is a thing.
And you’re asking to get to the essence of an ethnicity, but there’s no such thing. And so it’s a very, very frustrating kind of conversation to have.
But there was another Twitter storm about yet another novel, I think it’s a novel, that was authored by a white person, and it was about Asian characters. And it was also another badly done novel. And so there’s this firestorm criticizing this, and a lot of my fellow Asians were just like: “Why is this a thing?” and “Why do we have to keep doing this?” and “Won’t anyone pay attention to us?”
And so I was thinking about that in relation to white authors asking for advice on how to do this well, and especially since I’d just gone to a convention where I was on a panel about Writing the Other, and I was asked about “How do I write indigenous, how do I write Native American characters?” And I was like, “Well, have you gotten in touch with, you know, the tribe that you’re writing about?” and she was like, “Yeah, I have.” She’s like, “I’ve researched it; I know how to contact them, but…” “Have you contacted them?” It’s like, “Not yet, but I will.” And I’m like, “Well, great. You’ve done some of that really important work. Go, go do that thing. Go contact them. Write them, just say to them: ‘I’m writing this novel. I would like your advice. I don’t want to be offensive. Please… Is there anyone who’s an enrolled member of your tribe to help me out here somehow?'”
And I don’t know what it was; I tried so hard to be so positive to her, and she looked so miserable at my answer, and I was just like, “But… What… What—What did you want me to say?” I don’t know. So that was just my whole thing about, I just—I just wanted to understand. So I was using this Twitter thread to kind of think through it.
Maybe it’s just this inherent problem in writing about the Other that just distresses people who want to get things done right. And especially since writers already have a bunch of anxiety issues, right? That’s why we’re writers. I don’t know.
But there is no sense that as people of color, we are the intended audience. And this is what makes these writers anxious, because we are not their intended audience, and yet we will be part, we will be folded into that audience, and that makes them nervous, because they don’t want to be criticized for accidentally stepping on toes. And that’s how we get this cornucopia of messy good intentions/bad execution or anxiety over bad execution. Which leads to some tunnel vision of how the project is going to go.
So that was that, and then there was #whitewashedout, which was yet another, I think it was Ghost in the Shell featuring Scarlett Johannson. So that started another whole thing, and I was like: “Well, you know, you could just read more Asian media. I don’t know.”
And it was also the time of Rosarium, my publisher’s IndieGoGo campaign to scale up operations. So it brought on a whole bunch of feels about production and industry and the culture industry and who gets to participate and who doesn’t.
Tempest: And you mentioned the intended audience. And I feel like that’s another big part of the conversation is that you… If you’re a writer who is white and you’re writing a protagonist or other important characters that are characters of color, is the audience meant to be only the mainstream audience? Which is mainly made up of white readers–who are assumed to be mainly made up of white readers. Or is that audience intended to be the people who are from that culture, or who have some sort of connection to the identity of the character? And does it—I know it matters, but how is it supposed to matter to the white author?
Justina: So, my first thing is, if you think your audience is nothing but white people, then you have no business writing a character of color. Because that tells me you don’t know any people of color, and so you’re already in the wrong park. And I think that’s a big problem, is that a lot of folks who go out and write these books, they don’t know any Black people, they don’t know any Asian people. And they’re just like: “I’m just going to borrow this character because I’ve heard diversity is a thing right now, and I heard it’s going to give me a better chance to get published.”
So, my first thing is, is you have to keep in mind who your audience is. If I hear one more person say, “Well, I wrote about elves, and I don’t know any elves!” I’m going to punch them in the mouth. Because elves don’t exist; Black people do. And an elf is not going to show up and say, “You mis—no, that’s not how we live in our trees at all!” you know, “Our cookies are much more delicious!” What they’re going to say is, nothing, ’cause they don’t exist.
Whereas a Black person’s going to come in, or a Native person’s going to come in and say: “You kind of really messed up my culture.” And then, a lot of times that criticism, especially on the kidlit side—I mean the adult SFF scene is a lot less about kindness. But on the kidlit side, a lot of times what happens is when you give that criticism, when you say, “Hey, this is my culture, and you really butchered it, and that sucks,” the response is: “Why are you being so mean?”
And whereas being stereotyped into one of three buckets is pretty frickin’ mean, right? I mean, people get shot in the streets because of those stereotypes. So, I really think the problem is, if you’re a white author and you’re expecting your entire audience to be white, you’re already starting from the wrong place.
It’s like starting with a bad idea. If you start with an idea that, for example, slavery didn’t end in the Civil War, and it continued through until the modern day, and now we’re dealing with the ramifications for it—you don’t need to do that. That shows me that you’re not looking at the structures we have in place now, that you don’t actually know what racialized politics looks like in the current day. Because a lot of that stuff hasn’t changed in fifty years.
If you don’t understand how redlining impacts the Black community, why are you writing about how slavery would impact us if it continued 200 years? You’ve already haven’t done the work.
I think that is a big part of it. I think people see it’s a shortcut, right? It’s a shortcut to give my character some sort of identity. Because we’ve had two hundred characters who are the farm boy who’s going to go out and rescue the world, so it’s like, “Well, maybe if I make them a Latino farm boy, that’ll give my character some identity.” But if you’re not going to do the work behind that, and you’re not going to see how that impacts your character through the story, then you’re going to get called out, and rightfully so.
I also don’t understand why people are more sensitive about getting called out about race depictions than they are sloppy prose, shitty exposition, whatever other things that they have problems in their books. So that tells me that you’re not ready to write that as well, because you don’t understand that racial dynamic, and you’re so sensitive about your spot in the racial hierarchy, that you don’t want anybody to point it out.
Basically, if you’re going to get upset about people criticizing your books, you really shouldn’t be writing books anyway, because somebody’s always going to hate your book for some reason. Now whether that criticism is valid, like you butchered a culture and piecemealed it out for your own plot building, or whether that criticism is just about your prose. But I, as a writer, would think my criticism about my flat, stilted dialogue is just as bad as my criticism about my flat, incredibly stupid character.
And I think that’s really my problem, is the people who don’t want to put in the work. You should be willing to put in the work, whether your character is white, whether your character is brown. You should be willing to put in the work.
Tempest: Agreed. Jaymee, did you have anything to add?
Jaymee: I did. And I kind of want to think through the framing of what an “intended audience” is. ‘Cause you’re bringing up the point that, is it a “mainstream audience” or is it the people that one’s protagonist is supposed to represent. And, by and large, I think what a lot of writers are hoping is that their books go out to as wide an audience as possible, which means the “mainstream audience,” i.e., a lot of white people. Or the Generic White Person out there in the great white yonder!
And I don’t think we stopped to think about why this “mainstream audience” is white—i.e., white supremacy. We don’t stop to think about why we consider this “mainstream audience” to be this generalized audience, and why we want to write to them. Why do you want to reach the widest audience possible? And why do you want to write for that widest, whitest audience possible? Because that’s essentially going to mean that—that’s—to me, that’s kind of a meaningless parameter for targeting your book.
Because even if we were to look at whiteness as a part of the “mainstream,” that’s still an identity. That’s still actually really particular. And I think it’s really incredibly lazy to not consider whiteness as a very specific, very particular experience.
But that’s where we want to follow the money, because people at the top have decided that the mainstream audience is this one, very universal experience that everyone should be able to speak to. And that’s really frustrating. Because it means that because the “mainstream audience”—I don’t, that’s such a meaningless word for me right now. It appears so omnipresent in how we, in how writers want to direct writing towards, that it fails to shape the writing into something that is more specific and therefore more meaningful, and therefore more targeted towards addressing very particular issues, and dynamics of representation and marginalization. Because we want something that “everybody” can read themselves onto, and we forget that we don’t always do that.
I’m not going to read an American novel and think, “Oh, wow, that totally represents my experience.” I grew up in a suburb in Malaysia! The suburbs of America are nothing like the suburbs of Malaysia, except for this very vague, we have to drive cars everywhere. But still, our shops we go to are totally different. Our McDonald’s sell different things. And yet I am supposed to identify with this very white character, very American character for no reason other than they’re the protagonist. Which, you know what? I have an imagination; I totally can! But somehow this does not work in the other way towards a minority protagonist.
Or we want to read specific things onto the minority protagonist that just does not exist for this particular protagonist versus another protagonist who might fit into those stereotypes. And it becomes really frustrating, because in trying to deliver these critiques of, “this is not reflective of my experience,” there’s this fallback of, “Well, at least there’s some representation out there! Some representation is better than nothing at all!” Yeah, except it’s not us representing ourselves, it’s other people representing us, and that is a problem. Because I don’t know if I can trust that this person represents me.
And it is one thing for me to have a conversation with another Asian about the “Asian experience” versus a white person about the “Asian experience.” Or even like a Black person about the “Asian experience,” or a Latina person about the “Asian experience.” Our understandings of these experiences and of these identities are going to be very different depending on the community we come from. And the resistance to these kinds of conversations is so frustrating, because we always come up against this stupid, stupid wall of, “Oh, what can we do? Oh, what are we as writers supposed to do? Oh, how can we have conversations about it?” Just, just read! Just read writing by minorities. Or just read literatures from other countries. It’s not really that hard. I don’t know.
Justina: But I think a lot times when people say that, they don’t really want to know what they can do, right, because that’s work. They want you to give them the pass, like, “High five! I give you permission to write me!” Which is not really how it works.
Jaymee: “Give me a POC stamp of approval!”
Justina: Right! “POC Approved”! And then they can point to that and say: “Hey, look!” And I think it’s… we’re talking about white people writing people of color, but it happens also sometimes with people writing cross-culturally. Right? So, we just had a book in the YA community that came out by a Latina woman and it’s terrible. It’s terrible. She’s butchered AAVE [African-American Vernacular English], and made it into some unrecognizable “semi-invented slang,” but AAVE is not a semi-invented slang. That is a very structured language that Black people speak between each other. And she did this, and the people–of course all of her publication team was white, all the reviewers that gave it stars were white. So nobody came in to say: “Whoa! Hold up!” But then they have one Black author who gave it the stamp of approval, so now it’s like, “Well we can’t, nobody else can comment, because that POC gave their stamp of approval.” No, but that’s not how it works, right?
You can have that one person who’s going to be like: “Look, I gotta get paid; here’s my stamp of approval. Roll out with that.” And the rest of us are still going to come for you, right? We’re still going to point to your depiction and say, “This is offensive. You know?”
I think that’s more my problem when white people come to me and ask: “How do I do this?” Because it’s like, are you asking me targeted questions? Are you asking me, “Hey! My Black character is in this situation. How would they react? This is how I have them reacting. Is that realistic? Is it not a strong enough reaction?” Because a lot of times when I read manuscripts for folks, what I find is there’s even on the page a lot of work to excuse white feelings of discomfort about race.
So, for example, they’ll put their main character in some sort of situation where they get called out by a shop girl, or you know these very stereotypical situations we know for Black people, right. You can’t go to the store without somebody following you around. And then you’re like, “Okay, this is okay. This is fine.” And then you get to the end of the situation, and it’s like, “Ha! The girl just really thought the girl was following her, but that’s not really what was happening.” You know? “Ah, racism isn’t really as bad as Black people think it is!”
So there’s like all these feelings—Or, there’s this whole big apology where the person of color is like, “That hurt my feelings,” and the white person is like, “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.” And the person of color is like, “That’s okay.” And we hold hands and walk off into the sunset out of the scene. But that’s not realistic. You’re—even within the page, you’re trying to excuse your feelings of discomfort about race.
And I think that’s part of my biggest, like heartburn when people are like, “how do I do this?” because they’re not really asking how to do this well; they’re asking “how do I do this with a minimum of discomfort to me?” And, it’s not about you, right? It’s about a tradition of 400 years of oppression—or more, depending where you come from. And so that’s my biggest thing with that question, “how do I do this well?” You put in the work, just like everybody else does. You put in the work.
Jaymee: And that’s so interesting, considering I think one of the major things about books that people want to make criticisms about is, “How do I make this plot more gripping? How do I put more tension into the story?” You just had a perfect amount of tension that’s also super realistic there, and you decided to de-escalate it by making your white reader feel comfortable. Why would you do that? Is this real life tension too—is it too much for you? What is wrong with—there are certain kinds of tensions which we are okay with, versus other kinds of tensions which confront the reader too much, or we think confront the reader too much, and we become cowards in the face of that, and we back away from that. Don’t do that. Just be braver about it.
Justina: It goes back to that… that question you were talking about about “mainstream audience,” because it goes back to that idea that “well, a white person is reading this; I don’t want them to be uncomfortable.” But what about the Black reader who’s reading that who’s like, “Yo. No, that’s not… That’s not realistic at all.”
You know? What about the other folks who are reading it from other cultures who are not represented at all? So, if you’re still writing in the idea of your—in your mind’s eye with a white reader in mind, you’re going to make those mistakes. You’re going to flinch at those critical points.
Tempest: Yes. I’m thinking about this just in terms of the stuff that I do. I teach Writing the Other classes with Nisi Shawl, and we definitely say that, maybe, secretly some are not sincere about it, but I do feel like all the students who have come through and taken our classes with us are very sincere in their desire to actually do the work, to learn how to make this happen. That’s why they pay to take the classes, because they don’t want to just sort of blindly roll off into the distance creating characters that turn out to be offensive stereotypes. And so, that impetus is very good because then that means that they’re learning a skill, they’re becoming better writers.
But then there’s also the other side of it, which is if white writers are creating these POC characters, depending on what different identity they’re coming from, and because they’re white, they have that advantage of maybe getting seen by an editor, whereas a writer of color may not be seen by that editor or seen by that agent or whatnot. Are they… are they taking space away from writers of color by having their protagonist be from different identities other than their own? And some—maybe they’re doing it simply to write to a trend, but maybe they’re doing it because they really want to have that representation there. How do you address the balance that comes with that?
Justina: One of the things I always ask folks when they say, “Hey, I wrote this story with a Black main character!” Because it’s usually a Black main character. Every once in a while it’ll be a Latina main character, or an Asian main character, which is really crazy ’cause I’m like “I don’t know?!” I’m like, “Why are you asking me, I’m not the person for that.”
One of the things I always like to ask them is: “Why do you have to write from this perspective? Can you tell this story—can you make this analysis just as well writing it with a white main character?” You can have a conversation about what it means—about race in America writing from a white perspective. You don’t necessarily need to co-opt a Black narrative to do that.
I think the reality is yes, you are taking a spot away from an author of color if you are writing, because there are still very much quota systems built into publishing. “We have our Black romance for this season. We have our Black space opera for this season.” If you even get the one, right? Like sometimes it’s like, “We got N. K. Jemisin; we don’t need anybody else this season!”
So, I think there’s still like that Highlander attitude about representation: There can be only one. “There can be only one Asian author! There can be only one Black author!” And so I do think you are taking a spot. But, more importantly, why are you telling the story from this perspective? I think that’s really what folks need to—when they’re going to set out—when they’re sitting down to write, and they’re like, “My main character’s going to be Black, because I can tell the story better as a Black main character.” It’s like, “Okay, but could you tell the same story, with the same impact with a white main character? And will you tell it better?” Because what I find nine times out of ten is, they want a Black main character for some contrived reason that doesn’t feel organic to the story, and it shows on the page.
If you have a secondary character that is a character of color, you should still probably take a Writing the Other class, right, because you still want to make sure you have fully fleshed-out, strong secondary characters. But if your main character is a marginalized voice, and you feel the need to tell that story, you need to question why. Because nine times out of ten, it is some sort of weird, white savior narrative where they think they can save representation within the category and they’re going to be the ones who’s going to fix the world. And it’s like: Yo. You know, Black people are writing stories. Just because they aren’t getting there, they’re writing them. Everyone’s writing these stories. The CCBC, which is the Children’s Cooperative Book Council, just came out with their stats for last year, and there were more stories about Asian main characters in kidlit than there were [stories] by Asians. So those Asian stories, those Asian main characters were mostly written by white people. Right? Asian folks who had written stories had written stories with white main characters.
What does that say about the industry when you have Asian authors who are afraid to write their own story, who are afraid to get it wrong, but then we have white folks who will jump in and actually tell that story for them? That’s… That’s an issue. And yeah, I do think if you are an author who is like, “I need to write this main character of color,” you need to seriously interrogate why. Why you have to tell the story from that point of view. Because I’m willing to bet you don’t. You can just as easily tell your story from another perspective.
Jaymee: I think this kind of goes back to, just… You’re talking about the industry at large. And I have yet to have someone come up to me saying, “Do you think I’m taking up space?” Because I think, at some level, people are going to realize that my answer’s going to be: “Yes. Actually, you are.”
And I don’t know if this is your fault because you are writing a character of color, and you really should write characters of color once in a while. And you’re totally taking space, and this is… This is generally an editorial decision. This is a publishing decision. It may not ultimately be your decision. All that you can really do is make sure that your craft is done well.
But I think one of the things that kind of annoys me about that question is: why are you asking that of people of color? Why are you asking this question of people of color, and you’re worried about this, if you’re… if you’re worried about taking up space, then is there a way for you to not take up that space?
I remember—I had this really interesting Tumblr ask once about this guy who was all like, “Oh, I worked on this… I’ve done this research for ten years and I really want to write this story that’s set in New Zealand about some Pacific Islander tribe, and I don’t want to just give this up because I’ve invested so much of my time in it. But I don’t want to be appropriative and I don’t want to take a voice away. So what do I do?”
And I’m like, “Well… Step One: write the book. Because clearly it’s in your system, and you need to get it out. Step Two: either you give it to that tribe that you are writing about and have them decide what to do with it. Or two, you put it in a drawer and you don’t let it see light of day. It’s out of your system, it has been written, and your effort has not gone to waste and you can just… just leave it in a drawer. And then maybe one day you’ll be dead, and we will recover it and you will get posthumous fame for this and not immediately profit off of it. But get it out of your system, because clearly this is super important to you.”
But what do you want us to say? That would be my immediate question: what is it that you want me to say? “No, you’re not taking up space; yes, do write more of us?” You know what the stats are. Presumably. You don’t need to ask us for permission. We’re also fellow writers and we don’t have that power. We don’t have that industry strength to say no, we’ve had enough token white writers in our roster writing people of color right now. That’s never going to happen! Not at this stage.
I mean, that totally happened for my anthology, but… that’s not going to happen. Because by and large the industry is so white supremacist that… we are not the ones that you should be having this conversation with. Take up that conversation with your editor. Take it up with your publisher. There’s this thing where I feel like, speaking back to your point about does this story have to be from the perspective of a person of color, can you also tell the story from the perspective of a white protagonist, and if the notes you want to hit are questions about race and the dynamics of racism and how it affects the world that your character is in, you can also do that from a white person’s perspective.
And maybe you should do that. Maybe you should write a really, really white character who is very, very fragile and have them angst through it for 200 pages and see what happens. Because that might be interesting. Because white people also live in a world where racism exists, is experienced by many people. People also experience racism, but not as in it affecting them, in the same way it affects people of color. But white people are also witness to it. They also see it happening and just choose not to talk about it because of white fragility.
And I feel like that is a conversation that white editors, white publishers, and white writers need to be having with themselves about that to get their feels out about it. Because processing it through people of color is like… We become your conduit for your white feels. I don’t know—I want to write my novel, dammit! I just want to do my thing.
So that’s how I feel about that question about taking up space. Are you willing to step aside if you’re worried about this, if you’re really, really worried about it? Are you willing to step aside? Are you willing to somehow leverage your position and bring writers of color to center? If you’re not—If that’s not somehow not your first solution, then I think you need to ask about why you’re asking that question.
Tempest: Yeah, when I read Kameron Hurley’s Geek Feminist Revolution–I’d read some of the essays previously on her blog but I hadn’t read all of them; and Tor actually asked me to read the book to blurb it, and I did–and one of the things that I said about the book was that I felt like it was the next step in the conversation about Writing the Other because of the fact that she addresses what you just said. Where it’s not just about, “Okay, I put some people of color in my work. I’ve decided to write the person of color protagonist though I’m white,” etc.
But then also interrogating what else do I have to do, as a writer, other than just that, in this world that we’re in right now? How do I bring other people’s voices to the forefront? How do I acknowledge what’s going on with me, the privilege that I have, the position that I have in the community, in mainstream culture, whatever it is. And then not just sort of sit back and go: “Well, look! I’ve… I’ve examined it. It’s great, isn’t it?” Or “it’s terrible.” But actually doing active work to bring it forward, which is one of the things I appreciate about that book.
Justina: Oh, that sounds awesome!
Jaymee: That does sound really awesome.
Tempest: That was one of the things that surprised me the most about the book. Not that I was unaware of what Kameron did, but just… I was unaware of how often that she nails that down, in different essays about different things. Which I very much appreciated. Which is why I blurbed the book. But also thinking about when I read the first series of tweets about this from you, Justina, you gave this really great metaphor that I continue to use, because—
Jaymee: The crème brûlée one?
Tempest: The crème brûlée metaphor, yes.
Jaymee: It’s a great metaphor.
Tempest: I’m going to try to not butcher it. But basically, what you were saying was if you have crème brûlée and the first crème brûlée you ever have is from like the grocery store down the street, you’re like: “Mm! This is really good. I love crème brûlée. Crème brûlée is awesome.” And then you go to France, and you go to some fancy restaurant, some fancy pastry place and you have crème brûlée that’s made by a master French chef who has like spent years training in order to make like the perfect crème brûlée. And you eat that and you’re like: “I have—I have tasted heaven!” And it’s the most wonderful thing and you fall all over yourself, and then you can’t go back home and eat crème brûlée from the corner store anymore, ’cause oh, you know—that’s nice. It’s a lovely pudding. But this is not crème brûlée. I… I need that thing that was made by the master chef.
And so it’s a different experience with what you had—the better thing—that you don’t want to go back to the crap thing. And so if you are a writer who’s trying to write characters of color, say you’re a white writer trying to write a Black person, you’re probably producing the equivalent of the corner store crème brûlée. Whereas a person who is Black can produce the French chef ultimate version of the crème brûlée for their experience. Which one of those do you want to have? Obviously you want to have the French chef one.
But if you are a white writer, and you want to get to the fancy French chef version of creating a protagonist of color, what do you feel like are maybe the steps towards doing that? I mean, obviously reading the book Writing the Other, taking one of the classes and whatnot, but what are the other things that white writers can do that they’re like, “Okay, I understand what you’re saying. What should I do, then, to get my crème brûlée to French-chef-trained-at-Sorbonne levels?”
Justina: So one of the things I find a lot with especially white folks trying to write outside their cultural experience is they don’t read outside their cultural experience. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spoken with like white authors who are like: “Oh, I want to write this fantasy with this African-based fantasy. It’s going to be amazing.” And I’m like: “Oh, have you read N. K. Jemisin? Have you read Nnedi Okorafor? Have you read all these folks?” And they’re like: “Oh, no. I’ve never… never read them.” “Oh, I read Kindred once, you know,” like just one—reading one Octavia Butler book does not make you—prepare you to write like Black main characters in SciFi. And so I think that’s part of the work.
If you want to study with a master, you have to study a master. You have to read the pages, you have to extract some of that nuance that you’re going to see on the pages. Because that’s one of the things about identity, is it’s very nuanced. If you’re reading James Baldwin, right? And then you read Ta-Nehisi Coates, you see those echoes and nuance within the writing. You see how the Black experience in America, even over fifty years, has changed but not really. So I think that’s one of the things that authors really need to do first and foremost is understand that the Black experience is not your five-minute sound byte on the evening news. I see that a lot.
You have to understand, although Black suffering sells books, it’s not all suffering. There’s a lot of joy in being a Black person. There’s a lot of like inside jokes and the fact that when you go somewhere and you see another Black person, and you’re like, “Hey!” and like, “Hey!” and you greet each other. And my husband’s white, and he’s always like, “Did you know—Do you know them?” “No, no! No. No, we’re just letting each other know ‘Hey, I see you.'” You know what I mean?
That’s stuff that people don’t get. They don’t get the joy in that identity; all they see is the suffering. So if your book is nothing but suffering, you’ve already missed the Black identity. You’ve already completely missed it. You’ve missed that there’s burnt sugar on top of the crème brûlée. So that’s one of the things I really think is the nuance. You’re going to get it from reading other people, and then you really need to go out and meet people.
If you don’t have any Black friends, you need to do some soul-searching and figure out why. And I get some people are like, “Well, I live in a really white neighborhood.” Look, I live in a really white neighborhood, and I’m a Black person. So I’m like, “I exist; I’m here.” So meet those friends.
I think that’s one of the big things is you have to do the work. You have to do your research. There are no shortcuts, there’s no shortcuts in any kind of writing, whether it’s building plot, building realistic characters, pacing, or dialog. There’s just no shortcuts. You have to do the work.
Jaymee: I kind of want to think through the crème brûlée metaphor for a second here. And—because I think in… when it comes to writing by people of color, there might just be the phenomenon of what happens to Asian food whereby it’s great when it’s done by white chefs…
Jaymee: But you go to a real Chinese restaurant—and there are different kinds of Chinese restaurants, right? There’s the Chinese restaurant where you go and you get your General Tso Chicken—I don’t even know what General Tso Chicken is, all I know is that I don’t like it—and this is supposed to represent Chinese food. And… and you expect it to be cheap. You expect it to be cheap, you expect it to be fast, you expect it to be good all at once. You would never expect that going into a French restaurant asking for really, really good crème brûlée.
And yet that’s how I feel about a lot of Asian food. And in a sense also POC writing, where we expect it to do a lot of this proper representation that caters to the white palate for really cheap. So don’t do that! Don’t devalue our work. For starters. And I totally agree, you should be reading books by writers who—and I think the other thing is that you don’t want to read writers who are simply writing about your experience—about this generic immigrant experience or whatever. But also writers who are writing specifically for their community.
And this is one of the things that I really respected about a lot about the Black science fiction writers is that they are clearly writing for a very specific community. And what is specific to that really translates into a wider audience and it actually is much more joyous to read that kind of fiction than it is to read someone who’s trying to “represent the entirety of the Black experience” and it just kind of falls flat because there is no way to do that without any nuance. There is so much richness to be had there.
And that comes from acknowledging that a community is made out of many many different kinds of experiences and that’s why I kind of don’t really enjoy a lot of books that are catered to this generic “mainstream audience,” right? Because it kind of wants to flatten all that nuance into something much more palatable. And find books that are not palatable to white people, I guess. I don’t know how you would find them, but you… Okay, so—if you want to know if an Asian restaurant is really good—I’ve discovered this—is, you look into the restaurant, and if there are lots of Asian people there, and very few white people there, that’s a good place to go. You should go there.
Justina: That’s the places I always try to eat at.
Jaymee: So I figure… If there’s a book which is read by a lot of minority population that it is about, you should maybe pick up that book. And especially if it gets panned by white critics, then maybe maybe it’s got something that you don’t know is good for you. Also, don’t just watch wuxia films and think that you can write about Asian stories. Just—there’s a very particular context for wuxia films that even I don’t understand all of it, because I’m diasporan. It’s a whole cultural context there, but wuxia films are appealing specifically because it comes from this context and it is geared toward that specific cultural context. And the fact that it’s fun for everybody else does not diminish at all the importance of that context. That context is actually what makes it much more realized than anything else.
And yeah, I totally agree stop with the torture porn. It’s just… It’s not our lives!
Justina: I think it’s kind of worse for folks from an Asian background, though, from Black folks. So I think there’re—you guys see a lot more appropriation and piecemealing out of your cultural relevance, and I think, I don’t know if it’s—if that’s the whole anime effect, or what. But I feel like I’ve read more flattened Asian fantasies than I’ve read Black fantasies. I think there’s a lot of anti-Blackness within the world still, that people don’t want to write unless we’re a secondary character that dies for the cause. You don’t really see a lot of Black main characters or any Black-based fantasy, but I feel like I read a lot of horribly done Asian fantasy where we’re like, “We’re going to take this from Japanese culture, and we’re going to take this from Korean culture, and we’re going to take this over here from Vietnamese culture and mush ’em up and look! I have a brand new fantasy world!” So I think back to your metaphor of the cheap—the cheap Chinese food that you get at the corner store. I think it applies, right? Because you can get your sushi, and you can get your Szechuan, and get those doughnuts, those little fried doughnuts that have nothing to do with Chinese food at all, all in the same place, and you’re like, “What the hell is this?”
Jaymee: Make up your mind; what kinds of food you like.
Justina: Right! [laughs]
Jaymee: Or! I mean, I actually don’t mind going to a store where I can get Japanese and Korean food at the same time, as long as the chef is doing it well.
Jaymee: But sometimes they’re not, and it weirds me out when I—I’ve gone into a Thai restaurant and I was like, I can hear Cantonese coming out of the kitchen, and I’m like, “I… I… Whu… Why is this a thing?” And that just has to do with supply and demand and what a neighborhood wants to consume a lot more.
But to speak to your point about more flatly done Asian characters, I think there is definitely that… the mainstreaming of anime has something to do with that. And it’s kind of like “monkey see, monkey do.” And nobody wants to do that with a whole lot of Blackness, because Asians are kind of the other white meat, so we’re slightly less intimidating, I guess? I don’t know.
Justina: You’re the good minority.
Jaymee: We’re the good minority. We’re the minority used to kind of stave off Blackness, right?
Jaymee: And so we are infinitely more consumable than Black media, I guess. I don’t know. And that’s why we will consume all this K-pop and K-hip hop, right? Because it’s much more palatable. Because you’ve got—even if you’re not getting a white face, you’ve got a white-skinned face, and that’s okay.
And yeah, I think also too, there’s just a very, very long tradition with Asian diasporan communities to piecemeal out our heritage, and adapt it to whatever cultural context we enter. So it’s not just about assimilating wholesale into whiteness here in America. We still try to maintain some little bits and pieces here, and that is what goes through. And not only that but we used to try to pare it down to a—to such an extent so that we become less threatening to whiteness. And part of how you make yourself less threatening to whiteness is that you make yourself consumable.
And I feel like that is the case for many Asian communities here in the States, and even across the world where we have to, I don’t know, prop up our local economies through … a tourism industry that very often caters to an imperialist, white, colonial gaze. And it somehow still remains and that means, like offering ourselves up to be consumed by this white gaze. And so that means we can take pieces of this and that will be fine because we will reconstitute ourselves like Voltron. I don’t know. That’s how I feel about that.
Tempest: No. Oh no. I just… That sounds horrible.
How are we going to get out of this? Well, I will say, one of the things that I discussed when those tweets first came out, there was actually a discussion in the Writing the Other class I was teaching at the time about this and about what white writers can do other than just like the stuff that I was teaching, which was a lot of: you have to read the books, you have to do the research, you have to do the things. But I also talk a lot about how I feel like in writing we don’t value practice or getting our feet wet with things as much as other artistic disciplines do.
And one of the things that I ended up suggesting was saying, instead of starting out with a protagonist of color, or even like a viewpoint character of color, starting out by having a character or many characters of color who are in secondary roles, who are not necessarily–they are not the background. They’re there, they’re active, they’re doing things, they’re crucial, but they may not be the main character, they may not be POV characters. That’s where you start. And then, as you do that more, you get more writing skill down, you become more virtuoso, you can actually start to make the actual crème brûlée. How do you all feel about that advice?
Justina: I actually think that’s great advice. I think if you want to write a main character of color, you need to start with writing fully fleshed-out, awesome secondary characters of color. And like you said, not caricatures; don’t write me a magical Negro and a sexy Latina best friend and those kinds of things. Give them their own story arc. Give them their own shit going on, basically.
And I think when you start from that point of view, you can see—the cliché is always, “Well, I write main characters of color, I just see them as people.” And I’m like, “Right, but—you don’t, because your main character of color on the page is eating fried chicken and sucking their teeth and talking about how much they can’t wait to go get some of that red drink.” If all your main character is doing is stereotypical things, you still aren’t seeing them as a person; you’re seeing them as a, quote, “character.” So I think that’s a great idea to like write secondary who have their own plots, have their own shit going on, so then when you come to, “Hey, my main character might be white, but I have this great secondary cast that’s like doing things, and hey maybe my second book is that.”
I also think we greatly undervalue the idea of writing books that don’t succeed. Some of my best learning has come from the books that failed. The books where you can say yeah, that is a shitshow, and no—it shall never see the light of day.
I think folks need to let go of this idea that, “Oh my god! I have this idea for this book with a Black main character!” Okay, cool! Write it! ‘Cause it might never ever see the light of day. You might write it, and you might be like, “No.” Put it in the drawer. Don’t keep trying to make fetch work; if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. Just put it away. And I think that’s great advice. It’s just write—write the damn thing, and then afterwards, see where it is, put it away, go write something else, just keep writing and keep moving forward.
Jaymee: Yeah, I think the whole practice of writing is that you need to keep writing. Right? If you stop, then you deprive yourself of a learning experience that you will only be able to have only if you keep writing.
I’m a bit meh on the idea of making secondary characters of color as a stepping stone because like it kind of feels like, oh well, you’re just playing practice with writing humans. And I think no matter what your secondary characters are, they’re always going to be a protagonist of their own story that your main viewpoint character is not going to have access to. And that should just be across the board, just plain writing practice. No matter what kind of marginalizations they face. And I’m kind of leery of the idea that you can do practice runs of writing marginalization. Because I feel like that could be abused.
And I think that just goes back to Justina’s first question really early on: Why are you doing this? Why are you writing this character? Interrogate your desire to write secondary characters of color and why you feel your protagonist will interact with these characters of color in such-and-such a manner.
And I think the other thing too, is we’re… I agree that we’re really afraid of getting yelled at, and of getting things wrong. And I wonder if there’s space for writers to just let themselves get yelled at in a way that they can process constructively, rather than, “Oh, I’m so sorry! Please teach me better, senpai!” But more like: “Wow, there are particular kinds of criticism coming at me right now, and this is probably my weak spot.” Because it’s going to come whether or not your character of color is the protagonist or the secondary character. It’s going to happen, and you need to be able to take this being yelled at and not be all: “Oh my god, that was so mean!”
Maybe some of it is mean, but maybe that’s okay, too. Because people are just different like that. You know? And sometimes we’re mean. And there is space for meanness in our lives because people are human beings and human beings are also super petty sometimes. And so what’s wrong with that? What do you mean you don’t like people being mean to you? People are mean to you all the time, just not specifically about issues of race. So you can survive all the other kinds of meanness, but you can’t survive this one? You can, I promise.
Tempest: Well, it’s always different when it’s your baby.
But speaking of that, Justina, I know that you in particular have put together a list of sensitivity readers at writeinthemargins.org, and you’re encouraging people to not only utilize the services of sensitivity readers, but for people who do that work to be like: “You are going to pay me for this, because this is a lot.”
Justina: Oh, yeah!
Tempest: It’s a lot.
Justina: Get paid!
Jaymee: If I gotta get angry at this, I better get paid.
Justina: Right! You need to ease the pain.
Jaymee: Anger takes up energy. I need food for that energy.
Tempest: You gotta pay me. What are the things that you’ve run into that you’ve seen where people are not utilizing the sensitivity reader experience to the fullest? Which, I assume, involves a lot of whining.
Justina: Yeah! So the biggest thing I see with folks is they get the sensitivity reader to get that POC Check of Approval. Like “I had a sensitivity reader!” The other thing I see is folks are like, “I don’t know which sensitivity reader to hire.” So a lot of the responses will come through me because for the sake of people not having their email addresses and their personal information out there, I’m like: “Look, just email the generic—the Writing in the Margins email address, and I can forward it to the person.”
But sometimes I get folks come in, they’re like, “Okay, but I don’t know who to send this to.” And I’m like, “Well, tell me about your main character.” I mean, that’s kind of a red flag for me. If you can’t figure out who in the database to send it to, do you really know what part of Mexico your protagonist is from? You know—they’re just generic “illegal immigrant”? What do you—we don’t use “illegal immigrant” anymore. “Undocumented citizens”? What’s the work that you did before you came to me?
I feel like a sensitivity reader should be the last step in the chain. After you’ve worked out all the process problems in your story, after all your best friend Becky has read through the manuscript and told you all the plot points that you forgot to hit, after your agent has come through and given you a round of notes, or I am almost ready to send this out on submission, let me get one last pair of eyes on it. That’s when the sensitivity reader should come. And again, you need to come to that with humility and a sense of wanting to do the work.
And I think a lot of times people just—they want to make excuses for why they did the thing. Instead of just saying, “Okay, cool. I’m going to go fix this,” they want to argue about it. But it’s not a conversation, right? It’s, “Show me how to do this thing.” “I showed you how to do this thing.” You either go do the thing, or you say, “Cool, I’m not going to go do the thing,” and you don’t do the thing.
And I think that’s been the biggest issue with sensitivity readers. Also, the idea–people will tell folks: “This is not okay. This is kind of… poor depiction.” Which, this is what’s happening a lot, before we did the sensitivity reader database. One of the reasons I did the database is because a lot of people were complaining, especially authors of color, because diversity is such a big “trend.” And I hate that word, because it’s not a trend, ’cause I’m still going to be here, you know. I might not be pegging my jeans anymore, but I’m still here! It’s not a trend, you know people exist. But it’s kind of this thing, everyone is like, “Oh! It’s going to get me—it’s going to be my golden ticket to getting published. You know, I’m going to write a not-white character—main character.”
So one of the things we’re seeing is a lot of people are being asked to read these manuscripts, but they weren’t getting compensated. And it takes a lot of time to read someone’s manuscript, to go through and say, “Hey! These words are problematic.” “Hey, I don’t know how you meant this, but this is how I read this.” “Okay, this would never happen and it’s really offensive.” It takes a lot of emotional currency to go through these manuscripts and pick out these things.
And so my thing is if they’re going to take up your emotional currency, take your time, they need to be compensating you. Especially if they’re not going to follow what you tell them! So that was one of the reasons we came up with the database, the sensitivity reader database: so folks could (a) try to get it right by having somebody who’s lived that experience tell them where they missed the points that they missed, where the notes ring false, so to speak, and (2) to give people compensation for that work that they’re already doing.
Because I have a lot of friends who are like, “You do not understand how many emails I get.” I get them. I was getting them myself before I put prices on my website. I would get them–once a week I would get someone like, “Hey, I have a question to ask you about my Black main character.” And I’m like, “Okay, do you understand I have my own work to do? I can’t do your work for you as well.” So that was really the impact behind it. It’s not supposed to be meant as a stamp of approval for folks who want to write these stories. It’s not meant to be a shortcut to doing the work. It’s just supposed to be one more tool in your toolbox to get it right. And I hope that people use it that way instead of just using it as like a shortcut.
Check! The Stamp of Approval. 100% POC Approved. So…
Jaymee: Yeah, I think the whole thing that people are getting uncompensated and ignored for all that work that they put in is one of the reasons why I really enjoy the idea of a database with sensitivity readers who will get compensated. Because that has happened to so many friends of mine where they will read a thing by this problematic white author and they’ll be like, “Okay, this has this problem, this problem, this problem, this problem. This is basically unreadable to people of my heritage.” And… then nothing happens. The author just goes on and publishes it anyway.
Because they know that they can get away with it. And they’ve already had that pass, they didn’t like what the sensitivity reader had to say, and they don’t have to really—in the larger picture, they don’t really have to care.
And to me that would not be a thing that comes in as one of the last steps of manuscript finishing. That would come in in the early drafts to point out: “Okay, these are some really early mistakes that you should not be making in later drafts, because this could lead to some huge structural problem.”
Because to me issues of cultural misunderstandings are structural issues because they are issues of character. They’re not like typos at the end of the process for me. But different writers are going to have that process differently. I think that’s great for every single stage of the writing, but as an additional tool and not one for a stamp of approval. “I just got my certification for this process! I am now qualified to do this thing.” No, you had a conversation about this thing.
Tempest: Yeah. “The Black person said, and that’s…” What? That was one Black person.
Justina: One Black person to rule them all.
Tempest: I will mention here that in the description of this video, or in the materials accompanying it, whichever one it ends up being, there are links to the sensitivity reader database as well as links to articles, blog posts that have been written about this—some of them by the people participating in this roundtable—that go deep into this idea of setting out to write characters who are different from you but also the other things that are attendant upon it. Before we wrap up, I just want to ask if either of you had anything else that you wanted to say about the topics that we’ve covered, anything that I didn’t ask you that you were burning with a need that you wanted to get out there.
Justina: Nah, man. Every day, all day every day on Twitter, I’m there. [Laughs]
Jaymee: Well, me too, but I would say, ’cause I want to return to that question of the why. Because I think that’s such an interesting question to ask every single author, because they all have very different reactions. “Why this?” And either they’ll be like, “Uh… uh… uh… uh…” and like, “Does not compute,” or they’ll have like a really interesting answer, and that’s really cool. And I’m just always very fascinated by the question of the why, because presumably we’re writing these stories because we want to tell these stories from our imagination and these imaginations are shaped by our experiences, and by our knowledge of the world.
So, if you fail to write the Other in a way that’s realistic, then it’s a reflection of that smallness of imagination.
And I think that’s something that authors really need to think about: how big or small is your imagination that it cannot encompass this larger world, with nuance, with varying the fullness of your knowledge. And the knowledge available to you at your fingertips now, through the power of Google and through the power of all these databases that you could just request from your friends in university.
Ultimately you are providing the product for the industry and you don’t have to write for “the market.” You have to write for–you’re writing for people, ultimately. And you need to think about who those people are. One person’s hurt feelings, are they like worth—if you hurt one person who is marginalized and you add to that, is that comparable to all the good reviews you’re going to get from people who are perfectly comfortable? I don’t know.
I think people need to weigh that in their own souls. Deep down! That’s how I feel.
Tempest: I’m with you there. Well, Justina, and Jaymee, thank you so much for this conversation. This has been incredible. And I hope that the folks who listen to this, the folks who are potentially taking the classes or who have taken the classes get a lot of value out of this. But, as they said, they are around on Twitter a lot, and on Facebook, and I’m sure that they are willing to continue the conversation, although they probably are not willing to answer all the questions about your character unless you pay them. Always pay your sensitivity readers!
Jaymee: $50 an hour
Tempest: That’s right! That’s the take-away from this. All right. Thank you both so much and…
Jaymee: Thanks for having us.
Tempest: And thank you all for watching.
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