Steeplejack

Writing POC While White

steeplejackWritten by A. J. Hartley

My most recent novel, Steeplejack, is a vaguely steampunky fantasy adventure that centers on Anglet Sutonga, a woman of color. She lives in the city of Bar-Selehm, a place which does not actually exist and never has. The city looks a bit like South Africa but looks more like Victorian London than South Africa ever did, and its political system looks more like apartheid than like the early years of colonialism.

What this means, of course, is that I’m inventing the world and its people, drawing on current issues as much as I am those of the past, and mixing those with known histories. I am not a person of color (POC), and my writing one may raise issues that can be encapsulated by what I call “the Jurassic Park conundrum”: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn’t stop to think if they should,” or more simply as, “Why?”

There are several really good reasons why white guys shouldn’t write POC characters. First, they often do it badly, and by badly I don’t just mean incompetently, clumsily, or unconvincingly, but offensively. Too often writers play upon stereotypes and white notions of what it means to be a POC (please God, fellow white people, stop writing your Stepin Fetchit version of Ebonics in the name of authenticity). Conversely, and almost as problematic to my mind, many writers assume that race/ethnicity is irrelevant, so characters can be written as white and then (like the awful colorizing of old movies) given a superficial tint.

Race is a real and meaningful part of who we are, so writing a racially-neutral character and then giving them dark skin or an “ethnic-sounding” name doesn’t allow that character to reflect upon the social realities that shaped their sense of self, particularly how they have been treated by the greater, imperfect world.

These two extremes in how race is treated create a real dilemma for writers who may have the best motives in the world, but motives get you only so far; the success of any writing depends on how it is received by its audience, not by the intentions of the author. So how do you allow race to be a formative part of a character, without reducing that character to a kind of cipher for their demographic in ways that deny the essential and complex personhood of the individual? That’s the challenge for me: not hiding from race but also not allowing it—particularly my white man’s assumptions about what it is—to entirely define the character.

As a writer, I have a great deal of interest in the friction that occurs when some aspect of a person—whether it’s race, gender, profession, interests, tastes, personality, or whatever—is at odds with what might be assumed about them. That’s a rich vein for a fiction writer, especially one like me who has always felt a little between categories, never quite fitting in. But as a white man I understand that there are realms of experience which I do not have, and other experiences which I am socially-coded to ignore or demean. At least, I know it with my head, but not always in my gut. As a literary academic (I’m a Shakespeare professor) as well as a novelist, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the intersection of books and social issues. My home life has allowed me to see those issues in less abstract terms (my wife and son are POC). So while I believe I can understand a little how it feels to be an “outsider,” my gender and race have been, broadly-speaking, assets.

In Japan, for instance, where I lived for a couple of years a quarter century or so ago, I often felt excluded and there were occasional instances (generally involving older people) when I definitely felt the shadow of World War II, but I never felt looked down upon for my race in ways some non-Japanese Asians in the same community did. I have lived in Boston, in Atlanta, and now in Charlotte. In all these places, my Britishness has often triggered a certain “You’re not from round here” wariness or skepticism, but never contempt.

Other people usually assume I’m more sophisticated because of my upbringing (something my Lancashire, working-class school friends would have found hilarious). I’m constantly told that British people all sound smart to Americans, and while that remains baffling to me, I know I benefit from it. While I know what it’s like not to fit in, I’m not constantly judged or demeaned based solely on what people think when they see me. The legacies of colonialism, sexism, and racism are, to this day, power in various forms. Recognizing this has, I think, helped my writing.

My impulse to write characters of color is political and stems from the belief that writers have an obligation to reflect the world they live in. People approach that challenge in a variety of ways, but I feel compelled to try in a small way to redress the historical bias which has taken white (and frequently male, and almost always straight) as the default position. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I am committed to giving diverse characters my very best shot, while simultaneously supporting marginalized writers in the telling of their own stories.

People ask whether I did a lot of research into the lives of people of color before writing this book, and the short answer is: “Consciously? Not much.” As a white man, I don’t want to speak over my wife (who is East Asian) and son’s voices, but I can tell you how my family’s experiences of racism have impacted my writing as well.

Once, while at the grocery store with my mixed-race son, a lady approached me and very politely asked which adoption agency I’d used because she was looking to do the same. As part of an interracial couple I’m alert to these issues and see first-hand that people treat me differently than they do my wife. Some instances, known as microaggressions, are when people talk about the “little stuff”: questions about where she’s “really” from (Chicago), or the pleased relief that she speaks English. Some are more hurtful, as when someone dismissed her Harvard degree on the grounds that “They have quotas for people like you.”

When we first got together I had some very difficult conversations with some well-meaning people who, while professing not to be in any way racist, said, “It’s just the children I worry about.” I hear the fake Chinese some of the local kids start doing when they see us walking the dog in our very white neighborhood, and I’m now talking to my son about how he identifies himself racially in preparation for checking boxes in college applications. Compared to the reality of my wife’s grandfather’s World War II internment (and subsequent loss of all his property), these may seem like minor concerns, but my point is that we’re aware of race all the time. We talk about it all the time.

Life is the apprenticeship you need to be a writer. We all recognize the importance of writing what we know and—particularly in speculative fiction—expanding that sense of knowledge so that we don’t limit ourselves to the prosaically mundane. But what we know is often less about study and research and more about what we have absorbed through daily interactions. I am not a person of color, but the people dearest to me are, and I am made observant and reflective of their lot by love.

Portraying disempowered Otherness on the page is still possible even if you don’t know it (in your gut) as lived experience. You can research it. You can talk to other people about it. Hell, you can see it in the news every day. But writing a POC character when you aren’t one yourself is not the same as writing a profession you know nothing about—plumbing, say—which you can fake your way through by watching a few How To videos on YouTube. In the end, all you can do is try to do it with sensitivity and respect, but—and this is more important—be ready to listen to those better qualified to assess what you’ve done when they tell you you’ve got it wrong. Again, meaning well isn’t enough, and the road to hell really is paved with good intentions.

To return to the Jurassic Park conundrum, however, it’s fair to ask whether the attempt is worth the effort. Indeed, some say that white people writing POC characters or books is itself a form of appropriation, which means there is less room on the shelves for writers of color telling their own stories (there’s a good articulation of this perspective here). But I also think that writing about race (and all the other “isms”) is important because all people have a stake in these conversations, and we need to find ways to discuss such things which break down that sense of our culture as fundamentally siloed, divided, and fractious.

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13 thoughts on “Writing POC While White

  1. This is why I hate,HATE, leftists. You’re a writer — and a fiction writer. Write whoever and whatever you want. Asking permission to write is pathetic and quite frankly makes me want to ban you from my reading list. Bring race into whether or not you should write something? Because some one else might want to write about a black or Hispanic etc? My suggestion is if you are so concerned about blacks not writing enough books about blacks you stop writing all together and become a social worker instead. This PC drivel is killing every aspect of freedom.

  2. Wow, Matt. Thank you for that brilliant insight. Anyone who reads your comment will come away a better, more enlightened person who will totally ignore or view with contempt anyone who makes an effort to be a better human being.

  3. Matt, you totally missed the point. We have had a long history of white writers either ignoring characters of color or incredibly poor attempts at writing characters of color. So the point is that as writers we just need to be more MINDFUL of how we depict a character of a race or ethnicity that is not us so that character can be portrayed more authentically. This has nothing to do with being a leftist or not. The perception of a political agenda resides solely within you, sir.

  4. This is a good blog post because it’s something I struggled with as I wrote a POC in the second book in a series of mine.. But if I hadn’t, then I would have had yet another YA novel with an entirely white cast of characters and my POC was integral to the plot – the book simply would not have worked without her. This is a subject that I struggled with for a project featuring an Asian protagonist which is currently on submission. I could have written with a white protagonist, but I wanted to write an Asian character because it made for a deeper examination of her motivations. Writing her forced me to write better because I recognized what was at stake in writing a POC as a main character. Very simply, I don’t think it would be anywhere near as good a story as it is had it been a white character.

    As an author, you always try to improve the quality of one’s writing. I think it’s important to write whatever characters you introduce with honesty and to the best of your ability. It also requires that an author take risks. This is one of them.

  5. I think what Matt’s trying to say is I can write aliens, superheroes, vampires, wizards and time travelers and no one gives a shit. I write a gender/religion/orientation/culture/skin tone that’s not mine, and people wonder if I should do it. Whether I’ll get it “right”, because another human being is much harder to write than an sapient virus from 4000 years in the future. Do research, period. You should be doing it anyway. (And the whole idea of one correct way to write a person is still promotion of an acceptable stereotype. A POC from urban CA and one from rural VA or seaside England are not interchangeable.)

  6. I thank Hartley for this essay. I also understand where Matt’s coming from.

    I wonder if Hartley sees writing a female mc in a different light than writing a poc mc? It seems weird to me that he never touches on this. Would he hesitate to write a black poc because his wife and child aren’t black? Does an East Asian wife give him cover on Sutonga but not a black character?

    I actually am not trying to point fingers here or argue about this, and I’m definitely not expecting the author (who’s written a thoughtful essay on a difficult topic) to respond. It just seems like an impossible tangle.

    I definitely want to see the male authors I love write female characters and female mcs. (Thank you, Hartley!!! –although I’m not yet familiar with your work) I’m white and female and I want to see a full range of characters in the books I read. In my own books (knock on wood that they will some day see print), I want to have men and women, pocs (p’soc?), old and young, disabled & superheroish, and aliens and gods and demons and sentient horses all that.

    Of course, I don’t expect a god to pop up and say “you got me wrong.” If a reader tells me my white people don’t feel white or my women don’t seem very womanly I’ll say, Eh. Totes non-threatening, although I’d definitely ask for details and specifics. But if a black person says Your black character was like a white person you painted brown, I will cringe as I ask to hear more. If an Inuit person says, Nice attempt to ground that Inuit character in 21st c Canada but you got it totally wrong, I will cringe as I ask to hear more.

    And of course it’s got to do with dominant culture. If a man tells me I got my man totally wrong, I’ll ask for specifics but not cringe (or at any rate not too hard). I’m being funny here, but you take my point? (& in fact I find I have to encourage my male friends to weigh in on gender issues, which I think is kinda silly.)

    If a good male friend asked me to read his book with a female mc and give him my thoughts on the portrayal, I would be happy to do that. And, depending on the book, I might be able to offer very useful insights–but of course “approved by one particular woman” isn’t some kind of pass or panacea.

    (Sidebar: I’ve noticed people will sometimes issue categorical judgments when they’re dealing with people who can’t lay claim to lived experience, whereas they wouldn’t to a mixed audience. For example: I recall a male friend who was discussing a movie scene with me and his wife saying, “Totally unrealistic that he would be able to make a mostly-unconflicted decision not to have sex at that point because he would have been so strongly aroused” vs another man telling me and other female friends, “It is utter bs when men talk about how hard it is to decline sex even at the moment of penetration.” I think these two guys were both being completely honest, but their personal experience was different. They both felt comfortable speaking for “all men” because they were talking to women.)

    Like I said, impossible tangle, at least if you have the conflict-avoidant personality a lot of writers seem to have. All we can do is build our characters, write our books, listen and learn where we can from the criticisms that come our way (assuming we are fortunate enough to have readers who care enough to comment) … and not let it stop us from doing our work.

    And as SF writers, we can at least take the long view. In 500 yrs, I’m sure my stories will look incredibly time-bound in ways I haven’t even considered.

  7. Hartley states that, “There are several really good reasons why white guys shouldn’t write POC characters.”
    If the reasoning behind this is valid, then the reverse would also be valid, that being that “There are several good reasons why POC shouldn’t write white characters.”
    Seriously, think about it. It cuts both ways. I therefore think Hartley’s original statement is not well thought out and holds no water at all. Whatever point the author was trying to make failed with this illogical line of reasoning.

  8. I see this more and more often, and it makes me fear for the future. We seem to be coming to a point in our culture where in a fight for equality, we are actually splintering ourselves into little tribes. Saying that a white person can’t (or shouldn’t, or whatever else your argument might be) write about someone who is black, or asian or Hispanic, denies our fundamental shared humanity. To ignore or dismiss ANYONE’s viewpoint on ANYTHING simply because of the color of their skin (whatever it may be), their heritage, their religion, or really any other category they may or may not belong to DOES NOT make things better – it makes things worse.

  9. One of my Dragoneers is an ebon skinned Outlander who rides a dragon named Golden. I had a great response about her character and her culture. Also, #1000blackgirlbooks a mission of an amazing little girl, has recognized and welcomed the #DragoneerSaga because of Aikira, the Outland Ambassadora.

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