On Writing Race: Tips for the Conscious Writer

by | May 24, 2021 | Contributing Blogger | 0 comments

By: Sofija Sion

One of the most sensitive subjects to write about is race, but it doesn’t have to be. I’m a white European woman who has never experienced racism firsthand. However, as a writer, I am aware words matter, and now, more than ever, we need to be consciously aware of the voices and perspectives we project into the world.

This challenge of communication, of expressing right and wrong, has taken a multitude of industries by storm, and the writing world was not an exception. 

With a new understanding and approach to race, it is easy to navigate safe and non-offensive communication. Often so, as the Dean of Harvard says: “All too often, we think the risk of causing offense is so great that we decide to stay silent.” 

One of the many areas we decide to stay silent is writing.

Although at this moment, the most essential works on racism and race are sold out, most of the publishing houses are consisted of 80% white people– especially people who have the supreme authority; the editors. There is a huge lack of proper representation for writers of color. Most black characters in books are not the leading characters, but they are what one calls the help – they are there to make the white person realize the good within them. 

But an even bigger debate is should white people even create black characters or write about race? Are those stories even theirs to tell? Or, should black people and other people of color express their own opinions through their work solely?

In an article in the Washington Post novelist Laura Lippmann explores the outcome of her creating black characters in her hometown Baltimore. She was persistently asked whether she sought permission for creating an African-American character while she was a white woman. Lippmann defends her right as an author to write without asking for approval.

“Once I concede that there are any subjects I’m not ‘allowed’ to write about, all subjects except my own life will be closed to me. I still believe I needn’t seek permission to write anything, about anyone.” 

I believe white people have a duty to be allies to people of color, even in writing. People of color need to tell their stories in their manner, but white people should create black characters consciously. Even more so, I believe white people creating black characters enhances black peoples’ voices and their culture, and there are more stories in the world.

However, respectfully navigating these waters might be quite hard. That is why we suggest these tips to help tell stories without being disrespectful.

1. Do your research

If you are writing about people of color, you need to read up and soak up all the knowledge about the character you are writing. Now, depending on the genre and the style of writing, this knowledge absorption varies. If you are going into realism, and you want to portray your character the way things have realistically happened, dig up as much information as you can find. 

2. Use appropriate language

Language is such a powerful tool. When used, it can fortify a meaning, whether it is good or bad. That is why, when writing about people of color or creating any story, writers need to use appropriate language. Such examples would be: 

  • Getting the terminology right – according to Hamilton, for example, there is a difference between Latino and Hispanic. “Hispanic is typically used to refer to anyone from a Spanish-speaking background. The term white sometimes includes people who identify as Hispanic.  Note, however, that many Hispanics do not identify as white. The terms Latino/Latina/Latin are used mostly in the US to refer to US residents with ties to Latin America.”
  • Be specific – do not say Asians, say Koreans, for example, or do not say “slaves” say “enslaved people.”  
  • Do not use food metaphors for a description of color, especially considering the historical context that black people were enslaved for making chocolate, coffee, etc. 

3. Be mindful of stereotypes 

The black character who makes the white person seem good; the Asian character who is good at math or martial arts, the Indian guy who is good with technology. These are just a handful of the examples present in literature that are of poor taste and distort the perception of culture and race. People of color are more than the stereotypes they presume and if we want to be their allies, then presenting a realistic representation is vital. 

4. Talk to a person of color 

As I said before, it is necessary white people to create representation for people of color. What better way to navigate this appropriately if not to talk to an actual person of color and gain their perspective on things? When we talk to other people, we gain a broader perspective, which is incredibly important in the writing process and key when creating characters of a different culture other than your own.

And finally, sure, it is tough to talk about race when you’re white, and you do not know what people of color have gone through for centuries, but if you want to be an ally and create a better world, representing people of color is a good idea when you do it right. 

We hope these tips help you out in the writing process. If you have any ideas of your own, be sure to let us know in the comments below! 

-Sofija Sion

Learn more about Sofija and the rest of the Galaxy team here.

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