They Will Only Want You on Their Terms

The other day I was talking to an aspiring writer, a woman of color. She asked me what is the one thing she should know as she began to pursue publication. I thought for a moment and told her “You will never win. People will always be unhappy with you. You will simultaneously be too much and not enough.” She seemed surprised by this, but we both had places to be and I didn’t have time to extrapolate.

This post is for her, and every other Woman of Color who is an aspiring author. These are the things no one ever told me, though I doubt I would’ve listened if they did.

If you write a white character, people of color will ask why you didn’t write a person of color, maybe your own ethnicity, there are so few of us writing, after all.

If you write a character of color, you will be told you’re pandering. You’ll be overlooked in favor of the white author who just had to tell the story of the oppression of your people. And your own people? They’ll tell you how you got it wrong, how they wanted your character to do X and Y and how you didn’t do that, because your single story must be all things to all the people who happen to share a similar culture.

You’ll also be told, loudly and often, that you aren’t the right kind of woman of color to write the story you wrote. No matter that a hundred white people have already diced the culture up and fed from the carcass of its exoticism. You will be the one who is wrong, for reinforcing the things they said, even if maybe that was the one thing they got right.

You will not get the big advance, because your book is niche since your characters aren’t white. Never mind that a white author writing a similar story goes to auction, the strangeness of your name means that your book has been tainted the moment you penned it.

Or worse, you will get a large advance, buzzy news releases, your name on everyone’s lips, tripping up their tongues with its unfamiliar syllables. Now, you are the Highlander, the one woman of color to rule them all. Your failure will scorch the landscape of publishing forever so there will never be another book like yours. Or it’s success will spawn a dozen poorly executed copy cats, all by white authors, who capitalize on the novelty of your identity to make themselves famous, the way colonizers always do.

You will only be invited to diversity panels, because what could a woman of color possibly have to say about anything else? You will be asked invasive questions about your culture and your personal life, because now you are the Black/Indian/Chinese/Mexican friend they’ve never had. And first it might be cute and fun. But very quickly you will realize that they want a cardboard cut-out, a sassy best friend, and not the messy entirety of the person that you are.

And woe to you if you attempt to point that out, if you strain against the walls of the box in which you’ve been placed. After all, you should be grateful. Eternally thankful, forever happy to work harder for less and less.

All of your words will be laid bare for dissection in a manner that they aren’t for white women, and especially not white men. Even men of color will get the benefit of the doubt, but not you. You are a woman of color, and your audacity at trying to exist in any literary sphere will make you a target in the way no other writer is. They will look for every type of possible problematic portrayal, taking lines out of context, eschewing nuance, dicing up the richness of your narrative, all in a search to point to you and say “Ha! How dare you?!” In their quest to skewer you they will let the gross failings of others slide by with a wave and a nod, the literary equivalent of a cop’s racial profiling, a double standard you can never hope to achieve.

This is the reality of being a woman of color in publishing. You cannot win, not like everyone else does.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t play the game.

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