How Not to Write for the White Gaze
A guide for Asian American writers to make sure you aren’t whitewashing your stories.
I am a hyphenated American. I am South Asian-American and write stories about my culture and the immigrant experience. Growing up in the United States, I knew of ZERO South Asian-American authors. I read books written by white authors until I got into AP English in high school and was finally exposed to writers of color. That was many years ago. Since then, I have been seeking Black American, Native American, and Latinx authors to help me learn the real story of this country I live in. I majored in English in undergrad and earned an MFA in Writing. My MFA thesis was a memoir and it was the first time I was learning how to honestly write about my family, culture, and race. I read so many books by Asian American authors like Scaachi Koul and Eddie Huang to help me learn how to talk about my culture. I read so many books by Black womxn authors like Roxane Gay and Samantha Irby to help me learn how to unapologetically tell my story.
Today, thankfully, there are more Asian American authors to choose from. However, many Asian American writers tend to write for a white audience and the white gaze (I could write a whole article on why this is, but I won’t get into it here.) From reading their works, I have learned what not to do when trying to tell an authentic story about my culture and people. Here are some things I learned:
- Write who you know. I know, you’ve heard the phrase “write what you know” a million times and it sounds cheesy, but bear with me. I’m applying this specifically to your characters. When you write characters in a story about your race and culture, try to base them on real people that you know. This will keep you from using stereotypes or caricatures of your own race/culture that you might have been brainwashed with through the media.
- Read more books by Black and Indigenous authors. I learned how to be unapologetically myself by reading books by Black and Indigenous authors who were raw and unapologetically themselves in their writing. As an Asian American writer, this can be very difficult because we are so programmed into being the “model minority” and making sure we are pleasing and familiar to white people. Unfortunately, this keeps us from being our authentic selves and whitewashes our work.
- Read less books by white authors. If you only read works written by white authors, you will only learn how to write for a white audience. Again, there are many Black, Indigenous and Latinx authors out there who are writing directly for their people about their people because their voices have been silenced in this country for hundreds of years. If you want to write for an audience that isn’t white, you must read works written for an audience that isn’t white. Books written by white authors are written for a white audience by default. Which leads me to my next point…
- Don’t write for a white audience. When you are actively writing for a white audience, you are going to whitewash your story. It’s inevitable. Also, white audiences have enough literature for them and about them. Use your voice to write for your own people. Not only will this help you be your authentic self, but it will also empower and inspire others in your community to tell their stories. Publishing companies and agents will tell you that most American readers are white so they won’t pick up a story that doesn’t appeal to the white audience in order to make sales. This is a lie. White Americans aren’t the only ones that read or buy books. Asian Americans, Black Americans, Latinx Americans, and Indigenous Americans all read and buy books. If you are worried about sales as an Asian American writer, you shouldn’t be. Our countries of origin have some of the world’s largest populations. If you write for us or about us, you will make sales.
- Make sure you write about your community in a balanced way. There are positive and negative attributes to every culture. If you make your characters and stories nuanced, they won’t come off as too one sided or too whitewashed. This might mean digging some dirt from your own life experiences and/or basing your characters on people from your own community that you look up to. Again, avoid using positive or negative stereotypes that have been fed to us by the media. Whatever you write, positive or negative, make sure it stems from actual people and experiences you have encountered in your community.
There are many more things you can do to make sure you don’t whitewash your writing as an Asian American writer. Feel free to share them with me. We need to use our gift of writing for good. We need to use it to empower and educate our own communities whether it’s a funny story or a serious memoir. Let’s make sure we tell unapologetically authentic stories and own our narratives.