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The Role of White Writers in Diverse Literature

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Market trends are refreshing in that readers are demanding diverse casts of characters and novels that empower, rather than simply shock or thrill. The publishing industry must understand this increase in demand is not simply a trend to hop on board, but a demand for change at every level of society that will persevere.

That means we have work to do, white writers. Long overdue work. We can’t write stories with token characters and pat ourselves on the back for our wokeness. We also can’t co-opt the stories and voice of people whose beautiful culture and unique struggles we don’t understand. That has led some of us to throw up our hands and scream that we can’t make anyone happy, so we might as well not try.

It’s really much more simple than we are making it out to be.

Trust me. I have obsessed over my own complicity, torn between my genuine desire to further equality, and the anxiety of knowing that I will never totally understand. I took the long way. Don’t be me. Accept this simple truth.

We are not in charge of the fight for equality but we are responsible for it.

For the people in the back.

WE ARE RESPONSIBLE.

The Bottom Line

We must write diverse stories which depict our characters accurately while giving deference to those who are writing with their #ownvoices.

We have a responsibility to use every tool at our disposal to shape the power structures in our society into equitable systems. That doesn’t require jumping to the front of the line, trying to wrestle away the reigns for ourselves, and to decide that we can do better than the people who are impacted themselves. It means that we put in our own work, use our own minds to figure out how we can help, and then get behind the people we are supporting. We take responsibility for the discriminatory system we were born into and have furthered. We learn how we can help. We FOLLOW the leaders of this movement, who (newsflash) are not us.

Want to further equality but worry you will make things worse rather than better? Here’s a five step plan to ensure that you don’t write harmful stories.

  1. Listen: When we hear feedback that we have written something problematic, we need to take that seriously, and actually listen. Furthermore, we need to listen before we make mistakes.
  2. Research: Take the time to seek out the truth. This doesn’t mean to solicit a person for information. There is an abundance information out there for anyone willing to put in a modicum of effort.
  3. Take Action: Why not write diverse stories? That is the question we should be asking ourselves. Not why should this character be a person of color or why should this person non-binary? Our work should reflect our world and there’s no reason that we cannot have diverse works of literature as the norm. Does that mean we cannot have straight cis white characters? No. That’s ridiculous. No one is saying that and if you think anyone is, then please reevaluate. There’s a big difference between sharing space and being denied space.
  4. Consult: Once we have written something, we should get feedback to ensure that we are not misrepresenting ourselves or unintentionally promoting harmful stereotypes. This does not mean to run to our friends and beg them to speak on behalf of their entire community. It’s difficult to tell someone if they have written something problematic. Instead, let’s find someone who offers sensitivity reads and make the investment.
  5. Make Amends: So we have done our best. We have listened, researched, intentionally created diverse stories that stick in our lane, and we have even consulted. And STILL we have written something harmful or offensive. Now is the time for outrage, right? No. Graciously listen to the feedback. Return to step four. Then, apologize, and say a thank you for the helpful information. We will not be perfect writers, but we should always aim for progress.

Some may read this and roll their eyes. The PC police are giving us more hoops to jump through!

Oh, goodness. Woes us, white people. Having to mind our manners and watch our tongue. Egad!

Imagine for a moment you are a brand new parent, holding your baby for the first time. You turn on the news and see footage of a grown man begging for his mama while an officer shoves his knee into his throat for ten minutes until he DIES. You turn on the news, and see men hunting down a black man in broad daylight with GUNS. You remember that you have seen this again and again and again. You remember that it won’t be the last time. And you wonder, as you hold your baby, if one day someone will take them away because of the color of their skin.

With love, I say to us all… SUCK IT UP. It’s not unfair. It’s not an injustice. The true injustice is hundreds of years of slavery. A hundred years of segregation. Decades of discrimination while your country tells you at least you’re not slaves anymore.

As long as people of color continue to be disproportionately affected by literally every unfairness in our society, we will take the damn time to make sure we are not hurting people.

You, my writer friend, will take the time. As will I.

  • Note: Keep on the lookout for a discussion on straight, cis writers.

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Lindsay French

Lindsay French

Writer. Teacher. She/her. lindsayfrench.com

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