When I was writing my first book, I made the conscious decision not to describe characters in ways that could be used to definitively identify them as belonging to (or not belonging to) any particular race. I wanted readers to be able to imagine the people they were reading about in whatever way they wanted. I thought this would help. I was mistaken.
Unfortunately, it’s pretty well accepted today that for most readers, unless a character’s race is specified, they’re interpreted as, by default, White. That’s one of the ways white supremacy works: being White is normal; everything else is “other.”
One of the things I make an effort to do when reading is to picture characters who aren’t explicitly identified as White as being… not White (and I’m sure there are others who do the same), but this is still a conscious decision I have to make. It’s still very easy to assume Whiteness. And a book in which everyone is White–even if that’s not what the author intended–is not representative of the world we live in.
I didn’t include race, or racial markers, because I wanted to leave it up to the reader to decide, to allow for inclusivity. Obviously I can’t know how everyone experiences the book, but my guess is that most people simply read these characters as White, based on the evidence they are(n’t) given. It doesn’t matter what I may or may not have intended as the author; a book is what’s in it at the time the reader reads it. If something is important enough that the author wants people to know, they–I–should have included that in the first place.
In drafts of stories I’ve worked on since, I’ve made a point of mentioning characters’ races–and not just “other” races, but White as well. (It’s equally important to point out Whiteness, or it continues to be the default, with the implication that everything else is different, and lesser somehow.) This doesn’t feel natural for me. To begin with, physical description is not one of my strong suits–but I also grew up in a culture where it was considered somewhat racist to even identify someone by race rather than ducking around it. But it’s something I have to work on. It’s my responsibility as an author to insist that BIPOC do exist, not just leave it up to readers to imagine them there.
However, it’s also important to point out that my lived experience–as a White person who grew up in a mostly White community, and still lives and works in a (different) mostly White community–means I am not best positioned to be writing about BIPOC. No matter how much research I might do, how sensitive I might be, their stories aren’t mine. The best I can do is ensure that what I do write is representative, and that I’m working hard to get that representation right–and, perhaps most importantly, that I call attention to voices who are getting it better than I can.
Here are a few recent young adult novels written by BIPOC authors that I’ve really enjoyed and would recommend:
This is Kind of an Epic Love Story by Kacen Callender
American Panda by Gloria Chao
Emergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi
The Voting Booth by Brandy Colbert
Fire Song by Adam Garnet Jones
Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann
Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead
(Note that you may find some of these classified as adult fiction, because our society is also more likely to treat young people (and books) dealing with difficult issues as adult (book)s when the people involved are minorities.)
That’s a small list. (And we could talk a lot about why there are so few books by, and even about, BIPOC.) But it can be a start.
One thought on “Writing While White”
Image is everything. One of the most divisive images today is the white Jesus. I recall a white woman saying that the race of Jesus does not matter, but when I asked to use a black Jesus, she had a problem. She realized that her statement was false. Race does matter.