ofmanynames said: Serious question: Do you think it's okay for a white writer to have POC as main characters in their stories? I've gotten feedback from teachers and others ranging from "there's no reason to have X be Y race" to "it's disrespectful to write as another race you're not".
May I just jump in on one point, here? When teachers say, “there’s no reason to have X be Y race” what they really mean is “There’s no reason to have X be a race other than white.”
Which is bullshit.
There’s no reason to have X be white either.
That whole mindset of only having a character of colour if it “means” something or serves some “purpose” in the story is reinforcing the paradigm of white as the default norm and dominent culture. It’s a really easy trap for white writers to fall into to take a character’s race or ethnicity and make it into a story conflict. A “reason” to be Y race.
While a person’s background will affect how a person handles conflict, your teachers are wrong to insist that people who are Y race need a “reason” to be allowed into a story.
^ Reblog for anyone who that might need that pointed out ;)
In my fiction workshop this past spring semester, I wrote a story in which all the main characters were chicano.
Why were they chicano? Because I set the story in Texas. Because my family is largely chicanos from Texas. The actual story was about two brothers, now teenagers, dealing with their mother’s suicide, which had happened a number of years earlier when they were both young. The characters didn’t need to be chicano for me to tell that story.
When my story got workshopped, I was asked repeatedly to ‘explore their cultural/ethnic background’ in subsequent drafts.
One of the other stories was about a family reunion. It was written by a white writer about a white, southern family, and the experience I described was like nothing I had ever experienced with my family. The food described was like nothing you’d find when my family gets together. The names were often distinctly white, southern US names. But the story was absolutely not about the experience of being white and southern, it was about families keeping secrets, and there was no reason for the family in the story to be white US southerners. Still the comments that writer received were all about how relatable his story was, how that was exactly the way family reunions were, and no one asked him to spend more time exploring this family’s southern heritage in subsequent drafts.
I couldn’t help feeling that I was either being asked to justify my characters being chicano by making the story about chicano identity (which was never the story I wanted to tell), or that I was being asked to address my story to a white audience that wasn’t expected to be able to understand and identify with a chicano character the way I was expected to understand and identify with white characters.
I didn’t want to write a story where it ‘meant something’ that my characters were chicano. I wanted to write about brothers. Did my character’s ethnic background inform how they handled trauma in their life? Of course, in some ways. But the intense focus on the character’s ethnicity during the discussion of my work was distinctly uncomfortable. (I was asked if they were poor, despite it explicitly stating in the story that they lived in a fairly middle class neighborhood. I was asked about their immigration status (these are fictional teenage boys in a story that was in no way about immigration!). I was asked if they lived on a reservation, presumably because all brown folk in the US southwest live on a reservation? I wasn’t sure what to make of that one.)
It was a weird, frustrating experience that made me very self-conscious about the story I’d chosen to share. About a quarter of the students in the class were not white. Only one other student in that class wrote a story where the main character was not white. I wouldn’t be surprised if other people felt uncomfortable having the class comment on stories about POC characters. I also wouldn’t be surprised if they’d simply been conditioned to think of white as the ‘default’ in literature and assumed that to write a character with their own racial or ethnic background, they’d have to justify it or make it a plot point.
^ A perfect and detailed example of how this functions in practice. Thanks for sharing your experience.