Friday, July 15, 2016

Writing Minorities from a Position of Privilege

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending LibertyCon in Chattanooga, TN. It was the third year I'd been a guest at this particular convention and it never fails to be interesting (if sometimes challenging).

In particular this year, a question from an audience member during the Weird Wild West panel prompted me to think more specifically about the challenges of writing perspectives outside our own - specifically those of minorities being written by folks with greater degrees of privilege. It's not the first time I've thought about the issue, nor the first time I've talked with other authors about it or written about it. But it has been a year and a half since I last put any sort of formal shape to my thoughts and I was surprised to discover that, while my general thoughts have not changed, the specifics are different now.

The question started with a reference to an essay in which the author had argued that authors who are not part of minority groups would be better off letting those groups write for themselves rather than tackling perspectives they are not familiar with. (I.e. White folks shouldn't write from the PoV of Latinx or African-American characters because they won't really know or understand the culture, and in providing a majority voice they will inadvertently silence more authentic voices.) The audience member then pointed out that although she was a WoC, she would struggle to write from the perspective of a lesbian because she's straight. She then asked what the panelist thought - did we agree that folks who were not a part of a minority should avoid writing characters from minority perspectives?

There's a thing that tends to happen when you ask white authors this question or mention that it's been asked. Invariably they say "I write characters all the time that aren't me. Murderers and thieves. Writing a character who is a person-of-color or a member of the LGBTQAI community is no different." And then they usually stress that doing research into cultures and communities we aren't a part of is important for authenticity.

This opinion is similar to the position I took a year and a half ago ("Fixing" Diversity in Science Fiction and Fantasy), but further consideration has led me to believe that it is not enough.

First of all, let me point out that having diversity in ones story world is still a must. (Barring some unnatural and plot specific reason that everyone looks one way or another. I.e. A virus that killed off nintey-nine out of every hundred women leaving a planet or country with a massive male population and only a handful of women.) But having a diverse story-world is not the same thing as writing from a minority perspective - writing from the POV of a person-of-color or LGBTQAI or differently abled, etc.

The former means recognizing and incorporating a variety of folks into the fabric of your world so that it feels real. The latter means seeing that world through the experience of someone who is from a particular culture/subculture. The latter means not just understanding general experiences - being an outsider in a group or having a lover leave you - but specific experiences - having store employees follow you around because of the color of your skin or being suspected of being a criminal based on the way you wear your hair or being told that you sound like a certain ethnicity because you laugh too loud.

The latter means not merely drawing on the experiences that all humans have in common, but understanding that as a white/cis/het/abled/neuro-typical person there are experiences you will likely never encounter, but are common for members of other cultures.

And that doesn't even touch on differences in family life and structure, economic challenges, religion, music, dress, education, etc.

"So," you say. "You do think only minorities should write minority characters."

The short answer is no. And my next answer is "If you are not part of a particular group - minority or otherwise - understand that you are not an expert on that group."

All things being equal in terms of writing craft, a person-of-color will always write a POV character from their cultural group with greater authenticity than someone outside that group. Folks who have lived in poverty will portray the complexities of being poor more clearly than someone who has always lived comfortably. A lived experience will always be more authentic than a researched experience. Always.

Secondly, saying "I am not a murderer, but I write about them because that's what authors do," is not a valid equivalent to "I am not an African-American, but I write about them because that's what authors do."

It's true that a large part of writing fiction requires putting oneself in the head and skin of folks that are very different from our real-life self. But murder is a thing that transcends culture - it is a human experience that almost anyone can imagine because it is not culture or religion or gender specific.

Imagine you write a book from the POV of a serial killer. Imagine, even, that you get a part of it wrong. Something in your portrayal doesn't represent the actual experience of real serial killers. Imagine that something in your representation of a serial killer has a negative influence on the way everyone else views serial killers. Now imagine that everyone in the world reads your book. How many folks will be able to say "This is wrong. I am a serial killer and I know,"? How many folks will find they are subject to additional prejudice because you have added to the negative of opinion of serial killers?

Now imagine you write a book from the POV of a minority that you are not a member of. Imagine you get a part of it wrong. Imagine that your representation has a negative influence on the way everyone else now views that minority group. Now imagine everyone in the world reads your book. How many folks will be able to say "This is wrong. I am a member of this group and I know,"? How many folks will find they are subject to additional prejudice because you have added to the negative opinion of that minority group?

[Let me clarify that I am not saying that if a group is sufficiently small you shouldn't worry about "getting it right". Rather comparing the creative ability to write about thieves to the creative ability to write about people-of-color borders on ignorance - well-intentioned or not.]

"So," you say. "You do think only minorities should write minority characters."

The short answer is no. And my next answer is "If you intend to write about an experience that is not a human experience (love, grief, anger, hate, hope, etc) and is based outside your own cultural background, then you had better do your fucking research."

This means talking to people within that group. It means reading books and articles by members of that group. (Not just books and articles about that group.) It means writing the thing you intend to write and then showing it to those people you talked to before and asking "What have I gotten wrong?" (It also means understanding that these folks don't have an obligation to explain these things to you. Look for help, but don't demand it.)

It means recognizing that the things you think you know about being African-American or Latinx or LBTQAI or neuro-atypical may be flat out wrong. The things you've seen in movies or read in books may be wrong. It means recognizing that your ability to imagine yourself as a member of x-group may be flawed. It means being humble and being willing to learn. It means not being defensive when someone tells you "You will have trouble understanding this because you haven't lived it." It means being able to to take criticism from folks outside your immediate friends and family without saying "Well, my roommate in college was Asian and he thought this was okay."

It means recognizing that while some experiences can give you a good emotional foundation for writing about prejudice or discrimination, being ostracized by the mean girls in high school is not the same as living with systematic racism against your ethnic group. It means recognizing that being misunderstood because you were a tomboy in college is not the same as having your family kick you out for being gay.

So, all of this to say, if you feel you must write from a perspective outside your own lived experience, do so carefully. Do your research and stay humble.

If, like me, you are still a little uncomfortable with trying to write from a different point of view, you can still write fiction that presents diverse worlds. Either by making sure your supporting characters and "bit parts" reflect a diverse reality or by writing in worlds that are not our own. (I.e. The main POV characters in the Epic Not Fantasy novel are not "white", but their culture is not ours to begin with. The character whose skin is dark will not have the experience or culture of a man from Africa or the Caribbean or the United States because none of those places exist. But he does still provide a character who is smart and capable and central to the protagonist's success who "looks" like someone of African descent.) The latter is not a perfect solution, but I am committed to not excluding groups just because it's easier and safer for me to write about straight white cis-het folks.

And use your voice to support and recommend the work of those who are minorities. Not because they need your approval. But because, like it or not, authors in a position of privilege will continue to be asked their thoughts on diversity. And, if you support diversity, you will not just give your own opinions on it, but highlight those who are writing from a diverse perspective.

Because imagining what it's like to be African-American or Asian or Latinx or neuro-atypical or LGBTQAI is not the same as living it.

1 comment:

AbbyAppleJack said...

Hi! Found a link here from AW.

I would say I agree on this if you're writing something contemporary, historical, or a story that simply deals with race. But as a POC author myself, I'm never writing my POC characters from a cultural perspective in my science fiction and fantasy. When I'm reading a good science fiction or fantasy book the humans' skin color usually isn't the problem of focus. There'd be things like fantastical racism (i.e. humans vs aliens or humans vs elves). Or you'd mask real world racism under the guise of social class or some other kind of privilege to get your point across without making it racial. (Remember: privilege comes in a variety of different forms meaning minorities can be privileged too!) I'm not trying to be directly reminded of the real world in my science fiction or fantasy, so you've got to sneak it in.

When I'm reading Caucasian characters, the story isn't about their race and I'd expect the same thing from my POC characters. Maybe this is just my personal preference. Or maybe it's just the genres I'm into where wider themes than just black and white or at play so to speak. I suppose what I'm getting at is although I'm black, I'll write stories from the perspective of every race under the rainbow because my story isn't about race--it's about zombies or elves or that pesky dystopian government. There's a bigger, more universal story going on. It's in these instances where I think we as authors can "get away" with writing from a perspective we aren't familiar with. Examples being: Cinder by Marissa Meyer (half Asian, half white disabled protag written by a white woman), The Legend Trilogy by Marie Lu (racially ambiguous protags written by an Asian woman).

And I'm sure this can be done with LGBTQ+ characters as well.

Dare I say, what bothers minorities is when white authors TRY to write about our real world problems and experiences and drop the ball. A book coming to mind is Karen Sandler's Tankborn which deals with racism and is science fiction. I'm not saying she drops the ball because I haven't gotten around to reading it, but I am curious to see how she as a white author handles writing from the perspective of a young black girl when the story deals with racism, slavery, etc. I would be less concerned if she just wrote about a black girl and left out the other themes. I mean, hell, I wouldn't write about slavery or racism since I've never experienced it personally. Although I'm black, I'm no expert.

TLDR: Not every story/genre about a POV POC is going to deal with or reflect a POC's cultural experiences in the real world. Not every minority author will have the same experiences as the next. There's no golden rule, take it on an individual basis.