Earlier this week, I got involved in a conversation on social media with other fiction writers about race and fictional characters. The conversation was started by a white woman who had written a screen play about an African American Viet Nam vet in the Jim Crow South. Her play was getting great response from black theatre companies, but one comment she had gotten back stuck in her craw: “Nothing about this man sounds black.” She had posted it to the group of writers to get their take on it.
Many of the reactions from other writers focused on the speech of the man, which I agree is a huge part of a character. Cadence, intonation, vernacular – all critical to developing the voice of your character regardless of their race. But I wondered whether speech was really what the original commenter meant. I though maybe he said “not sounding black” as meaning something deeper about how the person moved through the world.
So, I poked a little. Like I do.
I started a new thread and asked the group how they went about developing characters that were of a different race/ethnicity. At the writing of this post, most of the answers say something about not seeing race (being color blind). I even got a “some of my best friends are black” or two. And so, I am rebelling. Emphatically. In fact, this post may smack of a rant.
If you are a writer and you try to be color blind to your characters, you are doing them a disservice.
If I were a male writer and I wanted to write a female character and intended to stay blind to the fact that she was a woman, wouldn’t that character lack the depth that comes with the female experience? And doesn’t that experience shape nearly everything about a woman’s life? I know it does mine.
Us white folks, we don’t think about our race often. But People of Color live their race in every business transaction, every job interview, every walk down the street they take. To ignore that and contend you’ve got a well-developed character is laughable. To use the example above, that writer is writing a male character and naming it Sharon. If you’re not intention about including race as part of your character development, you’ve written a white character, given him a name you think sounds black and probably thrown in some Black Urban Vernacular for good (bad?) measure.
We can do better.
As writers, we have an obligation to be part of contemporary social discourse. One of the ways we can contribute to the national conversation on race is to…well…talk about it. Be radical. Be brave. Consider that there are others who have a drastically different experience than we have and we can’t presume to understand it until we admit we don’t.