Are white writers getting race right in their characters?

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.



2 thoughts on “Are white writers getting race right in their characters?”

  1. It’s an interesting discussion, Deedra, knowing that whites can research and write an infinite amount of literature about everything from intelligent alien life forms from other planets from Avatars to Jedi Knights to Mars Attacks, cave men to mermaids, and Pinnochio to the Tin Man, but have such a hard time getting into the minds of black people that they can see, touch, talk with, live among and research every single day.

  2. Since I am the person who posted the original query and since it is my play under discussion, I feel compelled to enter this discussion. The dramaturg who wrote “NOTHING about Robert Logan suggests that he’s black. It’s not his views that’s the problem. It’s the way he talks.” This man was not referring to accents/dialects since those can’t be “heard” when reading a script. However, that doesn’t mean preconceived notions about intellect/education did not influence what he “heard” in your head and the voices he heard were, obviously, not flattering.

    There is no amount of research that can adequately inform one race/ethnicity on the issues relating to another. If someone has not lived the life, they just cannot fully know or understand the battles another person must deal with. It matters not whether you have lived in the south all of your life; if you are married to a black person; or any other scenario.

    This is the same discussion I have with my writing students about rape. I encourage them not to use that scenario in their stories and screenplays because what they write are media images not actual events. They are inclined to write the physical aspects, which are never accurate and are less important than the emotional aspects. Example: my daughter, who is a rape survivor, tells the victims she works with that they only time she wasn’t afraid was while she was being raped. She knew what was happening then. It was the before and after that terrified her. Unless you’ve been on the receiving end, you cannot understand that concept.

    So it is when writing about race… I will never know what it was/is like to be black. I am grateful that I had Robert to guide me while writing Shell of a Man. It is not my voice you hear in the dialogue. It is his voice. I take no credit for capturing “authenticity” but I, obviously, did since so many in the audience asked how it was I knew what they had experienced.

    For me, the biggest mistake would be for white writers to think they could ever know what it is like to be black. No amount of time or intimacy can put one person in another person’s shoes. I also feel it is a great mistake to make the fact that someone is black more important than that they are a human being.

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