The young adult novelist Malinda Lo has, in a post about her efforts with colleague Cindy Pon to spend a year focused on diversity in young adult fiction, in two very concise paragraphs summed up the challenge felt by white creators who have the desire to include characters of color in their work, but are deeply concerned about committing cultural appropriation, falling into stereotype, or performing ugly mimicry that’s actually worse than keeping their stories lily-white:
I really appreciate writers who write outside their racial experience or sexual orientation. For one thing, there are many more white writers being published these days than writers of color, and if white writers can contribute to increasing the representation of people of color in the book market, I’m all for it. Second, I believe part of a writer’s job is to write about people who are different from her. I think it’s important that we do that. That we seek to tell stories that challenge us as writers on many levels — whether in characters or in plot or in style. Otherwise, we don’t grow as writers; we become mired in stories we’ve retold so many times they wear a groove in the stairs of our imaginations. I think that in order to truly fly, writers must do things that can cause us to crash and burn.
But I understand why writers are hesitant to write about characters who don’t share their race or sexual orientation. Cultural appropriation is real, and many of the guest posts about white/straight writers doing their research and attempting to get to the heart of their characters are, I think, sincere efforts to avoid cultural appropriation. I applaud that awareness, because I’ve read books that have been insanely popular, but have turned me off completely because they felt so much like cultural appropriation.
This is an issue that’s come up in debates about the monochromatic nature of the main cast in Girls. And it’s a good explanation for why so many people default to the idea that colorblindness in character writing—essentially, creating characters who are entirely unshaped and whose actions are undetermined by their racial or ethnic background—is progressive. As Marla Daniels put it on The Wire, you cannot lose if you do not play, and when it comes to race, a lot of white creators seem to agree with her: having a non-white character lets a show or movie look like its covering its bases, but refusing to actually create character details that are drawn from or rooted in that character’s race or ethnicity means that a writer or director doesn’t risk getting those details wrong. Race-blindness is more risk management strategy than a means of actually making television, movies, and books more diverse.
The thing about diversity is that it’s really not about numerical quotas—it’s about getting different kinds of experience, and different kinds of details on screen and on the page. And getting those details and experiences right is largely a matter of doing research about matters large and small, something that goes for white characters as well. If you’d make a character read Jewish by having him or her use the occasional Yiddishism and talk about the high holidays—the negotiation over Josh Girard’s TGS contract in 30 Rock, in which Jack offers him Sukkot off, is a great example of doing this—you can write detail that ties a Latino character to a country of their family’s origin in conversations about food, geography, religious practice, or any number of other characteristics. If you want to give an African-American character slang, or preferences, or style that aren’t generically and stereotypically black, think about region, which influences music, food, fashion, and experiences of racism—Boston has expressions of bigotry that are different from, say, those in Georgia.
In other words, treat characters of color like you’d treat white ones: as people who pop off the screen or the page in direct relation to the amount of work and detail that’s gone into building them as believable and complete human beings. If a creator is worried that adding details and nuances that are drawn from a character’s race and ethnicity will swamp that character, making them only legible as black, Latino or Asian, that means you’re not doing enough to develop that character, to think about how they in particular might react to experiences that might be common to someone of their heritage, and what specifically they’d take away from being the subject of a racially motivated traffic stop, an assumption that they’re undocumented, or an incident where someone treats them as if they’re either a genius or sexually inadequate. Running generic scenarios with a specific character in mind, even if those thought experiments don’t make it into a final product, can be a way of testing your own thinking about that character’s identity and uniqueness, and developing a set of consistent behaviors that will guide their reactions to all kinds of events, racially-motivated or no.
This is work I think writers don’t always realize they’re doing with white characters, because the details are familiar and easily available to them. But just because you don’t have to reach for the details of a bar mitzvah, a Lutheran wedding, or tailgating at Ole Miss doesn’t mean those nuances aren’t signifying racial identities, experiences, and allegiances. And just because you don’t know much about Mexican Catholicism, regional Chinese cooking, or the origins and contemporary reception of Kwanza, for example, doesn’t mean those details aren’t out there to be found. You may not be able to lose if you don’t touch race with a ten-foot pole. But your work, and the consumers of it, definitely can.