How should I portray people of color?
[Remember, keep sending in your questions to email@example.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Monday. I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous. My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox, but likely only if you ask a question. Don't hesitate to make the question so long that I barely have to write anything to get a full article out of it.]
Here’s one for your mailbox.
So I’m white and I can’t change that and I love SF/F books and I’m very aware that most of the world isn’t white. I also know that way too many protagonists in SF/F are white. For these and various other reasons I wrote two “urban fantasy” books set in Latin America, almost exclusively featuring Latinos. I think they are commercially viable.
I’m a bit worried, though, that because I’m not a Latina I don’t really know what it’s like to be a Latina - and since I have a multinational cast, I also don’t know what it’s like to be Mexican, Nicaraguan, Guatemalan, Honduran, Argentinian, or Peruvian. So I went to Peru and I used the stuff I learned while earning my US and Latin American history master’s degree and I haunted websites and studied Spanish (not very well; languages are hard). I did a lot of research. A lot. A tremendous amount. And I listen to everyone I can. I read books and news articles and blog posts by Latinos. To top that off, about 60% of my students are Latino and I observe them and the way they interact. (Of course, they’re Latinos in the US and most of them are American citizens, but it’s what I got.)
I love my books. I love writing them and I want to publish them but I’m still afraid that I didn’t do enough research or that I’m misrepresenting something or co-opting other peoples’ cultures for financial gain (and I plan to donate part of the returns to local-community water improvement efforts in Latin America). I don’t want to give the books up because I’m not Latina, but I feel maybe I should because, privilege. And misrepresentation. Even with my best efforts not to, I’m sure I’m screwing up somewhere.
I can’t give my books to my students because that’s ethically suspect (I have power over them) and I’m really hesitant to ask random Latinos to read it and comment because then I’m a white person looking for validation, which I kind of *am.* But I don’t want to offend. I would feel absolutely horrible if I published and received honest criticism for massively misrepresenting. (Specifically, I’m afraid of Plymouth A’s #3 from the comment on “Why Others’ Stories Matter.”) [Link added by Chris.]
So as a writer and a SJB [Chris's note: social justice bard], what do you think? Should I relax? Should I do more research? Should I trust I’m doing the right thing? Should I scrap the project? What do you think about white writers who try to write from the perspectives of people of color?
I should add that I’m having no anxiety or hesitation whatsoever about writing from the POV of my male lead.
I think more white writers SHOULD try writing from the perspective of people of color. We might not have quite as huge a problem with whitewashed publishing and not so many books that are like eating a slice of mozzarella cheese and mayo on Wonder Bread. While there are always going to be some essentialists who believe you can't write a character from an experience you haven't had, most of good literature would suggest that is not the case.
I'm going to take a quick crack at this because it would be a pretty boring article if I didn't write something, but as a white man who's about a 1.2 on the Kinsey scale on my curious-iest of days, I share many of these anxieties about portraying groups who experience the world very differently from me, and I'm not always perfect. So beyond some very basic advice (most of which you've got covered) the very best thing I could tell you is not to talk to me.
I'd like to direct you in particular to a blog on Tumblr called Writing With Color. The mods are all people of color–mostly women (not sure on one or two)–and they answers questions from writers, especially from writers of science fiction and fantasy, about what things are problematic and how to make them better. They've fielded questions like yours lots of times and probably wouldn't mind any specifics you might want to run past them.
In particular, I think they can help you with questions about appropriation because they would not presume to suggest white people can't ever write persons of color, they seem sympathetic to the paradox that a white person must either write other cultures or have a whitewashed cast, and defining appropriation is a lot like defining racism–I can't tell you what other people find problematic, and I definitely can't tell you what every person would find problematic. (My sense is that if you've given your cast a full and rich characterization, you will be fine. You seem to care far far more than the usual clueless yahoos that end up doing something clueless and offensive and attracting the ire of entire communities.)
Here are the biggest problems white writers have to worry about when they write. They're not the only problems, but they're the biggies.
Your story looks like lines of cocaine. (Everyone is white, thin, and straight.) It's a fair mistake. One of the most pervasive bits of shitty advice in the writing world is "write what you know." White writers often don't realize or care what they're doing, or just want to avoid being challenged if they get something wrong, so they make everyone white like they are, straight like they are...you get the idea. (The same could be said for able-bodied, cisgender, neuro-typical, etc...)
Color isn't mentioned but it's clear that everyone is defaulting to a white experience. This makes the unfortunate assumption that everyone's experience is a white experience, and the characters exist in sort of a multi-hued version of the white experience. Race isn't mentioned because the author doesn't think it's important (which is sort of a singularly white perspective). This is what many whites sort of assume life is like here in our post-racial utopia. It's very warm and fuzzy and Yellow Submarinish. Unfortunately even a casual conversation with actual people of color reveals that their experiences are very different.
Every person of color is a trope or an anti-trope. When your plot involves tropes, you might be able to bring it a fresh perspective, a delightful reversal on expectation, or perhaps write a boring story with a lot of tropes that isn't very original. When your characters involve a trope, you're talking about stereotypes, and that is "Danger Will Robinson!" territory. And while characters should conform to some stereotypes and defy others (as people do), if your characters are simply there to reverse the tropes it becomes clear that you're just being racist in another way.
They portray ethnicities incorrectly. If you're going to have Guatemalans, you should probably not mix up their culture and history with Bolivians' or Mexicans. And if you're portraying Latin Americans you shouldn't use the conventional English meaning of machismo. If you've got a culture in your story, you should get it right.
What to do.
Be aware of tropes, so you can avoid them. If you don't know what the "magic negro" trope is, it's going to be difficult to avoid it. Just ask Stephen King. He wasn't trying to be racist. It just sort of happened. And when people pointed it out, he said "Shit. I DO do that. My bad." So it's good to know what the tropes are. This doesn't mean you have to be a living codex of every trope that has ever been written, but having a grasp of the main ones for the groups you're writing about. (In your case, things like "The Latin Lover" or "The Spicy Latina" would be important to be careful of.)
Access as many stories as you can from people you're trying to write about. Writers exist in the paradox that we can't be anyone but ourselves, but we will be (rightly) criticized if our works are nothing but people who look and think like us. However, we also have the secret weapon. We can read the minds of dozens, hundreds, even thousands of people from the culture we wish to portray. We simply need to read their words.
Write deep and interesting characters. The trouble with trope/stereotype analysis is that everything is usually a trope in some way, and so the best a writer can do is put their own unique, fresh spin on things. Every character is either falling into a trope or an anti-trope about something. Either your latin character is sexually exuberant or they aren't. I conform to white people stereotypes in several ways and break them in several ways. Most people conform to many of their stereotypes and break many others.
So how can you not have a trope or an anti-trope? By making the character about so much more than that one thing. Or not just a collection of stereotypes. By fleshing them out as a character to be so much more than their archetype. The Spicy Latina has been done, but the Spicy Latina feminist who likes Oscar Wilde and Taylor Swift, watches too much Gilmore Girls on Netflix, is working on getting a masters in biotechnology and raising a son, and wears baggy sweatsuits unless she's going to an event where the woman she has a desperate crush on is going to be, has suddenly become an actually interesting character.
Use empathy like it's butter in a Julia Child's recipe. You're just never going to have too much. Ever.
Find people you trust as your beta readers who are part of the group you're worried about portraying. Obviously you'd be tokenizing if you only listened to the one person who told you that you were fine, but if you can get a handful of readers and ask them if they see anything troubling, you can really help your work. The more readers you can pull in who could give you different perspectives, the more you can trust that your getting a more cultural view instead of tokenizing what you want to hear.
It sounds like you've done most of these things already. If you have read lots and lots about the Latin experience and are genuinely worried about getting the portrayal right then you are MILES above most white writers. At this point the best thing you can do is to enlist the help of some beta readers you trust to call you out, don't be afraid to ask questions, and show the world how to succeed in being a white author who writes characters of color.