Firstly, some anecdotal guff about how illuminating the internet has been for me regarding the experience of people of colour. Because once upon a time I lived inside a snow globe, safe and cosy in my little bubble and unable to see out because of all the swirling whiteness. And then I became aware of a growing avalanche of online feminist discourse about intersectionality and white privilege, and the snow globe cracked, and now…
… I see things
For instance, when the new Ghostbusters movie came out, I watched an interview at the London premiere with a group of little girls dressed in ghost-busting costumes, representing the movie’s four central characters. They looked pretty stoked to be there, and I felt chuffed that progress was being made, because these little girls got to see four fun, funny, interesting grown women in a mainstream Hollywood movie. Hurrah for greater representation of girls and women! Hurrah for fun role models! Anyway, one of the little girls in this group was black, and she was saying to the interviewer something about how cool Leslie Jones’ character was, and I idly wondered how many black female main characters there were in mainstream kids movies…
Yeah, I couldn’t think of any. But I googled it as well, to make sure. Turns out there are a tiny handful of Hollywood kids movies with non-white leads ( such as the ones on http://www.mommyish.com/2013/12/12/best-kids-movies-non-white-leads/ ) and most of them seem to be Disney.*
So then I put myself in that little girl’s (ghost-busting) shoes, and imagined what her cinema trips are like. Does she have to watch stories with mainly white characters, in a mainly white world, almost every single time she goes to see a big popcorn movie? Is she internalising the idea that she’s a sidekick in the stories and experiences of white people?
And yes, btw, I’m amazed / embarrassed that for years it never even occurred to me how few POC showed up in the stories I consumed.
Then I started thinking about my own stories. I’m at the start of my journey as a writer, and in the three (and a half) novels I’ve written so far, the main characters have been white British females from white families. ‘Write what you know’ goes the old advice, and to a certain extent, that’s what I’ve done. I instinctively took that well-trodden path because I’m still in my apprenticeship. But maybe it’s time to write outside of my own experience, my own ethnicity / gender / economic bracket / placement in history…
Argument against me, Lindsay Sharman, deliberately writing from a POC POV
I’m white. Are these stories better told by POC? Is writing in first person narrative as a POC the same as theatrical blackface? Am I white knighting? Even if I researched, asked questions, made sure I was not inflicting white ideas onto a POC character, wouldn’t that still be appropriation? Would it be insulting, condescending, presumptious?
The argument for me, Lindsay Joanne Sharman Esquire III, writing more inclusive novels
By not writing characters of colour, do I engage in the racism of exclusion that Hollywood (et al) practices?
I can still write what I know, and inserting POC into those scenarios shouldn’t be a big deal. As British blogger and writer Nikesh Shukla says in this article, “I realized that white people think that people of color only have ethnic experiences and not universal experiences. That really annoyed me. I’m not just eating mangoes all the time with my aggressive mother.”
It’s not just some dreary idea of responsibility and obligation that’s motivating me, either: I want to write across the full spectrum of human experience, I want to reflect the multi-cultural world I live in. And isn’t appropriation of other people’s experience the job of the writer? Every time we create a character, we’re walking around in skins that aren’t our own.
Is it lazy writing to stick to white, female characters in my economic bracket and historical period? Apathy and cowardice do not make a better world or interesting books.
Lately I’ve been plotting a novel where the protagonist is an impoverished ballad-seller (white, female) from the early 18th century. It takes elements from Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, and like Defoe’s novel, I have plans to send the character to the sugar and tobacco plantations of Virginia. She will then meet a slave who becomes the Hermione to her Harry, and adventure ensues. It’s going to be a fun, rambunctious sort of book, but the story’s peril comes from a dark place: namely 18th century attitudes to the poor, to women, to POC. I’ll have to meet these issues head-on to give the book meaning and bite. I will NOT be writing what I (already) know.
Question to you, the reader
Yes, I’m making the main character white again, because I still haven’t figured out if I have a right to use a first person narrative voice when the character is black. And yet, they say the past is another country, in which case I cannot claim to have anything in common with an impoverished 18th century ballad singer either, but I feel a greater responsibility towards the depiction of the black character, because the worst-case scenario is that I create something unhelpful to current identity discourse and black struggle.
So I’m asking anyone who reads this blog for their own thoughts on depicting POC when the writer is white. What are the responsibilities of the writer in modern times?
Maybe I’m asking you to tell me what to do. Maybe I’m asking permission to write from a POC POV. I don’t know. We’re all learning, eh? So let’s learn together.**
UPDATE: Since writing this blog, I was asked ‘why is your black character in your new novel a slave?’, and I’d like to repeat my answer here, along with some new thoughts I’ve had as a result of further discussion.
Firstly, I wanted to write a YA Moll Flanders because: (a) it’s widely considered to be the first novel, which is cool, (b) it has a female main character and is often considered a feminist work, and (c) it’s a corker of a story. But after a short while of researching the period and plotting my main character’s progress, I decided I wanted the plot to go in a different direction from the original… and in particular, I didn’t want my ‘Moll’ to travel to the plantations of Virginia and not engage with the black slavery issue. Defoe’s novel is more concerned with white slavery (deportation of white criminals, and other aspects of the indentured servitude of the poor), but it would be irresponsible and downright weird (hello white-washing) if I wrote a novel partly set in an 18th century Virginian plantation that ignored black slavery. With that in mind, I started to think about how I would introduce the subject of black slavery to my Moll character… which raised various issues, and thus this blog entry was born.
So here’s what I’ve been thinking since I wrote this. It came to me that maybe the narrative point of view (1st, 3rd person) and its relationship with the authorial voice could help me solve a few issues. In other words, while I don’t feel comfortable writing a first person perspective from a POC character (for the reasons stated above), well-handled third person might be OK, because then we have the author reporting on what can be observed (as well as the thoughts and feelings of her main character) without climbing inside the head of the POC character to quite the same degree as if it was 1st person perspective from a POC perspective. This would avoid white appropriation of the experiences, identity and point of view of POC. I would also avoid first person point of view as Moll herself, as historically she would subscribe to a racist ideology that would be unpleasant to read. Even if I made her more progressive (and it’s true that there were white supporters of abolition even in the early part of the 18th century), she’d still have ideas that wouldn’t sit well with a modern audience. And if I gave her the mindset of a modern progressive, the character would be too anachronistic. So, third person it is!
However, I’m also aware that making the main character white in a mainly white environment relegates the POC character to ‘sidekick’, which is something I wanted to avoid… and the historical context also relegates the character to a much, much lower societal status, to a position of victimhood, which doesn’t seem ideal either… so should this story be told at all?
But if I avoid writing about any situation in which white society has subjugated POC, am I then pretending it didn’t happen? Isn’t refusing to acknowledge the sins of the past (and the present) part of the problem?
Current novel = third person POV + a white main character + prominent POC secondary character
This, I feel, is the best way I can handle this situation without being guilty of appropriation and without white-washing every novel I write. I’ve had to come to a conclusion, to this conclusion and this compromise, as the alternative is avoiding the issue altogether and only ever writing whiter-than-white novels (which is part of the original problem).
Let me know what you think of this conclusion!
*Disney also seems to be responsible for most white female leads too. Disney’s output has been problematic in various ways in the past, but it looks like they’re one of the few that are now able to get films made with female leads. Maybe women are more acceptable when they’re in 2D? The latest live-action Star Wars casting certainly caused an uproar, but does suggest that Disney are trying to push the industry in a more progressive direction.
**A cheesy sentiment to finish on. But nothing makes you dream like cheese!***
***This is a quote taken from my husband’s last album, which I helped write. If you buy his albums, he might give me more housekeeping money**** – https://mrlaurenceowen.bandcamp.com/