A writer’s job is to create characters and worlds that are inspired by the world they live in; to delve into the mind and see how their cogs and gears turn. It’s a naturally empathetic hobby. But how do these ideas mesh in our world which is so upturned by issues like identity politics, or high tensioned racial disparities? How can a middle aged woman get into the mind of a young boy in a wizarding world? And how could a white man get into the mind of a black woman residing in the south side of Chicago?
Growing up, I’d always work on these impressively complicated soap opera-like plots in worlds that were even more complicated. I’d make these characters that were so deeply thought out they seemed like my friends. But in my teenage years I realized that all of the stories and people I created were white. And by white I mean incredibly White.
YA and its obsession with paleness
In Twilight, Stephanie Meyer found every way to describe Edward’s deathly pale skin, and I found it really interesting for some reason. It found its way into my own writing, describing characters from translucent pale, to peachy, and sometimes tan.
Hermione Granger being described in the Philosopher’s Stone as having: “lots of bushy brown hair, and rather large front teeth”, led a generation of young women of colour to rightfully assume that she probably looked like them. As a reader, I would read of how every character was described, and despite lacking descriptions of skin colour or race, I’d almost always assumed they were white.
Diversifying my own writing
As a writer and and a reader I began to challenge myself. I wanted to diversify the worlds I was creating and reading. For the latter, it wasn’t hard. While reading the Hunger Games it seemed positively certain to me that Katniss was supposed to be a woman of colour with black hair, grey eyes and olive toned skin. However, for writing it was much more difficult.
It’s not so much that I was forcing myself to create diversity in my own writing, I was actually keen on creating stories that diverged from the majority of fiction, television and film that were white. I wanted the stories to reflect my own life and my own friends that had changed when I moved to a larger and more diverse city. But I realized I was breaching into territory that was not my own.
Much like formative years, I was creating stories and worlds that were incredibly endeavouring. I was trying to write stories about people from walks of life and from perspectives I couldn’t actually fathom. Some people’s lives, real or not, take more than the imagination.
When writing in the first person perspective, one has to have confidence in what they’re narrating. They have to do their research. But how can someone like me research the lived experience of a black man, a muslim woman, or a transgender teen?
The answer is, I don’t think I can. It’s just not my place.
So… what’s the solution?
White people just can’t write in the perspectives of people that don’t look like them? I’m not sure if that makes sense. The lack of diversity in the world of fiction, on screen and off, is a problem. Encouraging a white-dominated field to only write within their demographic would create a bigger divide and even less representation.
Third person is a great compromise; writing as spectator, as someone watching but not entirely knowing.
But most importantly, it’s not about encouraging the white dominated field of fiction to diversify their protagonists, but to encourage more people of colour to write their own stories, and for them to create their own characters and worlds that are inspired by the realities they live in.
Empathy in Readers
A Cambridge University study by Maria Nikolajeva, professor of education, said that: “reading fiction provides an excellent training for young people in developing and practising empathy and theory of mind, that is, understanding of how other people feel and think”.
I credit my knack of reading from an early age to my ability to effectively empathize. One is stepping into another’s shoes when they read from another person’s perspective. It comes to no surprise that the people who read on their free time in their formative years ended up following movements like feminism, and stay attuned to other similar social issues.
By encouraging people of colour to write, it will open the doors to many people to see new realities, characters, and stories, and develop an even more empathetic readership.
As for myself, I recommend Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and perhaps even add these to your summer reading list.