Cairo Amani, champion of POC (people of color) in the arts, is back! And this time Amani is sharing on Writing the Other, a topic they (as preferred by Amani) are very passionate about. I also encourage you to check out their blog and other projects: readings, upcoming public speaking gigs, articles and more. If you are interested in this issue, Amani is one to watch!
In my last article, I said the following:
“No one is going to write a Black MC like Black Authors. That being said, it doesn’t mean Black Authors should be the only people writing Black MCs. If you are nervous about writing a character outside of your race that means you should definitely do it. “
I know that writing an experience that isn’t yours is challenging. Even if it’s fiction. The stress of writing Black characters can be worsened by the fact that it’s a real experience. People can argue with you for giving the wrong description to how dwarves would travel through mountain tunnels. That argument won’t come close to the passion behind offending a whole race of people. Sometimes, that challenge is just too scary to face.
Do it anyway.
Why? Because it will make you a better writer and in general a better human being. Learn about a different culture, learn about the struggles of another kind of person. Does your Black woman character feel insecure about her thick thighs in the locker room of her all white private high school? Does she feel insecure about her relaxed hair when she goes home for the holidays? Does your paraplegic character feel embarrassed when strapping his wheelchair in on a city bus? Is your deaf character angered by his deaf mother when she gets cochlea implants?
If you get it wrong and you offend the deaf community (and I mean, really offend, not one or two people saying “I would never do that!”), so what? Now you know. Now you’ve learned. But being afraid to mess something up isn’t a good excuse for never trying. Here are some tips for writing characters outside of your race.
Wonder how much Harry Potter would’ve changed if Harry was a black kid? (outside of, perhaps, a completely different sales record). The answer is: not much! Slapping a few shades of dark on a character changes very little about their personality or the choices they make. It definitely could but in the end it’s your character, they can turn out however they want. But if Harry potter had been brown, one really awesome thing would’ve happened: visibility.
Not only would brown kids see themselves on the cover of an international book, but non-brown kids would see a brown kid on the cover of a book and know that it’s okay. If you’re struggling to write a non-white character, part of it is the media’s fault. The “norm” you’re presented with daily is white. When you’re a child, you don’t know any better and unless you’re super lucky, your parents might not teach you. So the more we contribute brown characters to the mix, the more we encourage open mindedness.
By this, I do not mean befriend people of color and base characters off of them. It might happen, because I think most writers compile people in their lives to turn into characters but don’t do it purposely. I mean exactly what I’m saying; acknowledge that you might not have enough diversity in your personal life and make new friends. As you meet more people who represent different demographics, you’ll learn the following: the “other” is not so different.
You’ll begin to realize that your latino friend, is still someone who likes bowling, and techno music and books by Lovecraft and he happens to be from Puerto Rico. You’ll learn that race and ethnicity doesn’t have to define a person. You’ll realize you’re scared of race and you’ll get over it by exposing yourself to it. Having a diverse friend base will also help you to not exotify your characters (or real people).
Also, if you’re lucky, you’ll meet a dope person of color who will tell you when you’re doing something problematic, free of charge. (“charge” being sighs and secret resentment. It can be tiring to always be a teacher to people with privilege. Be mindful of your new friends’ time, energy and space).
One of the issues in the media currently, is that there is only one kind of White, Black, Latino, Asian, etc. And sticking a black person in a movie doesn’t suddenly make the movie diverse. In fact, it can often make it even more discriminatory. Your POC characters still need to be well rounded. They need to wow us and not be single faceted or stereotypical.
An example of a failed attempt at diversity would be Mulan. Disney sought to create a universal Asian woman by stuffing several different East Asian cultures into one movie. The result was an erasure of the many cultures throughout Asia.
A better example would be Wasabi from Big Hero 6. A buff Black guy with a kind heart, a penchant for following safety laws and a severe case of OCD. Wasabi isn’t what the media normally makes of Black men. While his body type worried me, he was no hyper-masculine, super smooth, overtly sexualized stereotypical Black man. In the end, he was such a lovable cowardly do-gooder that his stature made him a gentle giant.
It’s a general rule of thumb for writing; make your characters interesting. And to make them brown, or handy-capable or gay isn’t enough. They still need quirks, hobbies, vices, virtues, dreams and nightmares. I encourage you to try, at least. You never know. By trying to write the other, you may find that strangers aren’t so different from you.
QPOC Speculative Fiction Activist
By day, Cairo works for an educational Hip Hop company by night, they write Science Fiction and Fantasy stories showcasing QPOC characters. Their fiction has been published in 3 Elements Review, The Finger Lit mag and Futurological press. They are a staff writer for Elixher Magazine and have also written for Autostraddle, Dropped Pebbles and the B Envelope. You can contact them here. They’d love to hear from you.