When Choosing a Character’s Race…

I usually check the new book section in my university’s library. Recently, a book caught my eye by its simple design and intriguing title, “Full Cicada Moon.” I opened the book and read the inner flap and was immediately suspicious but interested at the same time:

the book was about a half Japanese and half black girl. And the author was white.

I flipped through the pages and the free verse form was cool but I still felt uncomfortable. Why would a white person write about someone who was in such a unique racial position? Just to get attention? Just for the sake of the novel? Was the author aware of the impact her writing would have?

The questions were suffocating me and I put the book down and left. 

The next day, my feet led me again to the book. But this time, I was determined to find the reason why the author wrote about such a character. The answer was in the back of the book.

Mimi, the protagonist of the novel, was based off of a real half black half Japanese Mimi.

...thank God.

Mimi’s story came to the author practically fully formed, and the author moulded the story to more clearly tell it. The author felt the importance of the story being told and used her writing ability to bring to life and attention the intriguing story of Mimi.

After reading about this, I borrowed the book.

Later today, my friend from my creative writing class told me that a classmate wrote about a South Korean family living in America. This time, this hit much closer to home and I told her to forward it to me. I braced myself for the worst, a fetishized version of Koreans, something overly exaggerated, something grossly wrong.

And it wasn’t, thank goodness. It touched upon very real topics like pride, the hardship of being an immigrant and coming to a new country, unable to speak the language. The ending was a bit sloppy, but overall it did justice to Koreans moving to Korea.

But still, I wanted to know why the author wrote it. The name seemed pretty white, so was he writing just to dig into immigrant lives? Turns out, the author was half Korean. Okay, that made more sense. And in a way, that justified the story and made it more acceptable in my eyes.

But why all this?

I think often, people think that writing can be fluffy. Why does it matter what a character’s race is, or how the author writes about them?

It matters because writing is consumed. And when it’s consumed, parts of it will stick. So yes it does matter if a writer writes about an Asian character and uses to derogatory terms or stereotypes. Yes, it does matter if they write about a black character just to spice things up. Yes, it does matter if they throw in a Muslim character cause hey why not.

Why not?

Because they reflect people. Whether the author realizes it or not.

For example, my creative writing TA told me about a white classmate who had a minor character who was an Asian. The character was described with extremely derogatory terms that further propagated Asian stereotypes. The class was predominately white and my TA was the only one who felt uncomfortable and bothered. After the class, he talked to the professor who then brushed off his comment, saying that he was overreacting, and after all, the juicier the character, the better.

No.

NO.

Because it’s not just fiction. It connects back to a people group. And it isn’t doing any good to them.

It’s a huge weight in choosing to write about a minority character, or in fact, a race that isn’t yours. Because for some people, what you write will be their only exposure to that race. It’s a responsibility when someone chooses to write about a different race than their own.

I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be done. Like the first example I gave, I think that people can lend their writing skills to share the story of someone different than them. Or, if someone decides to place a person of a different race in their novel, they need to do research and talk to someone who is of that race in order to make it as accurate as possible.

(and now that I think about it, Hollywood and screen writers should do this too…)

I’ve been thinking about this for a while because I have a novel idea in which I want to incorporate black, hispanic, and native characters to raise awareness of these beautiful different cultures and people. But I’m cautious and almost scared of writing from these perspectives because it’s such a big responsibility. It’s not just entertainment or fiction when I write about these characters, it’s representation and empowerment. By including them in my novel, I can bring them to the forefront, or I can feed off of stereotypes and so harm them.

Authors should approach their characters with the utmost respect, and this includes what to do with their race.

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