How not to write about minority characters

Minority consumers have heard every lame excuse in the book for monoculture creators to make up for their constant and recurring failure to including us. From certain video game companies claiming that women are too difficult to animate, to people who write about dragons and gnomes and fairies saying that people of color don’t make believable subject matter, we’ve heard it all.

Sometimes, when they are very honest, creators will say that it’s just too much trouble. Because the thing with dragons is that no one will get overly mad if you turn out to be horribly off base about the true nature of the draconic experience. Black people, on the other hand, are actually a real thing and may get upset if you write them badly.

People of color, minorities, basically anybody who isn’t straight and white is hard to write because you have to do research, you have to find first readers from that group, and you have to try to take your head, not only out of your own ass, but out of the ass of your entire cultural and economic group as a whole. It’s time consuming, and it’s uncomfortable, and if you fuck it up, it looks like you did nothing at all.

Which is why I’m so concerned about Jake and Jessica. It’s why I have trans first readers, and why I’m reluctant to move forward until I know enough to be the kind of arrogant ass who writes about other people’s lives as if I lived them.

But at the end of the day, despite my best intentions, I worry I’ll come across like so many other writers do when writing about the other. I’ve just read a book that, while clearly well-intentioned, serves some of the most pedantic, racist bullshit I’ve seen in years. And, although it’s first class, it’s hardly by itself.

I’m not going to name it, but I am going to talk about it, because it’s exactly the kind of othering shit I want to avoid in my own work, whatever that is.

It all started when I wanted a no-brainer romance, so I picked up a well-rated audiobook about a white guy from the midwest falling in love with a Native American guy. Instead of a pleasant time-waster, I got a lot of reminders about how people of color are so frequently portrayed as helpless and ignorant with high passions, mysterious cultures, and exotic bodies.

As a person of color, the things the white main character says and does to and for his native boyfriend were really problematic for me. The white boyfriend (with no experience or training) knows how to calmly solve a problem that native people have been having for years and years, and manages to get it done in a couple of months. The native boyfriend has a hot temper and doesn’t understand how to navigate systems the white man seems to intuit naturally. There’s even a point where the white man schools an entire panel of tribal elders on their own racism… you know, against white people who just want to help them… because they need help.

The native boyfriend’s culture is played like a cute feature that the white boyfriend can consume, that he’s even encouraged to consume. Pandering to the native boyfriends silly tribal ways is seen as a smart move on the part of the white boyfriend, who has to reassure his native boyfriend that he’s still a man, even though there are previous conversations about how the white boyfriend is the one that comes from the culture of homophobia where the native boyfriend deals with a much more loving home environment.

I see this over and over. Even in much more well-written books about interracial relationships the white partner is always coming to the rescue of the poor, ignorant person of color. I know these writers aren’t racist. They’re writing about the struggles that people of color have to go through because they do give a shit. But without the relevant experience, they can come across as ham-handed, especially to someone who seeks out books with people of color in them.

Unlike a white reader, the character of color in your book isn’t a side-kick or and example to me. They are a representation of me.

It’s impossible to say that this comes from nowhere. In my own relationship my white partner has a more stable, loving home life than I did. My white partner’s family has more money than my family of color. That’s a common situation with interracial partnerships because your average white person is likely to be better off than your average person of color. But that doesn’t mean the white person automatically saves the person of color because money. That’s bullshit.

I’m reading as much trans-lit as I can get my hands on in order to not accidently fall into the same conventions. I’ve already re-written the chapter entirely, and it’s gone somewhere I didn’t expect, but that’s where it went. Whether I’ll keep it or not, I have no idea. But that’s where it is.