Why I (try to) Write Diverse Characters

Let’s talk ethnicity. I am a couldn’t-be-much-whiter German-French-English-Irish-First Nation-American. The 3% of me that is First Nation (the Canadian term for Native American) is Cree, which is really interesting and probably the reason people occasionally ask me if I’m part Asian. But for all intents and purposes, I am white and I invariably check the little box that says “White Non-Hispanic.” I have lived the vast majority of my life in the U.S., experiencing white privilege even without being aware of it. I have never experienced, in this lifetime, what it’s like to be black, or Hispanic, or disabled, or a man, or anything other than white, female, and mostly poor.

The thing is, I have this character. She’s a lot like me, in that she’s bookish, dreams of traveling the world, and has fears that sometimes make it hard to live her life. She’s also rather different: an over-achiever, one hell of a flautist, and half black.

See how her skin color is so low on the list? See how I say it like it doesn’t matter, because skin color has so little bearing on who you are as a person?

“May,” someone will inexplicably say, “you’ve got it all wrong. It does matter. Many PoC’s belong to a culture completely different from yours; what right do you have to portray a culture that you’ve never been a part of?”

That someone would be right. As an outsider, it’s impossible for me to ever gain the same insight as someone who’s spent their life in that cultural environment.. On the other hand, not all PoC’s identify with all aspects of the cultures they come from. Some things are universal, like needing different methods and products to tame your hair. Other things, like dialect, religion, beliefs, come down to the individual.

As a white woman, can I write a black character speaking AAVE and not come across as racist/misappropriating? I don’t know, but it would be really hard. Does that automatically mean that I shouldn’t write a character with dark skin? I don’t think so.

Now my observant commenter says, “May, you can’t just sweep an entire lifestyle under the rug.”

Agreed. That’s where research and a little sensitivity come in handy.

“But you’re still not a PoC, so you can’t really portray what’s it’s like to be one realistically.”

It’s true, I will never really understand the day-to-day reality of having dark skin in modern America. I’ll never personally experience the fear of being a black male who’s just been stopped by the police and doesn’t know what’s about to go down. I’ll never know exactly how many looks I’d get as a Hispanic woman just trying to do the grocery shopping, or the sentiments behind them. I’ll never be that one Filipino kid in a class full of white kids who assume he’s Japanese (if they’re into anime) or Chinese (if they’re not).

I’ll tell you what I have been. I have been poor; dirt poor, in fact, like many PoC’s and disabled people are in a country that’s run by white, abled people. I have lived in the hood. I have, due to living in the hood and attending a public school, been the only white person in my class. I have been excluded because of the color of my skin and the way I speak. I have lived in Asia and traveled Asia and stood out and gotten looks ranging from curious to jealous to mistrustful. I have sat next to Japanese people on trains while they talked about my hair, my height, and my body while assuming I couldn’t understand a word — or not caring. I have been stopped on the street by Japanese police officers and asked if the bike I was riding was mine, and they didn’t believe me until they checked the registration number. I have nearly broken into tears because my South Korean high schoolers, who after all only learn these things from their parents, would venomously put down Japanese people and Southeast Asians and gay men but somehow never had anything to say about North Korea. I have been afraid to tell even my dearest friends that I am bi, because maybe they’ll say it goes against God or because maybe they’ll worry I’m attracted to them or because maybe they’ll try to convince me that I’m not.

I have felt like an outsider and a minority for most of my life. And yet I know that’s nothing compared to what PoC’s, disabled people, and many LGBTQ’s go through daily. And taking one look at the people who run my country, at the people who have the loudest voices here, I can see that there are too many who remain unaware of just how similar we all are.

That’s why I have a main character who’s smart, strong, and half black.

That’s why I have a main character who dedicated herself to cross country running after she moved to the U.S. as a nine-year-old with no English knowledge.

That’s why the latter’s boyfriend is a history nerd majoring in Museum Studies, and happens to be Asian.

And that’s why the main character of my newest project is a sweet, adventurous girl who happens to be deaf.

Because people are people, and that’s something that transcends the superficial.

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