why you CAN write racial minority characters

by - 6/17/2015 08:41:00 pm

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Why is it so difficult for many writers to include more diverse (in terms of ethicity) characters in books? And, in particular, lead roles such as the protagonist or antagonist?

Zzz...wha, did someone say controversial?

"Minority, a culturally, ethnically, or racially distinct group that coexists with but is subordinate to a more dominant group. As such, minority status does not necessarily correlate to population."
–Encyclopaedia Britannica

Of course, there are a whole lot of logical reasons why you might not want to. Fear of judgement, lack of avaliable research on a particular culture, lack of knowledge/experience.

But then, what are the consequences if we don't?

Well, if we don't include minorities, white becomes the default race in literature. Every character henceforth is assumed to be white. And this is exactly the problem in all of those arguments that I listed off a few sentences ago.

White people have cultures, too. Not 'white culture' or stereotypes, but groups with a numerically dominant white population certainly do have cultures. But if this is the case, then the argument, "I have no means of researching minorities and their cultures" falls short. Because if that was true, that you don't know enough about Spanish culture, for example, to write a Spanish character, then how are you able to write white characters without research? Right? Right???


The problem is that minorities have become this foreign, invisible thing, this idea that you must include minorities and their cultures because society tells you that it's right.

"But Jo, society is surely right," I can hear you hear you say, "isn't it good that we are told to include minorities?" Absolutely it's good! Yes. Include minorities! But in my opinion, it's best to do it not because you feel as though you have to do it to pass some kind of racist test, but because you KNOW it's realistic.

Minorities, and I speak as a minority in more ways than one, are everywhere. There are more racial minorities than white people in the world but then writers are so scared of getting it wrong that we forget that it's actually not normal to have a book with an plethora of white characters and no one else. Like I said, minority groups have become a foreign concept because many authors view them as an obstacle to overcome to write the best, least controversial book possible.

One down, more (things to avoid controversy and hate) to go.

And to those who say, "I have trouble writing minorities right", I completely and utterly understand. Because there is always that obligation to write the detailed cultural background of a minority character, as if to reassure all the haters out there that "guys, guys, it's kay. I wrote minority." And in cases where you are writing cultural info, I believe research from reliable sources is important.

But my main message is that you should always write your characters as if  they're from different cultural backgrounds in your head. If you're worried about this being perceived as you only writing white characters, then include some stuff about where the character is from, what background they are, tiny passing details or even plain descriptions like "he was Asian" (like Eleanor and Park). The most important thing is...well, to just do it.


Minorities are on your side. We want you to succeed, to try. Reasonable people will tell you firmly but not rudely if you get a cultural description wrong, because reasonable people seek to educate, not punish.

And if you want the short version of this post because, uh oh, Jo left a comment on my blog and now I've got to return the favour (*wink*) but I don't want to read the whole post, here's a short version of my advice:

There are many reasons to not write minorities. There are even better reasons to write them. If you get stuck, just remember: you can't please everyone.

What did you think? Do you find it hard to include minority characters? Do you think writers should make more of an effort to include racial minorities? As always, I'm interested. :)

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18 comments

  1. I'm still not comfortable with calling Chinese people a "minority" because even though it is underrepresented in English media, we are the most populous country in the world. *huffs* I always think it's best to write what you know -- you might not be in a racial or ethnic minority, but you might know someone who is, or you might be in a religious minority, and so on. So when people say, "Oh, I don't know how to write diverse books because I don't have experience like that," I will stare at them for a really long time.

    Personally, I write a lot of fantasy, so my so-called ethnic diversity are merely counterparts from real-world examples. I always use a lot of China or at least Asian stuff, because I'm familiar with it. But recently I've been planning a character who straddles the line between Hispanic and Arabian (specifically Egyptian), because I drew references from those places when creating his hometown. In this case copious research helped.

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    1. Same! And also, "white" people don't even make up a quarter of the world's population. Asian countries do though, South East Asian and Central Asian, etc. Yeah, to be honest I never really got that excuse. It's not like you've never met a person from a minority in your life, right?

      That sounds awesome. Research in that case would be quite necessary. I've still got to finish that manuscript you gave me, I'm about a quarter through. :)

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  2. yesss, this is always a great reminder. it's tempting to just not worry about it. the research re: cultures, traditions, etc seems such big deal, but I think it's so worth it. it's easy to get caught up in that mainstream of "all white" characters, but it's soo unrealistic. it's like you have such a narrow line of vision that only allows you to see a fraction of the whole view, but you don't even think about turning your head [or don't want to take the effort to turn your head] to get the bigger picture, or just open your eyes to get the entire picture.
    anyway, it's such a small, easy step to take. I think we all could do with this reminder. thanks for the post!

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    1. Yes! It's become so mainstream these days that it's become slightly worrying. But I agree, it's tempting, so I try not to get annoyed at writers when they do that. I just hope future writers will be better. :)

      That's a good metaphor you used (I was never very good with words). No problem and thanks for commenting!

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  3. I LOVE THIS POST!!! in my current wip, my crew of main characters consists of two russian siblings, two mixed-race (jewish and indian) siblings, an irish guy, an african-american girl, and a white american guy. this isn't even because i purposefully wanted a diverse cast. canada (where i live) is very multicultural, so it would seem abnormal to me for all of my characters to be white.

    that said, i don't really like categorizing every white person into a singular group. russians, americans, british people, swedish people, italian people etc. are all white, but their cultures, ideals, and environments are very diverse.

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    1. THANKS ABBY! Is this the story about the boxer??? Because I'd like to read it when you're done. >:)

      It's great that you have so much cultural diversity in your WIP. I agree that cultures are more important to nail than races and putting people in catergories, but many popular YA writers seem to forget to do the first thing, which is not to describe every character as fair-skinned (exceptions include setting, I guess, but somehow even in fantasy worlds everyone shouldn't all be fair-skinned). I'm still hoping this will change in the future. :)

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  4. In my WIP people live in a desert, so it makes total sense that they'd be darker instead of white. Otherwise their skin would be permanently scorched. :p

    But, honestly? I don't care as much as other people to for racial "fairness." I mean, that's just how people were made. It doesn't matter as much about the looks, but the culture. *shrugs*

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    1. Desert settings? Sounds interesting, I haven't seen a lot of those. :) That's true, unless it's a cold desert. :')

      That's totally cool. Culture is definitely more important, but it's because of culture that prejudice exists today, is it? But I agree with you, it's the way things should be. Race doesn't even exist scientifically!

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  5. The best part is that if there's an Eleanor and Park movie, all the characters will almost certainly be played by white actors.

    Also, many authors try to venture into the ruthless "diversity-zone" and come back out dragging boatloads of stereotypes. I feel like if someone is going to try and write a book about a different race than theirs, especially if the character's origin is a lot different than the author's, then they should at least consult someone with more experience. If I wanted to write a book on a white person who lives in South Africa or an Asian person who lives in the Middle East, I'd need a least a little research along with a lot of advice and real-life experiences from real-life people. But best-selling authors can't comprehend this for some reason.

    (Also, totally get you on the "white default" thing. I almost always imagine a character as white until otherwise stated or portrayed on the cover differently.)

    O | Life as a Young Lady

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    1. Mhmm. But I suppose it would be the book's fault, since the school they go to is predominantly white. Nevertheless...:(

      Yeah, I agree with you. Maybe the problem is that there are too many bestsellers with white authors? Who knows? I definitely think you need to do research instead of shying away from it or avoiding it altogether by having only white characters.

      Same, unfortunately. :(

      Thanks for commenting, O! :)

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  6. I just have to say THAT DUCKLING GIF. So freaking adorable.

    I find it really hard to write characters that aren't white, despite going to a school where white is the minority, and having been surrounded by many different cultures growing up. I'm working on it though :)

    Great post!

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    1. YESS I KNOW! I needed an excuse to use it. :D

      I'm glad you're working on it. Hope it works out. :)

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  7. Writing minorities I think is realistic. And it makes a story more interesting. I usually write fantasy, so I don't often run into this problem. But recently I've been toying with some ideas for some possible contemporaries. I've wanted some people from different cultures (I deal with different cultures with fantasy all the time and I love it, but it's easy, because I make up the stuff). But I'm scared of getting a minority wrong. Not exactly wrong so much, I guess, as I'm afraid of being stereotypical. Stereotypes and cliches drive me crazy. The last thing I want is for them to show up in my book. But I don't really plan to back out of it. If a character is Russian or Asian, then the character is Russian or Asian. I can't just change their heritage!

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    1. I can see why authors might want to avoid minorities. I'm glad you're sticking to it, though! Stereotypes are so annoying, unless it's satire. But sometimes I don't mind slightly stereotyped characters if they're believable. Parts of me/my life are stereotypically Asian. But still, ignorance (using stereotypes because it's the only thing the author knows) is never good. Thanks for commenting! :)

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  8. THIS POST. WOW. (Those gifs were the best)

    I feel like some authors try to include minorities but end up using a bunch of stereotypes to describe them, and then it turns out seeming like the author was being racist. As a writer, I can say it is EXTREMELY difficult to create a character who is not white, I don't want to be stereotypical, I don't want stereotypes in my book.

    ~Noor

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    1. Thanks. :')

      Yeah, I agree it can be very difficult, but I think they need to try harder to include minorities. I'm a writer but I find it less difficult then many writers, maybe that's why I have a hard time understanding why authors find it so hard. Stereotypes are terrible and to be avoided, true, but I hope you'll find that writing minorities isn't so difficult after all in the future. :) thanks for commenting!

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  9. Awesome post! As a black American, it can get really annoying that it's so rare to find books with black main characters. I mean, truthfully, if we're there, we're generally either ghetto, sidekick comic relief, or slaves. :p So yeah, I totally agree with you. :D


    Alexa
    thessalexa.blogspot.com
    verbositybookreviews.wordpress.com

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    1. I know what you mean! That's both racist and stereotypical. It's like when Asian characters in books are portrayed as either a nerdy computer whiz, or a female that's a weird fetish for male characters. It's terrible. "I don't know coloured people" or "I'm not coloured, so I can't write those characters" are such cop-outs. :(

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