Open Discussion: Who should write ethnic characters?

letstalkOne of my fellow bloggers pointed out a great article, in which they discussed who should be allowed to write ethnic characters. Of course, I immediately began to think about having an open discussion here, hence this post. 🙂

Y’all, my talk-it-out self is practically dancing in my seat waiting to start this discussion. However, the above article has A LOT of topic points. So this week we’re only going to focus on one. (But please read the article in its entirety, it has a lot of great points.)

Some people believe that you can only write what you know (aka are). They want white authors to write white characters and minority authors to stick to their own ethnic group. They believe to do otherwise is shutting out the minority authors as well as stealing from that culture and receiving acclaim for the majority race. Of course, not everyone feels this way, which is where you come in and why we have this open discussion.

To be honest, this is a hot-button topic, but one I think the Christian writing community should have. After all, shouldn’t we be the ones striving for racial reconciliation? Shouldn’t we want the body to come together and celebrate the aspects that make us unique? I can’t wait to hear (read) your thoughts and discuss this more in depth. But first, some ground rules.

  1. This is a safe place and people will be treated with respect no matter their opinion.
  2. Please stay within the purviews of this topic. It’s easy to get distracted and bring up other issues, but like we stated in our welcome posts, our main concern is ethnically diverse Christian fiction.
  3. Have fun, learn something, and discuss and listen with an open heart.

Now for the question this week.

  1. Do you believe that an author should only write what they know, when it comes to race (i.e., white authors write white characters only, Black authors write black characters only)? Why or why not?

Pull up a chair and let’s talk!


Post written by Toni Shiloh

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23 thoughts on “Open Discussion: Who should write ethnic characters?

  1. I hope I got all of that article, but the website was so full of pop-up advertising!
    My first thought is that this attitude perpetuates stereotypes, not diffuses them. The color of our skin or geographical origins of our great-grandparents do not define who we are as individuals. Yes, we have varying skin colors, ranging from very light to very dark, but that’s not all we are. Our culture – our current lives, the recent generations – those make us individuals instead of groups.
    “Writing what we know” would limit us to absurdly unrealistic books. I can’t write a book set in Chicago with only white people. A black person can’t write a book with only black people.
    I live on the campus of an organization for helping “troubled boys.” My husband works with adolescents ranging from 12-17, most of whom are black and from what some people might call a “ghetto” lifestyle. They are violent, profane, destructive, male-dominent young men who have committed crimes of every kind, from gangs, with parents in jail or dead. They live here in this beautiful area, with caring counselors, opportunities for education, job training, swimming, fishing, boating, sports of every kind… and all they want to do is get away. They regularly run away and steal cars to get back to the city. Their goals are limited to two options: to be rap singers or to be professional basketball players. I am the only woman on campus they are not abusive to, probably because I do mending for them and send treats sometimes. And I am not in a position of authority and I don’t see them on a daily basis.
    That was a long description, but my point is that if a book was written with that particular culture representing black people, almost every other black person would be (rightly) offended by the stereotypes. In other places we have lived, our black or hispanic or Asian friends were military members – all in the same age group and socioeconomic demographic as us. In more urban areas, our black friends came from at least one generation of professional/college-educated family. In our church, the few black members are just ordinary, fun people who live similar small-town lives. Redneck black people? LOL
    People are individuals, not groups, and the longer we keep segregating ourselves into skin-colored groups, the harder it becomes to see each other individually!
    That said, I do use certain websites like Writing With Color to make sure I am not saying something that would inadvertently offend people. I don’t describe skin color by food names (coffee-colored or chocolate brown or honey-colored, etc.).
    Maybe this attitude makes me insensitive according to some people, but I think it makes me more respectful of people as individuals.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you for your response, Cathe. It’s funny you mention “Writing With Color.” I do the food names all the time, so when I saw the article I thought “oops.” Like you said, the majority of us live in a diverse world and writing should reflect that.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. “We have varying skin colors, ranging from very light to very dark, but that’s not all we are. Our culture – our current lives, the recent generations – those make us individuals instead of groups.”

      Yes, I believe that cultural differences have to do with much more than skin tone, and every individual is more than any one thing. A married father of four who teaches at an elementary school isn’t just a man, or just a husband, or just a dad, or just a teacher. If he’s got Irish ancestors, he isn’t just Irish, or if his parents are Japanese, he isn’t just Japanese. Indeed, individuals are many things.

      Although someone’s ethnic, national, or cultural origin may not be the one thing that defines him/her, ethnic and cultural origins are still important to many people and are significant pieces that factor into their personhood and how they may experience life.

      I’m a woman, and I want people to see and acknowledge that. I’m not just a woman, I’m not the same as every other woman, and my being a woman doesn’t mean I don’t have anything in common with men. I don’t think others acknowledging my womanhood, acknowledging that I’m not quite the same as a man, necessarily means they’ll perpetuate a stereotype about females in doing so. Knowing I’m a woman may simply help them to better understand who I am.

      That’s why I think it’s important to see, acknowledge, speak up about our differences. We can either use what we acknowledge to perpetuate stereotypes, or we can use what we acknowledge to help us become more empathetic. I think acknowledging our differences also helps us to better understand what we have in common, and why. And I tend to agree with Maya Angelou: “I note [acknowledge] the obvious differences between each sort and type, but we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

      Oh–and “‘Writing what we know’ would limit us to absurdly unrealistic books.” I agree so much that I laughed! 😀

      Liked by 2 people

  2. My lead characters are white, but I have had secondary characters that were Latino or Black. They are some of my favorite characters, but it was scary to write. I worked at a public school, so I have been around a variety of people and had a variety of friends, but I struggled with anxiety over the characters. I don’t want to write all white characters because I don’t live in a world of that looks like that. Here’s a quote on demographics of the city center where I live in Mississippi: “The Jackson metropolitan area has one of the largest percentages of African Americans of any metro in America at 48 percent…”
    My world is diverse.
    Working a the public high school taught me that people of all races are so diverse, too, in personality and socioeconomic status. My goal has been not to stereotype. I don’t know what the answer is. I have traded critiques with authors of different races. I’m not sure what to do beyond that.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience, Janet. It disheartens me to know that people have such anxiety to write a character. Authors write what they don’t know all the time. That’s why we research. That’s why we ask others to read the work before it gets published, to ensure the validity of the work. But, there will always be someone who doesn’t agree. I think as long as we stay prayed up, and do our due diligence, we have to let the rest of the anxiety go. Maybe by offering diverse characters, we can heal the divide in our country.

      Liked by 5 people

      1. I naturally tend toward anxiety anyway most everything to do with publishing 🙂 . Plus the past couple of years have been so politically charged. I most definitely want to heal! Will do my best to stay prayed up and be diligent.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. I indeed believe authors should write what they know–to an extent. 😀 As part of the nature of being a writer and a creative, authors write what they “don’t know” all the time. Female authors who’ve never been male create male characters, and vice versa. Authors who have not yet reached a particular age write about older characters. Historical fiction authors write about eras, and oftentimes cultures, they haven’t come from or lived in. Authors of contemporary fiction often create characters wrapped up in careers and pursuits the authors themselves haven’t worked in or pursued in the same way.

    And when diligent authors are compelled to write about people in/from/of a time, age, gender, career, pursuit, etc. they don’t personally “know” that way, they do the diligent thing: they research. Research comes in different forms, and sometimes it’s in the form of observation that’s already been done as a part of living (e.g., a male author considering what he’s observed and learned about women when he creates a female protagonist.)

    For truly good (and especially for great) writing, I believe research and observation must be mixed with empathy. There’s a difference between venturing to write what you don’t “know” and venturing to write what you haven’t empathized with.

    I think empathy is extremely important when it comes to an author creating a character of a different ethnicity or culture, or even when writing about, say, someone from the Deaf community, or someone with a disability. If an author doesn’t come from a particularly diverse background, it may very well take intentionally living a more diverse life–meeting different people, making different friends–to become more empathetic. And it can’t be all book-driven, like, “Let me see if I can hurry up and make a Chinese person be my friend so I can write and sell this book about a Chinese guy.” No, there has to be a natural, genuine desire to connect with others, or it isn’t true empathy.

    And by all means, I think it’s wise to have books with diverse characters be read by diverse people before publication, but not as a means for publishers to “get around” actually publishing diverse authors, or for authors to merely appropriate other people’s cultures and to “run off” with them, for book sales and acclaim. Again, I think true empathy is the goal, authentic inclusion, sensitivity and genuine respect, both in regards to publishing books and far beyond that.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. “No, there has to be a natural, genuine desire to connect with others, or it isn’t true empathy.” ❤ This statement, Nadine. As you pointed out, some of us do need to go out there and seek diverse relationships. Not to check a box or pat yourself on the back, but to form true relationships. Only then can we truly see and understand we have more in common then we thought. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      Liked by 3 people

  4. I spent fifteen minutes crafting a comment, but when I went to post it, WordPress said I wasn’t logged in and deleted it. Ugh!
    In short, I said that I never set out to write “diversity between the pages.” I simply wrote what God put on my heart. Only recently have I realized what a bold and risky move it is to write so many cultures (Native American, Black, White, Irish, Spanish, and the list goes on), but I’ve always done so very cautiously and, I pray, with the empathy Nadine so eloquently described. We have such a huge responsibility as writers to be accurate, no matter our subject matter, and we should always be open to feedback and suggestions for change. I certainly am, even after a book is published. Changing one word or phrase can make all the difference for a sensitive reader, and as an indie author, it’s easy to do.
    Should we write only our culture/ethnicity? No way. I’ve learned so much and gained a ton of respect for those who are different from me, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I also feel I have a calling to inform my white target audience about
    little-known, disgraceful history they’re more than likely not aware of. Maybe, prayerfully, it’ll impact our hate-filled nation, if only a little.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. What a great discussion! I agree with so much of what has already been expressed here. I’ve always thought ‘write what you know’ is a rather silly maxim; authors write what they don’t know all the time, and I note that at least one other person has already pointed out some of the most obvious ways they do that: women writing male characters and vice versa.

    I certainly think we should be encouraging writers who come from non-white backgrounds to write, and to write about characters from their own ethnic background; nothing beats the authenticity of experience. But, as has already been expressed by several authors above, any author worth their salt will research their characters and get feedback from readers as to their authenticity prior to publishing.

    Telling authors to ‘only write what they know’ when it comes to race perpetuates this idea that we can’t identify with those whose cultures and experiences differ from our own, and that is exactly what prevents people from crossing cultural boundaries in the first place. Christians–of all people!–should recognise that race is merely one aspect of who we are. Once you look beyond the superficial things like skin colour and cultural practices, we all share a common humanity ❤

    Liked by 4 people

  6. First of all, I am so happy to see diversity being spoken about in the Christian realm it almost makes me tear up. As a white woman who feels Latina at heart and whose husband and son are Latino and whose church family are Latino and white and a mixture of the two, I only know that God has put it in my heart to write Latino Christian fiction even though it isn’t a genre yet! I love Latino culture (especially Mexican since my husband and his family are from there so I’ve visited a dozen times) and thanks from my family, mis hermanos at the church, and the clients i work with at my job as a counselor I have a heart for the Latinos people. I feel God has led me to see their struggles and the also the beauty in their culture and put it into words. I am bilingual and very familiar with the culture but also would love to find a bilingual/bicultural editor (suggestions welcomed!) and bilingual/bicultural beta readers. Part of the challenge i have come across is that some of my characters are undocumented (which is a reality) and that has rubbed some Christians the wrong way. Now there’s a whole other topic i won’t get into. 😉 But I agree with others, write what you know at least something about and maybe hace learned about (mystery authors hopefully have never committed murder) but make sure things are authentic! Gracias!!!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you, athewriter. See…. I referred to Hispanic people, meaning from Mexico and neighboring countries, but you refer to them as Latino – and you clearly know better than me. I may not be Latina/Hispanic, but my Great Lakes series is set partially in Chicago, with a diverse population – and I’d better learn the difference. In Snow Angels, my first book there, I focused mostly on elderly people in a neighborhood similar to where my husband’s family lives, with mostly black and early 20th century European immigrants. May I email you this spring/summer if I have Latino culture questions for my new book? My email is cathe @ catheswanson.com – send me an email and let me know. 🙂

      (Sorry to hijack your thread, Toni!)

      Liked by 2 people

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