In the book I’m currently working on, one of the main characters is black. The decision to do this wasn’t a light one, and factors into the plot through the racism, both subtle and overt, that the character suffers through his life. I’d like to think I didn’t chose to write a black character to be edgy, or different, although I’m aware there could well be a subconscious bias that I’m trying too hard to overcome; rather, I’ve always tried to write characters that are who they are because they have to be, for no other reason than that they were born that way.
When I wrote my first novel, 22 Scars, I knew it was about a depressed teenage girl. Whilst depression was the focus of the story, I knew I couldn’t avoid the fact that my main character was also female, which put me in the position of writing certain things that I, as a male, could of course simply not experience. I did my research, talked to people, and ended up asking several female friends to beta read it to see how accurately I’d portrayed the main character.
To my fortune, a poor portrayal of women is one of the few things that hasn’t been levied against 22 Scars (at least not yet). It’s received a fair amount of criticism, from the confusing structure to the graphicness of the self-harm depicted, but so far no one’s come to me and said I got women wrong.
To a large extent, I did this by trying to focus on things I knew were universal between men and women – feelings, emotions, shared experiences. Whatever I couldn’t relate from personal experience I more or less avoided unless absolutely necessary; one of the few areas that I had to cross over the line was when depicting characters’ reactions to sexual assault, and for this I had to rely on (unfortunately) experiences of people I either know – or have read the works of – who’ve experienced this first-hand.
I can’t say that writing characters of a different race is similar, because it’s not. The experiences of a black person in a society that favors whiteness are something I really can’t begin to grasp, but for the longest time, I thought I could portray it simply by doing what I did with 22 Scars – avoiding the difficult bits.
The problem is that, from what I understand, being black isn’t just an aspect of your physical character, in the way having brown hair or blue eyes is (wouldn’t that be nice). It becomes a part of your culture, whether you want it to or not. It becomes a vehicle for people to judge you, whether you asked for it or not. It becomes a lingering question in your mind, constantly – did ‘that’ just happen because of the color of my skin?
This was a difficult concept for me to grasp – and I would happily admit I’m sure I still don’t quite understand it. And the reason I believe this is because of, of all things, South Park.
South Park is famous for taking on difficult and controversial topics, and have covered racism in several episodes. One episode in particular, though, specifically calls out those white people who claim to empathize with black people, when in fact they just ‘don’t get it’.
In the 2007 episode With Apologies to Jesse Jackson, one of the characters is challenged on Wheel of Fortune to complete the word “N-[blank]-G-G-E-R-S”, with the clue “people who annoy you” (the correct answer, of course, being “N-A-G-G-E-R-S”). Randy of course utters the other word, prompting race riots and ultimately a scene in which he quite literally kisses Jesse Jackson’s ass.
Throughout the episode, Stan tries to understand why his black friend, Token, is so upset by the whole scenario. In Stan’s mind, it was an honest mistake, and having apologized, the whole topic should just be dropped. At first he tries to defend his dad, and later tries to tell Token he understands why he would be so upset. At every turn, Token simply tells Stan that he just ‘doesn’t get it’.
Only at the very end of the episode does Stan come to the epiphany that he doesn’t get it – and that he never will. He will never understand what it’s like to hear the N-word directed at him or any other black person, and will never understand what it’s like to be black.
This was one of the most eye-opening bits of TV that I, a white male, had ever seen at the time. At first of course I couldn’t believe they were actually using the N-word on TV, but later I realized the depth of the lesson this episode was trying to tackle. It remains one of my favorite episodes to this day because of this, and I think that Stone and Parker outdid themselves in exquisitely calling out the white false-empathizers who think they can understand what it’s like to be black.
Coming back to my book, it’s going to be important that I don’t get caught up in the thought that I, too, can ‘understand’ what it’s like. I can imagine, of course – envision, conceptualize, analogize and draw parallels – but I can’t truly ‘get it’. And so long as I think this comes across – and so long as there’s actually a reason for this character to be black other than forced diversity – I hope (fingers crossed) that it comes out okay.
What do you think? Is it too risky for a white author to write a black protagonist? Are there obvious pitfalls to avoid? Let me know what you think!