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I don't understand how people can say “I have no regrets in my life. Everything I did led me to where I am today.”
I have plenty of things I regret.
For example, back in 2006, I was almost done with my bachelor degree in human services, which, in Texas, qualified me to begin working as a substitute teacher in the El Paso Independent School District.
And I was so excited to take on this new role.
During one of my first weeks taking on a class, I accepted a post in a high school history class that would last for two days. To me, a so-called history buff, this was a dream.
The lesson plan left by the teacher was easy enough: read a chapter quietly and then sit and chat quietly. And it was during that second half when a young Black student caught my attention.
While the rest of the class was chatting away and sitting on their phones, he sat alone reading.
Now, before I move on with this story, let me go back even further: early 80s and kindergarten. Like so many other white kids in the early 80s, I met my first nonwhite person in kindergarten. And I had a lot of questions, like why was she different? Why hadn't I seen skin like that before? Why didn't I have skin like that?
I brought my questions to my uncle and he smiled. I don't remember everything he said in detail, but I do remember one sentence he said: “When we're created, we're given certain gifts that make us special. They give us our powers. You have your green eyes, she has her brown skin. That's what makes her special.”
A few years later, and I was in 5th grade learning about the Civil War and slavery and I asked my uncle about it again. What was it? Why did people think it was okay?
And again, my uncle smiled and sat me down and we had a more in depth talk about everything. This time, I got more lessons to carry with me:
- People back then didn’t see how special black and brown people were
- Never purposely try to hurt anyone no matter what color skin they have,
- People with different skin colors are still treated badly by a lot of other people, so always be kinder to them (you might be the only one that day),
- Listen to people who look different than you,
- Remember - skin color is what makes them special.
- Racism won't end until white people talk to other white people about racism.
I have always tried to live my life with this understanding: that I should be nice to people of different ethnicities because other people might not be, that their skin color is their super power, and that racism would never truly end unless white people talked to other white people about it.
So, back to my substitute class and this young, Black student who caught my eye by reading a book. I asked him what he was reading and his face lit up.
He started talking about blood diamonds and the strife in Africa.
And now, before I go on any further, let me tell you that I know. I know I should have kept my mouth shut. I know I had no business saying anything. I know.
But in 2006, I didn't know. I was excited that there was a student who was excited about history and was talking to me about it, so I opened my mouth.
“Do you think they would be in this much turmoil if they hadn't forced the British to relinquish their colonies and leave Africa? I mean, maybe they just weren't ready to lead themselves?”
Maybe they just weren't ready to lead themselves.
Ugh. It still makes me cringe.
But wait, it gets worse.
You might be thinking that his excitement faded. But it didn't. He got more interested. He started pulling out his history book and his notebook, and we started looking things up right there — times, dates, incidents.
Yes. In a white textbook written by white educators…because the bad ideas just didn't stop.
Well, neither of us were satisfied with the amount of information available regarding the British colonies and Africa. So, at the end of the class, I asked him if he would like me to look up more information and he said yes.
So I did.
That next day, I walked into that class with a stack of articles, all talking about blood diamonds and the problems in Africa since the British left.
All written by white people.
So, yes. I have regrets. I regret that I was a white substitute teacher and I helped convince a young Black student that it was Africa's own fault for kicking out the British. I regret that in my belief of being nice to people of different ethnicities, I may have inadvertently erased a part of his personal history or a history he might have otherwise connected with.
To this day, that weighs on me. I hope he knows I was wrong. Even if he hates me for it, and tells all his friends while sitting around a table somewhere “this one crap teacher once tried to tell me…“
I hope he knows I was so, so wrong. And I hope he went and discovered the truth.
But that's not really the point of this post.
Unfortunately, I lived in my bubble for a few more years. In fact, it wasn't until 2014 when I was in graduate school when I figured out that the bubble was even there and was able to get out of it. That was when I really started learning about white privilege, systemic racism, and just how prevalent it is.
And that was when I wanted to help change it.
And I truly thought I could, too. I mean, I knew I would need help, I knew there was no way I could do it on my own. But I also knew that I had to do what I could:
- I started creating Black characters for my clients' books.
- I started taking on more Black clients to help them edit and publish their books.
- I started buying books from Black authors that featured Black characters for me and for my kids.
- I started writing about writing diversity.
- I started looking for stock photos that featured Black writers and business owners.
- When I started putting together the Freelance Writing Success Summit, I set out to ensure that it was a diverse panel that featured Black speakers.
- And I started trying to tell other white writers to start writing BIPOC characters.
And you know what they say, right? The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
I had such good intentions. I truly did.
And then tonight, I learned just how bad my advice has been all this time.
I was sitting in an audio chat room on Clubhouse when I saw someone start a room on writing Black characters. So, of course, I hopped right in.
Immediately, I knew this was not going to be a chat in which I had an opinion. Out of 73 other writers, I was the only person in there who was not black or brown. And my very first thought on this? Gold mine!
To be able to sit like a fly on the wall and learn how to write Black characters by listening to Black writers discussing all the things that go into Black characters and where other writers (black and white) get them wrong — all without having to burden anyone by asking them to teach me?
I couldn't ask to be in a better, more necessary room. My only wish was that other white writers had found their way into that room so they could learn.
And boy, did I learn.
But as I was sitting here at my desk, listening to this amazing chat room and taking notes whenever one of the speakers dropped a gem, that's when the truth really dawned on me: I have been doing, and even teaching others to do, exactly what they were saying not to do: I was writing Black characters from a white lens.
All this time, I have been handing out advice about writing Black characters and saying:
- Don't be scared of offending anyone
- Don't highlight their skin color because then you set them up as “not of the norm”
- Don't mock the culture
- Don't use them as a stereotype
Okay, so these things aren't exactly bad pieces of advice – they are all still important. But do you know what I missed?
I missed the Black lens.
I was so caught up in the idea of not mocking that I completely failed to take the Black lens into consideration. The very thing that gave BIPOC characters their super powers and I missed it entirely.
It is not the same to know slavery happened as it is to be a descendent of that institution.
It is not the same to know that systemic racism is happening as it is to be a victim still oppressed by that system.
It is not the same to place white skin on a character for whom “the race doesn't matter” as it is to place black skin onto a character for whom “race doesn't matter.” Because the race does matter. There is a shared suffering, a shared sense of loss, grief, and rage that I can never hope to understand.
And this shared experience absolutely has an effect on any character any writer might write.
We should be scared over writing diversity. We should be scared of getting it wrong. Of doing Black characters a huge disservice by erasing their lens.
I do think it's important for there to be more color in our characters. I believe there needs to be more Black characters, and I believe there needs to be more white writers writing those Black characters. Why? Because the publishing industry is just as infused with systemic racism as any other institution out there:
- White authors are more likely to be published
- White authors are more likely to reach Bestseller status
- Someone had the nerve to ask Jessica Cage why she featured Black characters on the covers of her books
- Someone else had the nerve to tell T. Ashley that she could sell a lot more books if she replaced the Black characters on her book covers with white characters.
- There are probably dozens (or more) of other instances similar to these two that have happened just in the past few months, that haven't been publicly shared yet.
- More children's books featuring animal characters are published than children's books featuring BIPOC characters.
But, white writers need to do it right. Because so far, we have been doing it so, so very wrong. And that’s, in part, because of the incomplete advice I’ve been sharing all these years.
We need to collaborate with Black authors, learn more about what it means to see the world through the eyes of a Black character.
It's not enough for white writers to just not mock a culture when writing a Black character. We have to make real, concerted efforts to lift that culture without highlighting it as “not of the norm.”
Now, if you've made it this far, you're probably wondering what I learned while sitting in this chat in Clubhouse that sent me over here to write this post up, right?
Well, here are just a few nuggets on writing Black characters I took with me:
- Adding in a Black character immediately raises the stakes for all of your characters. Immediately. Take, for example, the movie “Can’t Hardly Wait…” During one scene in that movie, Kenny Fisher (played by Seth Green) and two of his friends were walking casually through a convenience store talking about his “Love Kit.” Now, imagine if just one of Kenny’s friends were black? Would they have been able to divulge that entire “Love Kit” in private as they did? Or would that store owner have been following them the entire time, ready to call the cops or hit an alarm? Maybe even asked them to leave? Instead of being a light-hearted, comical scene about a boy trying to get his schwing on, it would have been tension-filled or it would have been filmed in a different location. Either way, that scene would have been completely different if there had been a Black character instead of three white characters.
- Adding in a Black character means you have to add in racism. I, for one, would love to be in a world where we can say “racism doesn't exist” and actually mean it. But we don't. And there's no place in America in which racism doesn't come into play when we're talking about BIPOC characters. Yet we have a tendency to gloss over it or skip over it completely. It's an uncomfortable topic and it needs to be brought into the open and discussed – our Black citizens can't gloss over it or skip it, so we can't pretend that our Black characters can.
- Adding in racism does not mean we have to solve it. There's a trope in which the white character, the star of the book, finally claps back against racism. And in doing so, they become the white savior. That just needs to stop altogether. Don't get me wrong, there are many a white character who finally stood up against racism and I cheered them on. I never saw how harmful that white saviorism was to the representation of Black characters, though. You know how we women loathe the trope that a man always has to swoop in to save the woman at the last second because she sprained her ankle? White saviorism is the same thing. It needs to stop.
More than anything, we need to amplify these Black voices – Black stories and Black characters.
And no, this isn't me being a white author calling on other white authors to come in and save Black authors or save Black characters. At least, I hope this doesn't come out that way. What I am doing is telling other white authors that if we really care about representation and diversity in writing, then we have to start writing better Black characters. If you are going to write a Black character into your story, take the time to do it right.
Don't be lazy.
Don't take that story away from a BIPOC author just to spin a white lens onto it.
While we're at it, don't tell a BIPOC character's story if you're white. I am not saying that as a white writer you should be writing about BIPOC characters and stories or that you should be writing a book about the Tulsa Massacre. I am talking about adding BIPOC characters into your stories and doing it well so that you give those characters as much depth, thought, and care as you give your white characters.
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