Before I fell headlong into my next book project, I mapped out a general outline–as per usual for me–and detailed my Character Bible. This is when I put together the characters obituaries and physical descriptors. (Basically, what would the paper say about them when they’re gone. It’s just a weird thing I do.)

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I looked at it and realized: everyone was white. It was my default. Basically it was me being lazy, trapped in a comfort zone of absolute boringness. I was determined to change them from white to anything else, but I couldn’t just magically make them not white and still tell the same story, could I? Short answer: no. That’s even lazier. Writing colorblind, or rather, “I can just interchange the color of someone’s skin or their race without changing who that person is!” is some bullsh*t white utopia stuff. Because it does matter. It does.

 

Being black, Latino or Hispanic, being Asian or Filipino or West African or Iranian–even if that person was born in Iowa and grew up in the middle of a corn field–their heritage, their race, their culture will have an effect on who they are as a person. It certainly will make them different from the white person who grew up in that Iowan corn field.

“But I don’t see color!”

That’s because you’re defaulting to white. That’s what that phrase actually means. And it’s racist.

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dmOoevyiA4I[/youtube]

I won’t lie: I was terrified to try and write people of color. Why? Because I’m fully aware of my whiteness, the privilege that affords me, and just how little my struggles in life match up. And I’ve had some struggles, but let’s get real. My struggles, hard though they have been, didn’t have the added element of my skin’s color barring me from overcoming them with relative ease by comparison.

I didn’t want to be offensive, I didn’t want to write a “Magical Negro” or a “Mystical Native American,” because that’s still offensive. [And we can talk another day about “Magical Disabled People” as another incredibly offensive and othering premise in writing. Short story: don’t do it.]

People are fully realized, three dimensional beings, and that’s true for all of us. A person who is different from you be it race, ability, what have you, doesn’t exist to help you realize things about yourself. That isn’t their function to help YOU. Their function is to be themselves. This is true in real life as well as in media, or rather it should be.

So if my story was about, say, a blonde girl trying to make it into an Ivy League school to become a lawyer, breezing through on her intelligence and charm, and in the end proving to her ex-boyfriend that she’s better than him, I can’t just make her a black woman. I mean, I could, but it would be disingenuous. Her life wouldn’t be easy just because she’s in an Ivy League school, because racist people are everywhere. She might not be so glib with an officer arresting her and her sorority gals for getting too loud while celebrating. I’m being obvious, I know, but hopefully you get my point. It’s not as easy as a search and replace.

Even though I’m no expert on race relations, I didn’t want to simply not write people of color or other races (depending on if you’re outside Western Civilization, as I know PoC isn’t a term used in that case) because I was scared. So what did I do? I fell back on my comfort zone, research.

‘Walk a mile in their shoes’ is a good way of looking at the amount of research I felt I needed to undertake. I knew I was writing a historical piece, and that all black men in the United States weren’t slaves. I knew that Anglos didn’t “establish” communities in Texas, because about twenty or thirty different native tribes had been there for centuries, as well as the Mexicans who had lived there for a few hundred years, as well.

You know what the hell of it was? Trying to find out grooming habits of a black man in the 19th century. Go on, google it. I’ll be waiting here for you to find out anything about how often a black man in the 1860s would shave or cut their hair and beard. I’ve had to reach out to Howard University’s library to see if they can find any archival information. It’s been about two weeks with them not finding anything, either. Oh, there’s loads about how black men became barbers, how they groomed white men. Nothing on themselves.

Is this an important detail to my story? Not really, I just like to know my characters inside and out. But think about that: the information about something as simple as “how often did a black man shave in 1860” is a question that not even a black college has a ready answer to share. That is shameful–not on their part, but on we, the white gatekeepers picking and choosing what’s important to record, to write about.

I’m working with a friend who is fluent in Spanish to help me translate some papers about the Mexican citizens who lived along the Rio Grande in the 1860s–who thrived and had businesses, whole lives, generation after generation–but no papers published in English mention them, only the white settlers who came in looking for new land. They are the ones who established civilization, according to those historians, completely ignoring all the people who were there first.

This is why it’s important to write about non-whites. It’s important to have stories about people who lived, thrived, cultivated their families and businesses when the records of how they lived were destroyed, altered, or never even recorded in the first place. It’s important.

And it’s important to get it right, to flesh out these characters honestly after hours and hours of research, of walking in their shoes, of contemplating what it would be like if in two hundred years no one would have a clue as to how white women brushed their teeth, or how often. Sounds ridiculous? Go google 19th Century black women’s hygiene in the southern United States and let me know how detailed it is about their dental care. Folks, that was only three grandmas ago. That’s absolutely shameful.

It matters. It matters more than your fear, more than my worry, more than a comfort level many of us white writers are used to. Diversity matters.

And I’m pretty excited to realize that only one minor character in the entire novel I’m currently writing is white. It’s also terrifying, because I understand the huge responsibility on my shoulders, but walking a mile in the Valle Santos family’s shoes is terribly exciting, as well as learning all about the many freed black men who made up 40% of the Old West’s cowboys. Did you know that? You sure wouldn’t have if you’d only paid attention to Louis L’amour novels or Hollywood spaghetti westerns. White dudes were the minority. Huh.

Don’t let your fear perpetrate colorblindness. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself.

Here are some great resources I’ve collected regarding writing non-whites:

I’m going to make mistakes; I usually do. I try to learn from them because it matters. Diversity matters, representation matters, and doing better matters. Now. Get out there and write!

(And seriously: if you have any historical documents explaining how often black men in the southern United States would have shaved or trimmed their beards–what was the norm?–HELP A GIRL OUT. It’s maddening. MADDENING.)

 

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