Greetings folks. I took April off because of traveling at the beginning of the month. Once I got home, I’d forgotten to post.
But I’m back, or rather, Sharita is with this very informative blog about writing black folks!
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So, you’re a writer, huh? You, as a non-black author, want to write outside of your comfort zone and explore someone black, but you don’t know where to start. What are you using for research?
Nope. Not a good source because a large part of movies are stereotypical.
Maybe, but not always. There can be books by #ownvoices that are helpful, but again, not the best source.
It would help in research, but it isn’t the definite authority on HOW to write a person of a different race, culture, sexual identity, or ability than your own.
Sure, I’ve preached to write us like normal, everyday people. However, every normal everyday black person isn’t the same. While some of us might fit the stereotypes, others go against the grain. We like different types of music, foods, and live in different places. There are rich black folks and poor ones. Black metalheads, nerds, chicks that dig anime, and some that do none of the above.
With all those examples, I think you get the picture. Regardless of race, culture, sexual identity, or gender, we are all unique. However, there is a stigma in the writing community that writing black folks is hard. Writers cry out saying…
“I don’t wanna get it wrong! I don’t wanna offend.”
Listen. Some of us are more sensitive than others, but I believe if you write any person with respect and empathy, you’ve done your job. Now, there will be those that take issue with anyone who isn’t black writing a black character, but I’m not one of those people. I’m not the authority, but since I’m the blogger, I’ll play it for now.
Let’s get back to our discussion, shall we?
Sharita, how the hell do I write a black person?
Again, there isn’t a clear answer, but I polled fellow black authors and/or readers asking some important questions about their pet peeves and their feelings towards people who aren’t black writing us. Some didn’t want to be named while others did. And before we begin, this isn’t the so-called guide, but a handy resource. It isn’t the substitute for having a sensitivity reader because that remains best when writing a black person.
However, feel free to bookmark it for future use.
Out of those polled a good number were between the ages of 35-45 and female.
First question: Do you take issue with non-black authors writing black characters.
All participants were okay with it, however, one had this to say. “I don’t care as long as those authors aren’t taking up all of the oxygen in the proverbial “room”. Writing, to me, is an exercise in empathy. You shouldn’t be forced to only empathize with one kind of person. That doesn’t mean the empathy of a white person should be more valuable than that of a black person, or that a white author should be given a pass to exploit an undeserved market without benefit of black authors getting a turn too.”
Another said, “Somewhat leery. As long as they have sensitivity readers, it’s fine. It’s authors who use stereotypes or watch a documentary or two and think they know black culture that bother me.”
Remmy D says, its fine as long as they lay off racial stereotypes.
Giovanna R says she’s also fine with it as long as the author presents (characters) in a positive light and not the typical thug most attribute to mostly African-Americans.
However, another says this. “Uneasy. I’d like to think and hope that at the very bare minimum they have black people in their lives that they actually know and care about. If that isn’t there, it is very unlikely that their work would be nuanced or human enough to not just be surface and would likely be riddled with stereotypes and offense. It’s why we end up with such awful portrayals lacking humanity. I think all people underestimate how important and enriching actually knowing and interacting with people unlike them is.”
My thought is the same. As long as you don’t reference stereotypes then I’m okay with it. I’ll also add, if you do add the stereotypes it’s used as a plot device. Maybe your black character is poor, and this is a rags to riches story. A rich tycoon sweeps him or her off their feet. That is acceptable, even though I’d probably write the non-black character as poor and make the black character the rich one.
Been there done that!
In the next question, I asked the participants about stereotypes we normally see in books. They were:
Food descriptions such as honey colored skin or milk chocolate
Characters who talk slang.
Characters from a bad neighborhood
Characters who are financially strapped or dirt poor
Angry black men or women
I also added an other category for the participants to state other things that annoyed them. Most said, slang, characters from bad neighborhood, and poor bothered them. A couple said the angry black woman or man which is a personal one for me.
Kimberley L says this in her other: “Portraying us as hyper sexual, promiscuous, sexualizing/fetishizing us.”
This happens a lot in the porn industry whether it be in straight or gay porn. And sadly, it occurs in fiction as well. The black dude has a magic ten incher, ready to tear up anything in it’s path. It’s a monster!
Another person says “Other than the specific option chosen, all others *can* be offensive but aren’t always. It depends on the work and I don’t want to see these all included in one work just because the MC is black. Case by case basis usually.”
While another says, the runaway parent, single mom or dad.
That one bothers me as well. I, as a black person, grew up in a two-parent household. Both of my parents worked. Though it is a reality in a lot of black households, not every one of them is the same.
Next question: Would you prefer authors of color and those that are not to stay away from stereotypes even if they are true?
One person says. “I’m fine if it adds to the story and not just added for shock value or because someone is too lazy to write a well-rounded character.”
Another says, “No. I’d prefer that authors be honest and fearless in their work and back their character choices up with care and empathy for the subject. Spending too much time thinking about how others will receive it often means you’re not writing a character, but a white flag you hope will keep enemy fire at bay. That defeats the purpose of writing them. Be aware of the research you have to do to make the character human, and then write a human being who on occasion matches a stereotype. That will keep authors from writing a stereotype instead of writing a character that explores a stereotype.”
That’s an interesting answer because as I stated above, I prefer it to be a plot device. While it’s true that some black people are indeed poor, live in single parent households, or talk slang, there is a part of me that wishes we wouldn’t write it. I did have slang talking characters in my N’awlins Exotica series because at that time, I associated slang with living in the south. However, the more I’ve visited New Orleans, I’ve found a lot of people there don’t talk slang. Ebonics, as they call it, might be a thing in the “hood,” but I rarely write characters who use improper language.
Still, the person has a point. Being true to that character might require that sort of language. I suppose that’s also part of the plot. One said it is by a case to case basis which is very true. If said character is talking slang and from a poor neighborhood, then there should be a good reason for portraying them that way.
However, authors shouldn’t use that as an excuse to write all characters that way. If you have one, I would hope another would be the exact opposite. My character in my upcoming book, Push is a rap mogul who talks very proper, but his best friend Greg talks slang, using words like “bruh” and “fam.”
In this instance, I’d say it’s a plot device because it shows where Malakei’s friend Greg is from. Not all rappers talk properly.
It truly is based on the story and on characters.
Last Question: Are there any other pet peeves you can think of that bother you?
This answer sums it up perfectly: “Judgmental people on either side. Judgement doesn’t leave room for the work. I wish we’d start taking each (others) work as it comes, instead of forcing characters of color and authors of color to write for an entire race. I wish white authors would stop simultaneously questioning the merits of these works, while either cashing in on diversity or avoiding it entirely because they see it as a money-making venture and not a legitimate part of writing. And I wish we as POC would stop trying to hold each work up to the light and inspect it for cracks as if it’s a pass or fail test. If that’s the case, authors will often fail, because they can never appease an entire group. If the work is flawed, it’s flawed and we should be able to say so. But the flaw itself shouldn’t be that it didn’t speak to all of us and that the work should never have been written. There has to be room made for all of us to succeed and make mistakes.”
That is so important and I’m going to plead guilty when looking at urban romances. I’m not a fan of romances that paint us negatively in my opinion, but it isn’t my place to judge. They’re authors just like I am. I don’t have to be a fan of their work to support them. They might feel the same about mine. I’ve been told in the past my characters aren’t black enough. Can you imagine? Ugh. I don’t even know what that means. Still, the participant is right. We have to stop expecting certain books to be the “quintessential” book written by a black author with black characters. None of them will be perfect and again, people’s tastes are subjective.
Another says: “In interracial romance, having at least once character, and sometimes one of the MCs, completely perplexed and borderline uncomfortable being attracted to a POC or vice versa. Of course, that happens in real life, but it seems to be a heavily used trope.”
Portraying black men as a “mandingo”.
I don’t mind the use of AAVE (African-American Vernacular English), but when some writers write it out almost phonetically or make the characters sound dumb, it’s a problem for me.
This person’s first comment would be my answer. She is referring to the comment or thought process of, never been attracted to a black person before. UGH!
When I see that in anyone’s book, but especially an IR with a black character I roll my eyes. A couple of times it’s taken me out of stories and I’ve ended up not finishing because the character repeatedly thought that.
Why is it we are treated like aliens?
Is it THAT hard to see us as attractive?
This happens even when there are plenty of black celebrities’ people of every culture adore: Beyonce, Rihanna, Idris Elba, Denzel Washington, Jesse Williams, Michael B. Jordan, Iman… the list goes on and on. They’re all beautiful people, but yet characters in books can’t possibly be attractive. Give me a break!
Kimberly L says: “Writing a black character’s dialog in Ebonics. I’ve read a couple of books where white authors attempted to do that, and it was is absolutely cringe worthy. Not to mention it rendered the dialog unreadable.”
Giovanna R says, “not every person listens to rap music.”
This one is big for me as well. I love music, but rap isn’t something I listen to on a day to day basis, if at all. If you were to ask me who was my favorite rapper, I wouldn’t be able to give you one. I just found out Chilldish Gambino is Donald Glover.
Obviously, I have no clue who is in the rap game these days. From what I’ve heard lately, I haven’t missed a lot. Give me the days of Tribe Called Quest and KRS-One. Rap acts I NEVER thought I’d ask to listen to, but I’d much rather hear them than new rap act out there now.
Another says: “Black characters who seem juvenile or need a “white savior” to exist.”
Another good one, especially the “white savior.” This trope is popular in romance, especially in IR billionaire romances. She’s a poor girl trying to get through school and he has more money than God, so he pays off all her bills and rescues her from the hood.
Now that’s not to say there aren’t good ones out there, but I generally steer clear of this trope. White people shouldn’t always be portrayed as saviors. In Black Panther, this doesn’t happen, and I believe all authors should take a cue from that movie.
Lastly, another participant adds: “How black women have children really young and they have a bunch. Like they don’t know about contraceptives or something. And the different fathers, thing too. There are regular black families and it would be nice to read about it for a change.”
We discussed the one or two parents above, but I posted it because of the first portion. The black women have many children, trope. While it is true in some households that black women are fertile, this isn’t the case in all of them. In my family, none of my uncles or aunts had more than 3 children and only one had more than one “baby momma.” Things like this don’t exist in every family and people should stop assuming they do.
So, what have you learned? I hope you’ve seen even in this small poll, how things affect us as black people. We’re a diverse group and certain things that occur in some households, don’t occur in others. Some of us are nerds while others live what we call ghetto fabulous. (I believe that’s still a thing.)
As I stated earlier, this isn’t gospel, but it was designed to help you understand how truly different we are as a people and as one commenter said, we all must stop being judgmental. We can learn from one another as different peoples as well as persons from our own race. Let’s work to build one another up instead of tearing each other down, because at the end of the day, all we want is good fiction.
With this info, authors of color and those that aren’t can look inside themselves and figure out if they want to build a world with more diverse characters. And don’t do it just to say you did it. Do it because you truly see a story inside that black character and wish to share him or her with the world.
If you write that black man or woman with empathy and compassion, I guarantee you won’t be wrong. Ignore those who say you are because they’re still your characters.
Do your research, ask for help from a variety of sensitivity readers, and if you’ve offended someone, say I’m sorry. Learn from those mistakes and do better next time. That’s all we can do as authors anyway.
Thanks to all my participants and to you for listening!
About Sharita Lira
Romance and erotica author Sharita Lira believes that love conquers all. Writing sexy stories of people who might be complete opposites, but somehow make a lasting connection that often leads to a happily ever after.
Happily married and mother of two, Sharita never allows complex plots to deter her from writing the story. Inspired by heavy music, attractive people she’s seen in person and on the internet, Sharita always has a tale on her brain.
In addition to being a computer geek and a metalhead, Sharita loves live music, reading, and spending time with family and friends. She’s also a founding member and contributor to the heavy metal ezine FourteenG.