From Margin to Center: Writing Characters of Color

by Guest Contributor Neesha Meminger, originally published at Justine Larbalestier

This essay was originally meant to be a short comment in response to Justine’s post on why her protags aren’t white. In one of the comments, someone brought up the old argument: if white people can only write white characters, then should people of color only write characters of color? Here is my response . . .

It’s a question of power and privilege. Most white people grow up thinking they have free range in everything from the political to the personal. People of color in Europe, Australia, and North America (and women everywhere), do not grow up learning these things. We learn to BE colonized. We learn, through history lessons from our colonizer’s textbooks, that we are not the invadERS, we are the invadED.

People of color know more about white people than we know about ourselves and one other because everything we are taught in the schools is by and about white people. Everything we see on television is by and about white people. Everything in magazines, on film, in books and on book covers is created by and about white people. Writers of color in the west almost always have white people in our books because that is what we know; it’s what is all around us.

Given this context, people of color writing *only* about people of color is an act of self-validation. It is an attempt at balancing something that is heavily skewed in one direction. (This reminds me a lot of the discussions and debates we used to have about why it is critical within a patriarchal/sexist context to have women-only spaces, and why in campuses all across the nation there are LGBTQ groups, etc.).

I create worlds in my books where people of color and women are at the center—not at the margins where we are habitually cast in the everyday world. This is a conscious decision. It is a political choice. Just as writing a book, film, or television series peopled ONLY with white folks is a political act, be it conscious or not.

On white authors writing characters of color: because the power imbalance leans so heavily to one side over the other, white authors absolutely must support the efforts of authors of color. White authors absolutely must people their stories with characters of color to reflect a reality they often have the privilege of ignoring, if they so choose.

I live in a fairly affluent part of New York City. We have a small apartment at the bottom of the neighborhood of course, but to the north of us are sprawling mansions with gorgeous, landscaped lawns and backyard pools. These mansions have their own security teams that patrol their streets to make sure no stranger ever gets lost and ends up roaming their quiet oasis. Down the hill from this neighborhood are the projects. It’s like two completely different nations living side by side. You’d be lucky to find a clump of trees huddled together in the projects—concrete as far as the eye can see. And the only nightly patrols are from the NYPD. Guess what the demographics of each of these neighborhoods is?

Gated communities, inner city projects, and massive wealth disparity allow white people the privilege of never having to come into any real contact with people of color and those nearer to the base of the socio-economic pyramid.

White folks, in general, need to turn *outward* and really see what’s outside of themselves and their immediate circles. And people of color must turn *inward*, to discover the true value within, then paint the world with it. 

This is how healing happens in any relationship where there is an abuse of power. Whether that relationship is parent-child, employer-employee, or whole groups, the resolution isn’t that both parties do exactly the same thing to make ammends. Both parties haven’t been giving the same thing and getting the same thing all along, so they have to get and give differently in order to mend.

This is why the whole idea of “if white people can only write white people, then PoC should only write PoC” simply does not hold water. It is DIFFERENT. It has been different all along. So the change—true, lasting change—has to be each party doing what THEY need to do to make that change happen for real. For the privileged, it means sharing privilege. For the non-privileged, it means valuing oneself enough to stand up, focus on their own self and say, “I am important. I deserve more. I will not put up with this any longer.”

Racism isn’t only an issue in “white” countries like those in Europe and North America—it is a global epidemic. And it is wiping out people of color in massive numbers. Women and children work in appalling conditions all over the globe, making clothes and playthings for wealthier Europeans and North Americans. Third world nations are on their knees in never-ending debt cycles to organizations run by a majority of European nations and the US. There is a widespread lack of clean water, adequate housing, access to hospitals and education everywhere outside of the US, Europe, North America, and Australia—though there is certainly some of that lacking within these areas, as well.

This, folks, is a HUGE power imbalance where those who are benefiting happen to be predominantly white, predominantly male, and almost always heterosexual.

So what do we do when there is such a tremendous power imbalance, and such a gross abuse/misuse of that power?

Well, let’s first look at it on a smaller, more personal scale. A child takes another child’s toy. What do you do? My guess is that you’d tell him to give the toy back. You’d tell him taking what’s not his is not okay and that he should apologize. If he wants to play with his friend, he has to share. And then you work on why sharing is far better than not if he wants friends, etc.

Okay, so now: what do you do if a child takes another child’s lunch and eats it? Not so easy. The child can’t give back what he took because it has been consumed.

This, in effect, is what racism does. The wealthiest of nations have taken resources from the (now) poorest of nations and consumed these resources. So how do we make it better?

Well, let’s go back to the children. Because, really, that’s where it all starts, isn’t it? I’m guessing that first, we’d likely have the child apologize for taking the other’s lunch. Next, we’d want to make sure the child who doesn’t have a lunch gets food. Third, we’d work with the child who took the food to find out why he’s taking the food and teach him to appreciate what he has and eat *his share*. Then, we’d work with the child whose food was taken to help him build up his sense of self-worth, learn to defend himself better, and ask for help if needed.

Different solutions for each party. The same is true in any situation where there is a power imbalance. In the case of domestic abuse, let’s say. If a woman is being beaten by her husband, you can’t simply tell her to hit him back or to walk away. There are deep issues at work and those need to be addressed. The abuser has a different path to recovery than the partner who is being abused. Different things to work on; different lessons to learn.

This also addresses (another of my pet peeves,) the “reverse” discrimination argument; an argument that doesn’t take into consideration the fact that oppression is about power imbalance—not just name-calling and hurt feelings.

In the case of a parent-child relationship, when a parent smacks a child with all his might, the effect is far different than when a child smacks a parent with all her might. The latter is not “reverse” abuse. The former results in lasting physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual scarring while the second leaves hardly an imprint. Why? Because there is a massive power imbalance on every level. The child is completely dependent on the parent for her very survival. And the parent is far stronger and bigger than she is.

In the context of racism, an insult—while it may sting for a moment—cannot leave lasting damage if there is no real power behind it. We do not have a mostly-black police force with mostly-black commissioners who are backed by a mostly-black team of judges and mostly-black politicians (please note that “mostly-black” could also be replaced here with “mostly-female” or “mostly-gay” and you’d get the same idea).

So when round after round of bullets is pumped into unarmed civilians in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Harlem, Chicago, Atlanta, or elsewhere, the result is a ripple of terror the likes of which most white people could never possibly relate to.

A racial slur flung from a white person to a person of color shames, humiliates, and inspires fear. It is designed to remind that person of color of all of the degradation s/he knows was inflicted upon people who looked like them throughout history at the hands of people who look just like the one who is insulting them now.

It is the equivalent of a parent yelling “I HATE YOU” to a child. Big difference in the impact that has over a child hurling the same statement at their parent.

Likewise, when people throw racial slurs like “Paki” toward South Asians, or derogatory terms toward women, or equally denigrating terms toward lesbians and gay men, anything these same groups hurl back cannot possibly have the same impact. It might hurt feelings, but that is NOT the same as the lasting shame, humiliation, and fear that hearing an insult from someone with power to follow it up with action, invokes.

As authors of literature for children and teens, these power imbalances are at the crux of what we explore. Some of the best books for children and teens that I’ve ever had the joy of reading were about feisty children questioning their world and challenging authority head on. The way we explore these issues as authors and resolve them in the worlds we create in our books is critical. And the ways we deal with the world around us—the context for our art—is just as critical.

The first step is understanding the complexity of the issues. Then, we move on to realizing that there isn’t ONE solution. We all have to do something, but it isn’t the same thing—this is NOT a level playing field. We must all work together to bring about a more equitable, just, and sane world for our children, and the children of others. But we must each recognize and own the privilege we have, and use that privilege to help us all move forward. It is a collaborative effort where we must each do our part, search deep within for answers, listen carefully to the quieter voices around us, raise the voices of the silenced, and remain stead fast in our commitment to the young people in our lives.

Update: Whoa, getting a lot of angry responses from whites to this essay. Do me a favor, to make my moderation easier – make sure that your comment shows a critical enagagement with issues of race, not just a reaction to whites being represented as one group. That, as of now, is the difference between an approved comment and a deleted one. Also, our friends over at Resist Racism have a good primer on Racism 101. Please pay special attention to #7. – LDP

Update 2:
So apparently, the same conversation dynamic happened on Justine’s blog. Neesha posted a response on her own blog, I’ll grab a segment to reproduce here:

If simply reading about race upsets you, this may not be the time for frank and open dialogue on the subject. This is not bad. For real healing to take place, we have to be prepared to *actively* listen — this includes the willingness to hear/read things that might upset us. Knowing where we are in our process indicates how helpful it will be for us, and we for it. If you are not ready, you will not be able to hear without feeling attacked; you will not be able to speak without getting defensive; and you will not be able to support the efforts of others without drawing all of the energy in the room to your own personal pain. This does not mean “don’t ask questions.” It just means, “do more listening.”

Race is a difficult subject for all of us to broach. There is pain and anger on all sides. But taking things personally derails the conversation so that we are not moving forward. The issue at hand, that Janni captured so succinctly in comment #35, is that power imbalances work differently for those who benefit from the imbalance and those who do not. As such, the things we each need to do to stop the imbalance of power are different.

One of my favorite quotes of all time is one that I am sure I will badly paraphrase, but you’ll get the idea:
“The only way to get someone off your back is to stand up.”

What I’m suggesting in my post is that the people who are standing on the backs of others recognize that there is someone underneath them–upon whose labor, sacrifice, or oppression we are able to build our comfortable homes and lives–and that we begin the process, immediately, of stepping off.


(Image by tome213 via stock.xchng)