Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Being Afraid of Making Mistakes with Characters of Color

I've witnessed a lot of conversations wherein White authors have expressed some trepidation about writing Characters of Color in their books. While I totally understand where they're coming from (after all, I write characters who are from different cultural heritages than me and ask for help/do research to make sure I Get Things Right™), I must admit that I’m also quite perplexed at the same time.

An example:

I’m a bi-racial cis-female. My father was white, and my mother is Filipina. I grew up in a single-parent household, as my mother took us with her when she left my father. I was around the age of eight, and am thankful every day that she removed my brother (who is four years younger than me) and myself from an alcoholic and abusive parent. My mother worked three jobs to make sure that her children would be well-provided for, and I’m happy to say that we grew up not really wanting for much. Sure, there were years when we got that cool new toy that came out during the Holiday Season (why we ever wanted a Furby is beyond me), but there were also years we knew that cool new toy wouldn’t happen. Although I was disappointed, I was safe, loved, and taught that reading was something fun people did in order to pass the time.

In high school, one of our required readings was The Catcher in the Rye. While some of my classmates absolutely loved the book, I hated it. I thought Holden Caulfield was whiny, and I had no time then (or now, really), to suffer boys who whine about their problems and refuse to do anything to change their circumstances. One could make the argument that I missed the point of the book entirely, and I’ll admit that I haven’t re-read it since high school, so maybe now I’d feel different about Holden. Maybe.

My point is that, even though I love reading, there are some books that I don’t think are worth my time. I couldn’t identify with Holden’s struggle at all, and didn’t care about what happened to him. So, for about ten years, I’ve walked around hating The Catcher in the Rye.

Question: Does my hatred of The Catcher in the Rye prohibit White authors from writing more stories with White protagonists?


Another question: Does someone’s disagreement with how a White author portrays a Character of Color hold back other White authors from writing books with Characters of Color in them?

The answer I’ve found so far is a resounding yes.

And this, my friends, is privilege.

This fear of confrontation (in this instance, of being critiqued for a character choice) is, perhaps, one of the more subtle forms of privilege, but it exists nonetheless.

While I am by no means the spokesperson for all bi-racial White/Filipina cis-females, I can vouch for my own experiences – and for the fact that I get asked quite frequently where I’m from from, as if my answer of  “Virginia” isn’t good enough. The looks I usually get are confused, or incredulous, as it does not compute that I come from Virginia. The temporary relief that crosses their faces when I explain that my mom is from the Philippines wrenches my stomach every time.

It makes sense, all of a sudden. I’m from Virginia, but my mother is not. My mother is foreign. My mother is not one of us.

This is a confrontation that I didn’t ask for – but it’s one that I have to face on (at least) a monthly basis. Or whenever I meet someone new. I have to explain my right to be considered “American,” because, when I have a tan, I happen to look…not white. My example is also one of the lighter miroaggressions one can face. I’d also like to remind everyone that people are dying/have always been killed for looking or presenting a certain way.

My mother didn’t dare teach us any of her native dialects, because she wanted my brother and me to not be questioned as much as she is. Other families kept their traditions going while ours fell by the wayside.  I have bi-racial friends whose mothers are Filipina and their fathers are White, and they can speak Tagalog fluently. And, like I said before, I can only touch on my own experiences. What I do know is that I lost a crucial part of one of my cultures, because white is the default. It’s the expectation. It’s the norm.

When White authors write White characters, are they afraid of getting “whiteness” wrong? Some are, sure, but others keep on trucking like there’s nothing holding them back. White characters get to be intelligent, moody, make terrible decisions, win the championship soccer game, slack off in school, have an excellent grasp of sarcasm and snarkiness, have powers, save the world, live in dystopia, etc – and people rarely bat an eye or sweat over whether they’re being “true to the White experience.”

When I was growing up, do you know how many characters I found who were the same kind of bi-racial as me? (HINT: The answer is none) So, I went to the next best thing I could identify with – I found Asian characters that I could cling to. And what was I presented with? Tiger Moms, Book Worms, endless math equations, broken English, submissive women, Geisha, Samurai, cultural barriers that were passed off as jokes, nerdy best friends who only existed to validate the White best friend (and who never got a date), and Miss Saigon syndrome (wherein: the Asian woman is wooed by the White American man, who is obviously her ticket out of her horribly under-classed existence, but she’s then dumped for a better/more suitable female. Usually White).

I was presented with a portrait of Asian-ness that was as true as it was incomplete. Sure, there might be some Asian/Pacific Islanders who’ve had these experiences – but that doesn’t mean all of us have. I am no more a spokesperson for the Asian/Pacific American experience than the next, and I certainly don’t expect White authors to spearhead the movement, either.

In fact, the only thing I expect White authors to do is some research. Acknowledge my culture by putting in time to get to know it, and then write it as well as you can. Will some people think your depictions are spot-on and true to their experiences? Sure. Will some people take issue with what you’ve written? Of course.

That’s art. That’s how art works.

Art isn’t built to have everyone agree on everything all of the time. That’s why I used my Holden Caulfield example. I didn’t particularly care for his experience, nor did it resonate with me. That doesn’t take away from someone who does enjoy that book. My experience is just one in a sea of endless experiences.

Now, this isn’t carte blanche to just go off and start writing things without research. If you rely on stereotypes to convey your Characters of Color, we’re going to have a talk about why that exists in your story. As a very wise friend pointed out, if you’re writing a story about a pilot, you’d take the time to do research on what being a pilot entails – so why would you not take the same care with a Character of Color’s experiences?

Mistakes are inevitable. Everyone messes up. But to refrain from writing Characters of Color because you’re afraid of backlash is unacceptable, and it only ensures that underrepresented kids will grow up unable to find themselves in stories. They’ll be relegated to the best friend/side-kick role and never understand that they can be the protagonists, too. They can save the world, win the soccer game, be moody, intelligent, have an excellent grasp of sarcasm and snarkiness, too.

If you do make a mistake, own it, listen to the people calling you out, and figure out a way not to make it again. Uplift and help underrepresented writers who crave to get their stories out – who clamor to be heard every day. Who have amazing stories to tell, but are held back for systemic reasons and because they’ve been taught that their stories aren’t worth telling.

But, whatever you do, please don’t make the biggest mistake you can make: assuming that there are stories out there that can’t be told. Somewhere out there is a child who desperately needs your character, your world, your story. To deny them that is a truly frightening thing.

Isn’t it?