Should White Authors Write Characters of Colour?
In the last couple of years it seems, at least to me, that white folks writing fictional characters that are people of colour has increased. And thus, rightful criticism has risen. One of the books that received such criticism is the queer romance novel, The Charm Offensive by Alison Cochrun.
The Charm Offensive was one of my 2021 top reads. I loved it – the romance was heart-warming and cute, and it also had a good exploration of mental health issues. When I finished it, I hopped onto Goodreads to leave my thoughts and came across an amazing review by Chaitanya, a Bookstagrammer from West Bengal, India, who critiqued the character Dev.
Dev Deshpande is an American-Indian who produces a reality dating show, Ever After. The fact he’s mixed race is a main seller of the book as it’s advertised as an interracial relationship between him and a white American, Charlie, who stars as the Prince Charming on the show. And although their romance was lovely, the problem is Dev could have been white and it wouldn’t have impacted the story at all.
When I read the book, there was a part of me that wondered if Dev was lacking, if he was “good” representation, but it didn’t bother me that much. I think when you’re white, you don’t really think about race representation that deeply because you don’t have the experience to realise its flaws. Same as if you’re straight with gay representation, or if you’re cis about trans representation, and so on. People who aren't part of a marginalised community won't be aware of flaws/issues in narratives, and their opinions reflect that lack of awareness. A lot of white folks can’t seem to comprehend this and then get really butt hurt when people of colour criticise white authors writing non-white characters. (You can read the replies on that Goodreads review to understand what I mean.)
I got involved in the comment section of this review and had someone respond with this absolute classic – people critiquing white folks writing of non-white characters does “nothing except discourage people from writing any ethnically-different character in their books.” Cue eye roll. Oh no, don’t tell the white people they did a shit job! Oh no, we must praise the white people for giving a crumb of representation!
White folks shouldn’t be praised for doing the bare minimum of making a character’s skin tone non-white and giving them a name that has roots in the random ethnicity they chose and calling it a day. Race impacts a character just like social class, gender, sexuality, age, and a whole other number of things. And yes, some people of colour who live in white-dominated countries will have less connection to the culture in their lineage, but that’s used a lot as a way to excuse poor writing by white authors. Of course, there are complexities and nuances with being non-white in a white country (especially for mixed-race folks) in terms of their connection to different parts of their racial identity, and some Indian, Indian-American, and Indian diaspora readers may have enjoyed reading this character. But when a character’s race is so absent like it is for Dev, it makes you wonder what the reason was for making him American-Indian to begin with.
And this isn’t me saying that a non-white character’s race has to impact the plot in a major way. It shouldn’t exist only in terms of oppression; Dev could have had a number of little details that related to his culture, such as traditions, values, and even something as simple as food he ate. Or as Chaitanya wrote in their review, even exploring slightly perhaps that Dev wasn’t really connected to Indian culture would have made it somewhat better.
Right now, I’m of the opinion that white authors should be able to write characters of colour if they wish to do so. My main reasons for this are 1) they have more opportunities to be published due to their race (which is fucked up), and 2) readers who either already like a specific white author and/or may not actively seek out stories by non-white authors with non-white protagonists (even though they should!!) may learn a thing or two from reading these stories. Most of the time, I don’t think people actively want to look outside their own perspectives, and so will just read stories with characters who are like them by people who are like them. If white authors include characters of colour, it could help white readers to explore different stories, just like how if straight authors write gay characters, and if cisgender authors write trans characters, it could help cishet readers explore more queer stories.
But whether white authors can effectively write characters of colour varies. In the case of The Charm Offensive, Dev was lacking. But I guess we’ll have to keep reading to see how other author’s fare.
If you’re interested in hearing more about this topic, check out these awesome videos by YouTuber With Cindy:
Should white authors write non-white characters? *A closer look at the Whiteness of Addie LaRue*
What happens when you try to be inclusive, but mess up anyway? *A closer look at A Deadly Education*
And these articles:
Why White Authors Should be Writing POC characters
Don’t dip your pen in someone else’s blood: writers and ‘the other’
Who Gave You the Right to Tell That Story?