No, I Won’t Write Your Black Character and Here’s Why

I talk a lot about lifting up marginalized voices. I really think publishing is at a crisis point.  A pitiful number of authors of color are published each year, and I think all of the terrible events and our abysmal race relations in this country can be directly attributed to the lack of empathy that white superiority impresses upon the dominant culture.  White people don’t have to care about people of color, there are no mechanisms in place to expose them to people of color, so they don’t care and we just continue this apathy spiral until something terrible happens.  I hate it.

But, I will not tell you how to write your black character.

I get asked a lot about how to write black characters. I’m always happy to read writer friends’ work and give them feedback on their characters, mostly because I know some really, truly amazing authors and getting to read their work is a treat.  But the problem comes when I have a conversation like this:

Random White Person: Hey Justina!

Me: Hey, how’s it going?

RWP: Good, good. Hey, you always say lots of smart things, and I wanted to ask you a question about this character I’m writing.

Me (because I’m an idiot and a little drunk on flattery): Okay.

RWP: He’s black.

Me: Okay.

RWP: And I don’t want to mess it up.

Me: Of course not.

RWP: So I was wondering if you could answer a question for me.

Me: Sure.

RWP: How do I do it?

Me: Do what?

RWP: Write my black character?

Me: Ummm…

 

White people, I adore you.  I know your heart is in the right place. BUT I CANNOT MAGICALLY BESTOW UPON YOU THE KNOWLEDGE OF THIRTY-SIX YEARS OF LIFE EXPERIENCE.

And even if I could, I won’t.

I am not your Magical Negro.  I am not here to guide you through the boggy marsh of revision or first draft or wherever the fuck you are and make sure you get happily to the other side, unscathed and richer for the experience.

You need to figure it out yourself.

Look, writing is hard! And writing outside of your experience is doubly hard! But, when I need to know something about an experience I READ EXTENSIVELY! And then I draft! And then I ask someone to read! And if they say no I ask someone else. 

Because that is what writers do.

I genuinely don’t mind answering targeted, directed questions.  I do it all the time.  But I cannot tell you how to write a black person.  I can tell you what it’s like to go shopping in a high-end store as a black woman. I can tell you what it’s like to go places with my very light daughter and for people to assume I’m the nanny.  I can even tell you what kind of hair products I use. 

But I cannot tell you how to write a black person.  And I definitely can’t tell you “how to get it right.”

You need to research, and then try, and then fail, and then try again and fail better.

And you need to do it on your own.