Writing is Hard: Redemption Arcs for Racist Characters

I wasn’t going to write about the Black Witch. And I’m still not going to write about it (if you’re curious about the book you can check out Goodreads here:  https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25740412-the-black-witch).  But I do want to talk about two things that have been on my mind since reading reviews: racism in fantasy and redemptive arcs for actively racist characters.  Because I think it’s important for authors going forward to understand why and how an author ends up with books that attempt to deconstruct ideas of power but then fail miserably.

This is two blog posts because it is such a deep and thorny subject.  So let’s talk about redemptive arcs for racist point of view characters.

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A lot of folks have become kind of enamored of the redemptive arc for problematic characters.  And while I do believe that a redemptive arc is compelling, it’s important to understand that redemptive arcs for certain folks are a hard sell.  Asking me to sign on for a racist’s redemptive arc is a no go.  Here’s why:

1.  Redemptive arcs for racists aren’t for readers of color.  They’re for white readers.  When writing a redemptive arc for a racist, authors are centering white feelings. In most Western societies, white people are the only people who have the power and luxury to be prejudiced and have the system support their bias (racism= prejudice + power). Centering white feelings and perspectives and experiences is an echo of the function of racism. So by writing a redemptive arc for a racist, even within a fantasy world, authors are catering to the feelings of people who can be racist. White people.

2. Prejudice is not the same as racism, and a redemptive arc for a racist is not the same as a redemptive arc for someone who is prejudiced.  Racism is active, prejudice is passive.  So if a redemptive arc is something you’re looking to write it’s going to be much easier, and much less shitty, to write a character who changes their arc by doing something active than by changing their actions.  Because the impact of their original actions will always exist.

3. Redemptive arcs rarely start early enough.  You cannot start a redemptive arc for a character in the last act or last half of the book.  It must be seeded early and with nuance.  Otherwise, the reversal will make zero sense to the reader.  If you’re writing a redemptive arc for any sort of character it must be the central arc, otherwise it just reads like bad characterization.

4. Your reformed racist cannot be the only “enlightened” character.  There’s a huge problem with the redeemed racist often being the only person who sees the light, with the help of a marginalized character.  This isn’t really how the world works.  White people who are prejudiced/racist rarely listen to minorities (because they see them as lesser. Hello, racism!).  They listen to other white people.  That means you’re going to have to include a voice of reason early on in your story.  This voice of reason rarely appears.

5. Redemptive arcs for racists require a heartfelt scene in which the oppressed person or people forgive the terrible racist for all of the harm they’ve caused.  These scenes are complete and utter bullshit. First off, they propagate the idea that marginalized groups should be willing to turn the other cheek, even when they’ve been grievously wronged.  Second, they make it seem like a heartfelt apology can undo years of hurt.  This literally isn’t how the world works.  There is no redemption for racists.  Not everyone gets or deserves a second chance.

So, if you’re planning on writing a redemptive arc for a racist or extremely prejudiced person, remember that by default you are writing for a white audience and centering white feelings.  And if that isn’t your goal, adjust accordingly.