Whiteness Remains Pervasive in Writing

In recent years, a debate has emerged on whether white authors should write characters of color. Some answer with a hard and fast “no” when asked this question, while others say “yes” in certain circumstances. However, what has not been discussed nearly enough is why this is an issue in the first place. 

“I had a Creative Writing teacher who was the first person to straight up state that most people — when they’re reading, unless they’re told otherwise — they’re picturing white people,” said Khalid McCalla, OC ’21.

The problem with a lot of white writers is that they write as if people of color don’t exist. Not only are there no main characters of color in their stories, people of color don’t exist in the worlds they create. They create worlds without race or, better yet, worlds where the only race is white. For many white writers, the topic of race is uncomfortable and unattractive. By writing a world without people of color in it, they absolve their white characters of the guilt that they cannot absolve themselves of in the real world. Someone who’s comfortable with the topic of race wouldn’t be afraid to write characters of other races. 

“In a perfect world, everyone would write what they know,” McCalla said. “But that also comes with everyone having the same opportunities to get their writing published, and in our world, that’s just not the case. White writers still get published disproportionately more. And because of that, representation is such a big deal. It needs to happen. You need to be able to see characters like yourself in movies, books, and TV.”

Additionally, when characters of color are included in stories by white authors, they function in the same way as talking animals or mystical creatures. These characters tend to distinctly lack the level of depth attributed to white characters. This is likely due to the fact that a lot of white writers simply don’t know how to write characters of color. The task can seem daunting, so rather than try to analyze the complexities that come with writing a character of color, white writers will often write what they know, which, unfortunately, tends to consist of oversimplified stereotypes.

The reality is that at a private, predominantly white institution like Oberlin, many young, white Creative Writing students haven’t engaged with many people of color. On top of that, these white students only read the white authors who don’t write characters of color, taught in classes by white professors who also don’t write characters of color and haven’t engaged with people of color. There’s no space made for writers of color in these classrooms by the professors or the students. This results in thoughts and ideas circling around in an echo chamber, and it can be a difficult cycle to break.

“White writers can make space for people of color, both in the classroom and in the writing community in general,” said College third-year Reggie Goudeau, a Black poet and columnist for the Review. “I would say, go out of your way to listen whenever talented POC writers are speaking. … Make sure to be on the lookout for more diverse and high-quality books, not just the same handful that are always assigned. Have some intentionality about going to find different, talented people, as well as the classics.”

College second-year and Creative Writing major Tsitsi Zana agrees that white writers and students need to actively seek out writing by people of color, and they need to be willing to listen.

“Put a lot of time and research into it,” Zana said. “Recognize the intentions of what you are trying to do.” 

No one is saying that white authors have to write characters of color into every story they write. However, it’s important to examine why the thought of writing characters of color seems so unpleasant. Do you not know how? Are you willing to do research and learn? What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a person of a certain race, a Black person especially? Is it a stereotype? 

As a part of the writing process, learn to question your reading habits. What’s the last story you read with a person of color in it? What’s the last story you read without any people of color in it? Did you notice at the time? Thoroughly answering all of these questions can help you learn how to authentically include characters of color in your writing. 

“They don’t necessarily need to be writing narratives that center on the experiences of racism,” said College fourth-year and Creative Writing major Olivia Huntley. “Someone’s race or culture can be included in a way that’s respectful but is not the only characteristic of their being, and so there has to be study done about what kinds of stereotypes they may or may not be emulating. I think it’s important as a writer to do your due diligence, do your research, and that’s a normal part of the writing process. It’s not something extra. That’s something that you would have been doing anyway.” 

Writing characters of color should come naturally, and it shouldn’t be forced. Characters of color should be complex without writing them being overly difficult. Their race should be acknowledged without them being pigeonholed into stereotypes. A truly well-rounded writer should be able and willing to write the world as it is — with everyone in it.