White authors having black protagonists?|A black reader perspective|BHM 2017

Happy start to Black History Month!

Note: I would like to note that all content expressed in this post comes from a matter of personal experience living in the United States, I don’t mean to offend any cultures and if I do, feel free to call me out in the comments since it’s crucial for one to be mindful of everyone’s experiences. This isn’t a white-hate post and I respect all backgrounds. 

Ah yes, an opinion right from the source…

If you would ask me this question a couple years ago, I would have been like “hey who cares, it’s fiction anyways!”

Now, I’m not so sure if that statement can justify white authors writing about black protagonists (POC in general but I’m using black people as an example since I’m black). I still sort of believe that white authors can write about who they want, but I think they have to put in a lot more effort and research since it’s a different culture who has faced oppression and still is today. They would have to do it right, something I feel can be complicated.

I read a book years ago (I’m totally blanking on the name it was like freshman year of high school, you’re the real MVP if you know what book I’m talking about) that a white woman wrote. It features a black female protagonist and a white love interest. This romance made me extremely uncomfortable. It made me uncomfortable because not that they are an interracial couple but the fact how they got together. It was a love/hate relationship but instead of cute flirtatious teasing, the boy was pretty racist. He would make comments about her skin color and he didn’t defend her when his friends were making harsh remarks because she was black. Yet, love wins and they develop feelings for each other and all her problems are solved.

What.The.Hell.

I was like no no no! This seemed weird and wrong to me. I don’t get how someone can just ignore the fact that they are racist. The whole, “love can change someone” is bullshit to me. As a black woman, I don’t think I can personally easily forgive something like that. Honestly, now the book seemed like the classic “The white saves the black” / “The blind side” situations. When the couple get together, no one talked shit about her or her skin color.

Flash-forward to now. More book reviewers are now dedicating their reading to #ownvoices. I wonder if a black author would have wrote that book. Would she/he would have used racism as “love” devise. Or would he/she have taken a different approach at a very sensitive topic and would have been more credible since he/she would have most likely faced racism in their lives?

I was reading what from a white author’s point of view, who thought that this is a healthy interracial relationship looks like (well in my opinion and who is coming from a family full of interracial marriages, this isn’t healthy).

This has made me hesitant to read from white authors who have POC protagonists (black specifically). It has put me off from reading The Help and Robin Talley’s Lies We Tell Ourselves –which sounds similar to the book I read years ago.

I  know there’s arguments on how a authors should “look past the race” and be “color blind” but I feel that’s silly. It’s denying the oppression POC has faced, denying their experiences and assimilating to popular culture. I really hate the colorblind excuse.

I would also like to note that black authors who write books with black protagonist are always going to be accurate. I don’t believe that you can’t discredit them because it’s their experience, their culture. Yes, I might read in a black POV that is different from my experience, but that’s because black people face different experiences, but they are all valid. A white author writing about their experiences are therefore not completely valid since they never had a black experience. 

In reality, authors can write about whoever they want. However, when it comes to sensitive topics and comfort, I think reading from a black author that’s about black people is better for me personally. It’s more legitimate and the experience itself is more authentic. I love that white authors are adding more diverse characters to their stories, but I feel reading in an #ownvoices perspective is worthwhile.

What do you think? Can/should white authors write books with black protagonists? 

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19 thoughts on “White authors having black protagonists?|A black reader perspective|BHM 2017

  1. My opinion comes with a grain of salt, because I am a white person, and I don’t presume to speak over black people on this topic. I agree with you wholeheartedly that a white author writing about the black experience is always going to be skewed because they’ve never had that experience, and no matter how many credible sources they have about what they’re writing, it’s going to be removed from their personal state of being. I don’t think that they should totally avoid writing about black protagonists because of this, per se, but it is important for them to stay aware while writing that unconscious biases or prejudices are likely to slip in without them even noticing – something that happens pretty regularly and has gone over my head multiple times, until I read reviews by people of color who point it out where I was blind to it. Sticking to #ownvoices books is not a bad option because those will always be the most accurate, authentic, and honest voices out there. I personally believe a remedy that more authors, editors, and publishers seriously need to look into is hiring sensitivity readers from a variety of backgrounds, so that potentially harmful passages or plots as a whole are fixed before the book is released to the general public. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and I am still learning something new every day. I’m hoping some positive change comes around soon in light of all the discussion about promoting diversity in YA lit especially.

    1. Great points! I’ve also been thinking a lot about this for a while. I like how you mentioned the publishing industry. Specifically I think if there were more POC editiors, they could probably identify prejudices and harmful stereotypes. I will still read white authors who have black protagonist also but like we both said, it has to be done carefully. However, I can’t help but still be hesitant and cautious when going into the these novels.

  2. Great post, personally I feel like white people should be able to write about POC but only if they’ve done their research or are just generally socially aware. The book you described sounds like it was written by your classic ignorant white person, like you can’t just use racism as a plot device??? Like ok the thought was there about wanting to write about interracial relationships, something that can be seen as taboo even in this day and age, but the writer could’ve done anything else to make it love to hate, why’s the guy gotta be racist???
    Of course I would rather read something actually written by POC but I also want to see white people actually write diversely and not just write white people all the time.

    1. Thank you! Yeah, that was a pretty bizarre read. Of course, white authors can write whoever they want and have POC protagonists they would just have to take the time to do the research (even that can still produce misinterpretations).

  3. White people should write about poc ( isn’t it hypocritical if a poc writes about white people yet white people can’t write about Poc?) But there has to be familiarity with the group beyond the stereotypes. If they feel they can’t do it, then they shouldn’t. My personal annoyance is when white women are written badly by Asian women. ( interesting to note that the ones that wrote negatively about white women are married to white men, and these fictional white women are involved with Asian men in books.)

    1. I get what you’re coming from. Like I said, authors do technically have the right to produce stories about POC, aliens, dogs, their mothers, etc.

      However, if a white author does decided to write about a POC character, they need to prepare for the backlash they might receive (problematic themes such as racism, homophobia, etc). I actually see a decrease of authors of POC writing about white characters so I can’t really say much on the topic but I do see more white authors writing about POC characters. I also never seen people complaining about a book because white people are misrepresented. I don’t know how white people can get misrepresented and that’s coming from a person who is half black and half German/American aka white.

      I think other cultures such as Black/African, Latinx, Middle Eastern, Asian should be handled with care by white people. However, why read about a perspective from another culture that can be misrepresented when you can just read from the actual source? And also, the publishing industry (authors, editors, etc) are dominated by white people and we as a book community should be promoting POC to represent everyone accurately as possible.

      But I did read books about white authors because frankly there isn’t enough books written about black authors but because of the #ownvoices movement, I am discovering more and more black authors (and of course other authors who are POC).

  4. Not all white cultures are treated equally by other whites. I am not sure why, but I am not comfortable with your comment about reading white authors because there are not enough black authors. There are barely any stories of Jewish immigrant experience of women, but I am not complaining about that and am trying to find good reads nevertheless.

    1. How white people can get misrepresented is if one goes to different cultures or countries. If a person says that jewish go to church that is misrepresentation, or if jews are described as smelly moneylenders or that they drink Christian children’s blood around passover or that they control the world, etc. Similar things for Greeks or Italians or just anyone that does not have European American heritage.

      1. I personally have never seen these extreme misrepresentations in books (again, everything I say in the post and comments all come from my personal experience). I would be appalled if these misrepresentation occurred in books. If you did read about these misrepresentations, I’m sorry that you had such a horrible reading experience. It’s good to talk about these experiences,learn from them and educate the book community.

        I will note that when I was talking about white people, I was mostly talking about “Caucasian, straight cis, christian” aka the majority (Classic American Culture).

    2. I think I worded that comment weirdly/didn’t put enough depth. What I meant to say was that it was hard for me personally to find black authors so I had to resort to white authors that write about black perspectives because that was all that was being promoted/hyped at the time. This was before I was exposed to diverse reading and the #ownvoices movement.

      BUT I’m discovering more and more black authors because the book community today is now promoting these books (I just recently reviewed a couple books written about black authors).

      I’m learning more and more everyday about how to find more diverse authors through book reviewers and my personal research.

      Also, I think that you should complain–actually let’s change that word to advocate–about not seeing books about Jewish immigrant experience of women but that’s just my personal opinion. Want something, then fight for it.

  5. It’s great to read your opinion on #ownvoices. I agree with you. I’ll be writing a more detailed post on my blog soon.

    I think that white people should write POC characters – but not in the perspective of a POC and nor should the POC be a main character, they just can’t completely capture the experiences that POC have. I feel this way about all marginalised characters, add them in your book, capture reality realistically but don’t write in their perspective. If authors absolutely want to write in the perspective of a marginalised character, then sensitivity readers are absolutely necessary.

    1. Wow, that’s a really good point! I haven’t thought much of side characters and I think I would have to agree with you.

      I can’t wait to hear more of your thoughts in your future post! 🙂

  6. I definitely think that white authors writing about black protagonists is a good thing (although, I am white myself, so my experiences with all this would be very different to yours) – but only when it’s done well. I think you’re absolutely right that a white person is never going to fully understand the black experience, and so authors should always be careful and try to be as sensitive and educated as possible if they go into that territory. But I also think that they definitely should go into that territory, because it can (when done right) create more representation. I mean, I love reading, that’s practically all I do with the life I don’t have, and of all the books I’ve read, almost all of them have main characters who are white, cis and straight. In fact, I’ve found that it’s very rare to encounter a black character (or a character from any minority) who is the main character in a book that doesn’t revolve around the fact that they are black. It’s almost as if these authors think that there couldn’t possibly be more to their life and personality than the fact that they are black. They couldn’t possibly encounter any struggles that don’t have to do with the fact that they are black. No one can dislike them or be mean to them for any reason other than that they are black. Don’t get me wrong; I think it’s great to have books that attempt to show the struggles minorities face, but at the same time, I feel like white cis straight main characters spend their entire book/s going on an adventure, growing as a person, having their backstory and personality expanded upon, often saving the world, etc, etc, and black and/or trans and/or gay main characters spend their entire book/s talking about their problems as a result of coming from a minority. I do very much enjoy books like that, and think that they’re important to see, but at the same time, I, personally, would like to see more characters from minorities who, yes face struggles, but also kick butt at the same time.
    Anyway, I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent and gotten a little off topic here ^^”
    What do you think about all that?

    1. I do see where you’re coming from. Sometimes books do seem a little bit to preachy and repetitive on the topic of race or any minority groups in general. Though I have read books that aren’t all just about their race, but it’s mentioned several times because it’s a part who they are.

      I think it also depends on the type of stories. Like, if it’s about a lgbtqia characters hiding the fact that they are in that group, they are going to face that struggle.

      But I think minority characters who are facing more conflict (other than within their group) is also important to me. For example, I recently read Pretty Little Things and that book features a black main character. Although she does face some racism in the book, her main conflict is people finding out about her heart condition (and also stabilizing it since her parents worry about her dancing with the condition).

      I think being black or POC/WOC in general does play a large role in their lives (at least mine in my experience) so it’s kind of hard to NOT mention the struggles they/we face. But I would rather see more multi-conflicts than issues just dealing with their race because it can get really old and like I said above, preachy.

      1. Oh yes, I definitely think it’s important to mention these struggles (not to do so would, depending on the type of book, come across as glossing it over), but I agree that multi-conflict is often good to see.
        Also, out of curiosity (and you don’t have to answer if it brings up bad memories or anything), as a white person I do wonder how much racism you encounter? Obviously I don’t experience it, but I know it’s there. I also know that I live in a first world country that is trying to move forward into acceptance… but often relapses. I guess I’m just curious about how it changes things? Does that make sense?
        As a gay woman, I’m no stranger to prejudice, but at least people can’t tell that I’m from a minority the second they meet me.

      2. I mostly faced racism when I was younger. It was weird because I went to a diverse school, yet it was extremely prejudice (against different races, sexuality, etc). It gotten so bad that my parents had to get involved (I was punched so they had to get involved, naturally).

        As of right now, I don’t receive as much racism as I did in elementary, middle and high school (but I do live with the black scholars so I don’t know if that’s a contributing factor). I’m also friends with more POC and generally surround myself with POC so we all sort of have a common understanding.

        Though, I’m much aware that other black people still face racism (even people on my floor when they share). I’m also aware being a black college student, it’s difficult because you’re trying to beat the odds. Out of the 33,300 college students, less than 2 % are black. My floor makes jokes about it, saying that 2 % are all on our floor.

        I guess I kind of went on a little tangent too. I hope that somewhat answers your question!

  7. Late to the discussion here, but I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong for a white author to write from the perspective of a POC character. I can see where it would be more of a risk, however if the author puts in the research, I think it is possible for them to still write the characters well. For example, I thought Kathryn Stockett did a great job of writing the black characters in The Help, although I’ve recently seen criticism that her portrayal was stereotypical. It reminds me of a debate I saw on another website not too long ago, about whether it is worse to have no representation of characters of colour, or to have characters of colour who are poorly/stereotypically represented.

    To me, I think arguing that white authors shouldn’t write characters of colour is similar to saying that any author shouldn’t try to write a character who is unlike themselves. Would we say, for example, that men can’t write good female characters? That LGBT authors can’t write good straight characters? I think part of the challenge for any author is to put in the effort to write any of the characters well. If that character happens to be very different from themselves, it would be that much harder to really get inside their head and understand their experiences, but I do think it’s possible.

    1. Never late to discuss:).
      Great points! I think there is sort of a grey area when it comes to this issue. Anyone should be able to write about any point of view because it’s their story they’re telling. I do think if authors do decide to write a story that’s outside of their experiences, they should take that step to fully understand those unfamiliar experiences (interviews, research, etc). However, no one can really tell an author what to do because it’s their writing and their story. They just shouldn’t be surprised if they get mixed reactions on their representations. And one can never really go wrong reading an own voices novel since it’s way more likely to be accurately represented and supporting diverse authors is a plus. But I still do read (and love) white authors.

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