A Letter to White Authors on the Subject of Racism

Jan 17, 2017 | Opinions

Dr. Martin Luther King

Dr. Martin Luther King

There is racism in books. There is a big problem with racism and representation in books, especially books from the traditional publishing houses and – I don’t even fucking know anymore. I’ve seen some stuff on Twitter that’s making me want to SCREAM at other white people. Like, why don’t you get it?! Are you not paying attention? WHY AREN’T YOU PAYING ATTENTION- But tweets are only 140 characters.

And so, I wrote this. Because I’m tired of seeing the same shit over and over, and somehow people still believe that there isn’t really a problem and it’s all in your imagination. Because I should have spoken up sooner, and I didn’t. Maybe because today is Martin Luther King Day. I don’t know if too many people will read this. I don’t know if this will lose me readers – aren’t we always told that we shouldn’t be political, in case it turns people off? I have the luxury of not caring, in both cases.

So this is for white authors. If I’ve gotten anything wrong, I hope someone corrects me.

Dear Other White Writers,

You need put people who are not white into your stories. (You need to include people who are not heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, and mentally stable in your stories, but I’m just talking about race here right now.)

If you’re going to write about real world situations that involve non-white people, do your research to make sure you’re not propagating damaging racist stereotypes. If you’re going to write about fantasy worlds that involve non-white people, do even more research. Do ALL the research. Writers can spend hours reading Wikipedia to make sure the little details in a story are correct; do not tell me that this is beyond you.

If your research doesn’t involve reading stuff written by non-white people/talking to non-white people, you’re failing. Badly.

Do not ever, EVER, say you can’t write about [insert race here] because you’re not [insert race here]. If you can drum up the imagination to write about dragons, vampires or aliens, you can write about people who don’t share your skin colour. You can do it. Non-white people do it all the time. You’re only tossing out this excuse because you’re afraid that someone is going to give you shit for getting it wrong, and you’re correct. You WILL get it wrong, and you WILL get shit for it. That’s the only way you’ll learn to be a better writer.

You need to include more non-white culture in your books. But flat out lifting whole cultural elements and using them piecemeal, like it’s okay to mix and match any damn thing you please? Elements that are sacred, elements that are difficult or sensitive? Elements that white people have been taking and erasing and (ab)using for decades? It’s on you if you didn’t do your damn research and you get slammed because you didn’t treat that culture with the respect and sensitivity it deserves. J.K. Rowling shoved some ignorant crap about skinwalkers into a Harry Potter story and she was accused of racism (because she did a racist thing). She could have avoided that just by, I don’t know, asking some Native Americans and DOING SOME FUCKING RESEARCH.

You don’t get to toss the culture and history of non-white people into your grab-bag of story ideas, to be pulled out in bits whenever you feel like it. You do the research, you tread carefully, you ask yourself whether this story needs to be told by you, a white person, and you treat it with respect.

Sound difficult? Tough. You still need to put non-white people and non-white culture into your stories. Just DO. THE. RESEARCH. FIRST.

Do not ever bring up stuff like Lord of the Rings when you’re having a conversation about racism in books being published today. Yes, there are many well-regarded works of literature that are racist. No, these books will not be pulled off the shelves or edited because they’re racist. They were written by racists years ago who presumably didn’t know any better. Do NOT complain that your books aren’t getting the same free pass on racism, writer-who-should-bloody-well-know-better-because-it’s-the-year-2017. You still need to put non-white people in your stories without pretending it’s 1917.

‘Reverse racism’ is not a thing in the real world. Do not write it. If you’re thinking of putting non-white people in a story where white people are oppressed by non-white people (you know the kind of story I mean; I’m looking at you, Victoria Foyt), STOP. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. Do not write that story. Pick anything else instead. There is a 90% chance that you’ll screw it up and your reputation will burn to the ground and you will deserve every damn minute of the backlash.

Do not, under any fucking circumstances, claim to be ‘oppressed’ because someone pointed out racial problems in your work. If you’re white and live in the US, you have no idea what it means to suffer systematic racial oppression. The worst that will happen to you is that your precious feelings will be hurt. You will, most likely, suffer no economic or social consequences. Claiming to be oppressed just because non-white people think your work has issues makes you a giant asshole.

If you truly don’t understand how a particular narrative can be harmful, because “it’s all fictional!”, then you’re either excessively ignorant or a goddamn idiot. I’ll be generous and just say you’re ignorant, so DO YOUR RESEARCH and educate yourself. The only thing that can truly combat racism is to change the narrative surrounding non-white people, and to do that, you need to put them into your stories and write a better narrative.

Even though it’s not supposed to be personal, you are going to be judged personally for making racist mistakes in your writing. This is going to hurt because it wasn’t intentional and you probably think that racism equals actively hating non-white people and all that that entails, e.g. cross-burning and white hoods. This is not the case. You have a lot of unconscious racist bias swimming around in your brain, if you grew up in the western world, and it’s hard to spot from the inside. It not being intentional doesn’t absolve you of making a racist mistake. You still have to make amends. Suck it up, learn some humility, fix your shit, and be sincere in your apologies.

Your art is political. Your art is not immune to the society and culture in which you were raised. There is no such thing as art created in a vacuum; you can’t separate art from its maker. If you invoke lazy, shitty racist stereotypes, you don’t get to claim that you, personally, don’t really think that and it’s just part of the story you were trying to tell. The very fact that you’re invoking lazy, shitty racist stereotypes without awareness of the damage they cause means that, on some level, you DO really think that. That unconscious bias just isn’t going to go away because you’re convinced that your particular use of lazy, shitty racist stereotypes is okay.

There is a difference between writing a story that is racist and needs to be changed, and writing a story about a character or setting that displays racist attitudes. If you don’t think you can identify that difference, you need to DO YOUR RESEARCH.

There are so many amazing people on Twitter who are not white. Follow them. Listen to them. Appreciate them. DO NOT ARGUE WITH THEM ABOUT WHETHER SOMETHING IS RACIST OR NOT. You, white person, are not the arbiter of whether a thing is racist, in the same way that men are not the arbiters of whether tampons are better than pads. It is for all intents and purposes outside your first hand experience, and you need to defer to the people for whom it IS a first hand experience. If, by some miracle, one agrees to help you examine the non-white people/culture in your stories to make sure you’re not inadvertently being racist, then thank them and pay them for their assistance. If they say “don’t write this story”, then don’t write it. Forget it. You should have a dozen other stories waiting in the wings, so go work on one of them.

Non-white people and non-white culture are not monoliths. They are more diverse than white people. They have a million contradictory opinions. Their culture and traditions vary all over the place in ways you’ve never thought about. This means you will have to do far more research than you think. Get over it and move on.

If you see another white person write something that you know for sure is racist, call them out. You don’t have to shout them down. It can be as simple as pointing out the thing they wrote and saying “hey, did you know this thing is not okay?” plus reasons. It’s on us to police our own. Support any non-white person that calls them out too.

Don’t review racist books without highlighting their issues. Don’t give your money to authors who double-down on or defend their racist writing. Don’t give your money or your time to authors who are literally racist. Don’t do business with companies that decide racism is profitable. Yes, this means (for example) telling Simon and Schuster to fuck off if they offer you a book deal, because they gave $250,000 to that racist prick Milo Yiannopoulos. Yeah, yeah, no company is squeaky clean, but I think you can draw the line at “gave a quarter of a million dollars to an evil, bigoted con artist”.

African American Vernacular English is a legitimate dialect, and it’s amazing to me that I have to explain this to anyone, but here we are. It’s complicated and cultural and you better do your damn research if you plan on including it in your writing. I don’t need Wikipedia to tell me this because, crazily enough, I speak Hiberno-English – another dialect that’s complicated and cultural and that Hollywood keeps getting wrong, and that’s sometimes incomprehensible to non-speakers. Language is tricky stuff, who’da thunk it.

There are eleventy million stories starring white people. We do not need more stories starring white people. We DO need more stories starring people who are not white. If, at any point, you insist that your story needs to have a white protagonist or an all-white cast because of some nebulous bullshit to do with Art, then you are being racist. If you can’t imagine a story where a character’s skin colour is non-white, then your imagination is lacking. Let me make this clear: there is no story that can’t be told with a non-white character, even if you’re writing about a character that is canonically white.

We need more stories starring people who are not white because there are legions of readers and TV watchers and movie-goers out there who want and need them. Because a story told often enough can change the world, and you have an obligation to change it for the better if you can. Because there are so many people out there who desperately need to see themselves, standing at the heart of wonder and adventure and change, and they are being betrayed every fucking day by the narrative industries who can barely accept that there’s a problem at all.

Yes, you will fuck this up, no matter how well-meaning you are. Shut down your ego for five minutes and be thankful when someone tells you that you fucked up. We’re writers, for Odin’s sake, we have to be ready to take criticism without it getting personal. Take it and absorb it and get better at writing because of it. This stuff is important, dammit, and it’s bigger than you. You have to try.

You have to try.

I’m asking you to do the constant, hard self-reflection needed to combat your internal racist bias. I’m asking you to be vigilant and speak up when you’re reading other people’s work or talking on Twitter or whatever. I’m asking you to examine why your characters may be able to break the laws of physics on a whim, but somehow their skin being not-like-yours is unbelievable. I’m asking you to flood your stories with non-white people, with their lives and their history; because white authors have white privilege and we need to wield it in service of those without, even if we screw it up, even if it hurts us.

So, in short:








Claire Ryan