Sunday, June 28, 2015

Writing Diversity

Last November, I participated in NaNoWriMo by writing a 50k YA novel with a black protagonist. She wasn’t my first character of color, but she was my first non-white protagonist ever written. (I'm white, just so you know.)

Why did I decide to write this protagonist? Because of a beautiful little thing you may have heard of called We Need Diverse Books (WNDB). The day WNDB trended on Twitter, I was caught up in it, mesmerized. Like someone took away this veil and opened by eyes to the fact that there is so much white representation in books, and not enough representation of everyone else. I had never thought about it. But it’s true.

And that’s “white privilege”, or part of it, anyway. And a dash or two (or five) of ignorance.

See, I grew up in a small town where we had maybe two black people. None of my friends were black. My parents didn’t know any black people. Then, in middle school, my family moved one town over, and none of my friends were allowed to come over “because of the dangerous black people.” By the time I really knew any people of color was in college. Now I know black and biracial people.

 But because of the bubble I grew up in, I never wondered what life today is like for people who aren't white. I don't have to think about people's assumptions of me based on my skin (white privilege), so I didn't think about how others are affected by assumptions based on their skin color.

When I realized our need for diverse books, I wanted to be a part of that.

So I wrote a black teenage girl as my protagonist. I did it in 30-days, without much thought to what it means that she's black.

After it was all said and done, I sat back, cracked my knuckles (not really), and then my bubble burst. Because I realized she was probably just a white girl I had colored brown. And then I started getting scared. What if I do this wrong? What if I offend people?

But here’s the thing. There’s more than just ignorance holding us back from creating rich, diverse books. Fear also holds us back. I thought so many times, “Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this.” We can fix ignorance by learning. We can face fear by doing the thing that scares us. It takes effort. It takes empathy. It takes looking outside of our bubbles, but it’s so worth it because most of our books shouldn’t have white characters. The world isn't mostly white, and we need to represent better.

Even if we fail.

For the record, I don’t want to fail. We should try hard not to fail. So I’ve been trying to fix my ignorance, and by doing so, I’m fighting the fear that I’ll mess up horrendously.

–I’m paying more attention than ever to news and issues about skin color.
–Watching videos and reading articles by black people, talking about what it’s like to be black.
–Choosing a more diverse cast in my entertainment, like music, shows, and books.
–Asking questions. (I could work on this one more since the fear of offending has stopped me from reaching out much.)

And once I’m educated, all I can do is try. If I fail, at least I’m a better, more well-rounded and empathetic person for having made the effort.

I have a few questions for you! Have you created diverse characters? How about specifically diverse protagonists? How did you understand your character’s world? Lastly, do you have any advice for me and other writers? (Please?) Comment below!

I've only scratched the surface, and I bet I don't understand the half of it. But I'll never stop trying to get a better understanding.



  1. I'm working on a MG book with a black protagonist. It wasn't anything I planned, that's just the boy I imagined. Did I do it right? No idea, my upbringing sounds familiar to yours although we had a strong hispanic community and I never thought about them being different one way or the other. So my black protagonist isn't different either. He's a kid, in this case geeky smart. Yes, race comes up in a small way, but it's not the point of the story and I hope kids of any race will enjoy it if it ever gets published.

  2. I've been involved in an event or two regarding bringing awareness to the need for more diversity in publishing. I write characters of diversity because, as an author of color, I see characters in all colors: black, white, yellow, brown, and every shade humanly possible.

    When I wrote my first book about a black girl dating a white guy, I took the plunge and asked a white guy if I could interview him. He was kind and fun about the whole thing. And I learned something :-)

    I am no representation of all black people, but I grew up, live in the skin, and daily deal with all the "things" that a black person deals with. If you need someone to interview, please feel free to let me know.

    tomewriter AT gmail DOT com

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