Literature has long been used as a way to communicate about the human experience, to broadcast ideas across continents, to connect with people of vastly different backgrounds, to expand empathy, to broaden people’s perceptions of the world. But in recent years, the book community has become ensnared in a toxic ideology of identity politics that threatens to unravel these values.
I’ve written about the problem of identity politics in the book community before, but there is a lot more to say on the subject and I’ve seen it crop up more and more recently. Today I’ll be talking specifically about the book community’s obsession with author identity and people’s disquieting inability to realize that empathy is not contingent upon shared identity.
Should White Authors Write POC Characters?
The “should authors write about characters who aren’t in their identity group” debate has been a thing for a while, and the most pernicious is the “white people can’t write characters of color” spiel.
To be blunt: it is counterproductive and racist to suggest that white authors should not be writing POC characters.
It’s counterproductive because if we want more diversity in literature– which I’m sure we all do– it makes absolutely no sense to exclude a large group of writers from including it their writing.
Second, it operates under the assumption that white people are completely incapable of writing a POC character without being offensive, and it creates this weird distinction between “white” people and “POC” even though neither white nor POC is a monolith and within each of those two categories there are a ton of different cultures and variety of life experiences, so it’s not even a good metric to measure who understands which cultures.
One of the stupidest tweets I have seen on the Internet is someone who said something to the effect that white people want to write about POCs because their only culture is stealing other people’s cultures.
(*stage whispers* “….yes that’s racist….”)
The first thing that strikes me as weird about the idea that white authors shouldn’t write POC characters is that “POC” encapsulates SUCH a wide range of people that it seems like a bad category label for this statement. The majority of the world in general is not white. What I’m wondering is, if only POC can write about POC, what about different groups of POC? Can a black person write about a Hispanic person without violating the rule? Is there some sort of hierarchy of oppression groups that dictates who can write about whom? Or is it only white people who must “stick to their own”? (which sounds a bit racist, don’t you think so?)
Also, “white” doesn’t mean anything specific either. There are white people with Italian ancestry, white people with British ancestry, white people with Scandinavian ancestry, white people with Irish ancestry… white people live in all sorts of countries across the world… white people have all sorts of religions… white people have all sorts of cultures…. it’s ludicrous to claim that any white person can write about any white culture that they don’t share just because they are white too, but they can’t write about other racial groups… when race, by the way, is a social construct, a rather stupid social construct at that and one which I would have thought by 2022 would finally be irrelevant.
I think it’s beyond stupid to act like melanin level is the *only thing* that makes it harder for people to write about others. It’s more than that. It’s culture. It’s socioeconomic status. It’s language. It’s tradition. It’s nationality. It’s not just how light their skin is.
That’s why I think it’s ridiculous to purport that white people should write about white people and POCs should write about POCs. That is not all of what divides people.
And the foundation of writing is fiction is imagining a story outside of yourself. If I ever become a writer, I’m not going to write every book about people who only share my exact identity.
Of course upon thinking about it some more, I realized that this topic is more complicated than I initially realized, given the problem of diversity in publishing. Many of the people who purport that white people should not write about minorities say so because they are concerned that because there is an overrepresentation of white people in the publishing industry, that white authors will begin speaking over POC authors who have more immediate experience and more of a “right” so to speak to write about that minority group.
And obviously there are some things that skin color can affect. In the US, for example, someone who is white or looks white is on average going to be less likely to experience racism from others. And so, logically, it would be harder for a white person to write authentically about experiencing racism as a POC.
But in all I think it would be a lot better if we tried to move beyond worrying about who is writing about whom and focus on finding writers who do their research and treat the cultures they write about with respect whether they share that identity or not.
Moving away from race and focusing on other aspects of identity, there’s also the issue that comes with #ownvoices of forced outing. For example, if we decide that you can only write about your own experiences, and someone writes about a gay main character, and then in order to not get canceled, they have to come out as gay when they might not want to. It starts to open up a can of worms, and it also has a disturbing capacity to stunt literature.
Something that has stuck with me is an interaction I had with a white writer on Twitter a couple months ago, who said she was going to scrap her entire manuscript and rewrite it to make the leads white and to remove the allusions to Indian mythology, because she had educated herself about how it was cultural appropriation. To me, that seemed really sad. First of all, it’s messed up to feel you need to re-write your book to make the characters white because someone told you you can only write about white people because you’re white. Is this not racist and destructive to art?
Empathy Is Not Contingent Upon Identity
There’s also a rather pervasive implication I’ve been seeing a lot that you can only relate or empathize with a character who shares your exact identity characteristics. This manifests in the idea that it’s utterly impossible for people of one race to understand at all the experiences of a character of a different race, etc.
Of course it’s nice to see yourself represented in literature, to read about a character who shares your own struggles and with whom you identify strongly, but it doesn’t mean that identity should be the most important aspect of a book.
One of the most racist things I’ve ever witnessed someone say in person was when my English class was reading The Kite Runner and one of my classmates said that she was more affected by the terrible things happening to the main characters because they weren’t white.
The entire point of diversity is to be able to empathize with people who aren’t exactly like you. And fiction is supposed to build empathy. The race and gender of characters isn’t supposed to be a huge deal. You can relate to characters for less superficial reasons, and it’s racist to say you had more empathy for characters because they weren’t white people. Seriously.
I’ve written about the book community’s identity politics problem before, but unfortunately it doesn’t really seem to have improved.
What do you think of white people writing POC characters? Should an author’s identity affect what they are allowed to write about? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!
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