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The White Writer's Burden
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Written by Paul   
Thursday, 04 August 2011 03:32
One of the first things a writer learns to grapple with is writing about characters who are of a different gender, and trying to put yourself into the mind of a man or woman when you are the other one is one of the first great challenges an author faces.  Let alone the issues that arise when you factor in gender as a continuum rather than a binary, which many people never even acknowledge exists, let alone attempt. Some get quite good at it, some not so much, but we all have to try.  Unless you are willing to forego characters who are not whatever you are, blanking out half the world (not to mention disappearing literally everyone who falls in between that binary.) then you are going to have to try it.  It is so common that we don't even really see it anymore.  Oftimes a writer reveals more about him/herself in the process, and this can be quite illuminating, but no one is likely to call the author a sexist for trying. Maybe for doing it badly, yes, but not just for the effort.  What I mean is: writing about women is not considered the exclusive province of women, or vice versa.

We do not have quite the same thoughts about race, at least not yet.  Feminism has made a lot of progress, but different races remain largely unimaginable to a depressing percentage of the white population.  There is a great deal of difference between how women were handled in, say, the Pulp Era as opposed to now.  Race has made some inroads in this regard, but writing about a race you do not belong to can be sticky and a white writer who writes about a different ethnicity - at least a living, real-world ethnicity (or imaginary ones standing in for same; see: Avatar fail) - is in for some trouble.  When said author is writing porn, then that can become a lot of trouble.  How to treat non-white characters when you are a white writer is a knotty problem, and when sex comes into the mix it can get downright thorny.

I've had this on my mind lately because ethnic and racial diversity is something we want to do here at Adventurotica, and the question is: how to do it tastefully, because we are both really, really white.  Pride & Prostitutes was a pretty all-white affair, with the one exception a pseudo-undead outlaw villain - not exactly a progressive, well-rounded character.  I remember tying myself in a knot when it came up later in the story that he was going to have a sex scene with Dolly, our very white, blonde heroine - I mean, do I not put the scene in there?  That would be like saying a black character isn't allowed to have sex with a white woman, or anybody, for that matter - and that's not cool.  But how do I do a black man/white blonde woman sex scene without falling into offensive and narrow "Blacks on Blondes" porno cliches?  That just seems like pandering to racial fetishists, especially since Clay was a big, bad criminal - exactly the sort of crude stereotype you don't want to have your black character to be.  But what's at the other end?  Never having a black villain?  Denying them the chance to be dangerous or cool?

Like I said.  Thorny.

In the end, I think Clay just came off as rather token-ish and I kind of regret putting him in there, except then we would have no non white characters at all.  So I at least tried to make him cool and I didn't kill him off.  Best we could do on a deadline.  With Witches' Mark we had a much more multiethnic cast, but we didn't lean on it or make it a big deal.  We actually had several mixed-race characters who would not be classified as 'white' but we didn't really call attention to it because it was a modern story, and the other characters weren't the type of people who would have paid much attention to it.  It was nice to have it in there, but it wasn't a story about race, and so race didn't play a big role.

Sky Pirates of the Rio Grande, however, is presenting some more serious issues because it is a period piece.  Okay, it is a fantastical period piece, but it is still based on the USA circa 1867, and that means problems.  A lot of the adventure is taking place in the West, and that means a lot of characters who are other than ivory-colored.  I am happy about this, but you have to be careful about ethnic details in an ostensibly period setting.  In other words – how much accuracy are you willing to sacrifice in order to make your narrative not revolting?

Let's face it – the nineteenth century was not a good time to be alive in the US of A unless you were A: white, and B: had a penis.  It could suck for you then, too, but if you were part of the brown-skinned or non-penis-having set then it was pretty much a given.  Mainstream racial opinions and sexism of the time were of a degree that is just unacceptable today.  You just cannot have a character express what were commonplace beliefs and opinions at the time and have them remain a sympathetic character.  Hell, even the words used in a neutral sense at the time to identify members of a race can be utterly unacceptable now.

And quite a few of the characters in Sky Pirates are both non-white and lack dicks, so this finds us charting the perspective of two kinds of people that I am not.  This leads to the question every white writer who creates a non-white character asks themselves at some point: How do I dare to imagine what life must be like for these people?  I'm presuming to write for characters who are not only women, but of mixed racial origin: part African, part Native American, part Hispanic – all of these things that are completely correct for the time and place, but all things that I am not.  Not even a little.

But this is what writers do: we spend our time imagining what life must be like if you are an alien, an elf, a god, an ex-slave, a half-Comanche Sky-Pirate.  This is what we do, and if we all restricted ourselves to what we are – if we only wrote about people just like us – then we would be whitewashing the entire practice of writing.  We would, by dint of trying not to offend, effectively render these people invisible - as if they had never existed at all.  To write from the point of view of another kind of person may be offensive to some, may be seen as trying to usurp the voice of the other.  "Oh, here's this white boy to tell me how I feel" – silencing the genuine voices of that ethnicity.  But I feel that not making the attempt is in many ways worse.

One can argue with effect.  One can say that a writer has done his job badly, or failed to understand, or projected his own prejudice into the minds of others in twisted ways.  Failures of this kind are not uncommon, and they are universally ugly, but they are also pretty easy to spot.  We have all had the experience of reading a woman written by a man and rolling our eyes at how wrong he got it.  That could mean he just got it wrong this time, or that he just doesn't care enough to try.  One can be forgiven if the intent was not malicious, the other not so much.

All I can do is try and write all my characters as carefully as I can, to respect who they are and what made them that way.  Most importantly, I need to be ready to listen to feedback that tells me if I got it right, or if I got it wrong.  If you try and write all your characters, first and foremost, as people, as human, then I do not think you can really fail, no matter what color their skin, or yours, may be.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 10 August 2011 02:35
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