When I was first building my story, I was brainstorming with a group of authors and mentioning how I wanted to set my story during Hurricane Katrina. One of the other people in the group mentioned how my main character, Mona, was “probably black.”
It was never something that I had thought about before. I had thought of my main character from the insides, but not from the outside, but when she said it, it felt right. My research on who got hit hardest by the floods confirmed it, and ever since that I thought of Mona as looking much like one of my black friends in grade school, complete down to the same color ponytail holders.
When I was farther along in the novel, I showed my draft to someone. He liked what he read, but was worried that I might end up using a certain trope which was “very offensive to black people.” I had never heard of the trope before, but I did a lot of reading on it, and he was right. The way my story was going would have fit with the Magical White Woman trope, and would have been offensive. I debated about it and discussed it with my writers group for some time because I was going to have to change around a lot of plot to avoid using that trope, and I wasn’t sure if I should do it. After all, wasn’t black when I wrote the plot outline. Did I really need to change the plot because I changed her race? Was that its own form of racism? What other things was I likely to do that would end up being offensive because of laying out my plot and other characters without considering the race of my main character?
I stalled on my writing. I asked friends who were black if they would be willing to read it and let me know what horrible offensive mistakes I was making. I asked questions on writers websites, and discussed it at the Writers in Training group. One of the questions I was asked is why she has to be black. I could save myself a lot of self-doubt and plot changes if I just changed her to being white, which I can write on with a greater sense of authority. After all, it was a fantasy world rather than being a historical novel set during Hurricane Katrina. I didn’t have to be true to the demographics of the actual event. She could be whatever race I wanted her to be.
When it comes down to it, though, Mona refused to change. She was black, and she had no problem with it. She didn’t want me to have a problem with it. As concerned as I am about unintentionally doing something horribly offensive to another race, most of the famous kids books in the genre I am writing are white. Heck, most of them are also British. I wanted to break the mold by having it set in the United States, and it became important to me to break the mold by not having her be white either.
When I thought about it, it seems strange to me that writers are always writing about people of different genders, different professions, different socioeconomic groups, different worlds, different species than the writer, and yet to write someone from another race seems so much more fraught with peril. I’ve been reading the book Writing the Other which is helping boost my confidence with writing Mona.
I would love to hear your thoughts on writing about characters that are different from yourself.