I often hear that question in all book community circles. in replies of tweets or in Youtube and Instagram comments sections. I’ve heard it during panels at conventions, talks, and interviews.
Publishing is changing. The Young Adult community is growing and becoming more vocal, including the voices of marginalized groups such as POC and LGBTQ groups. Publishing thrives on readership and what people want to read. There’s a rise in vampire romance readership? More vampire romance novels gets printed. This is more or less the same in any publishing departments, but Young Adult communities in particular are thriving on the need for change. But, in all forms of it, there are some that don’t really understand the change; they may find it hostile or angry or even radical.
But questions like these, questions from white writers posed to POC readers and writers are important in our understanding or what it means to write diversely and how important it is.
I’m a white writer. As in, I’m white and a writer. Those two things do not usually correlate, but the more we talk about race and privilege, the more I and many others can see how these two things do affect one another. As a white person, I am more likely to identify and relate to a white character, maybe on a more subconscious level. I don’t exactly exclaim “Huh, she’s white. I like her.” I also see people like me in fiction; in movies, television and of course, in books. As a writer, I may find it automatic to write about white people (though definitely what I aim for). And hey, a white person writing about white people is fine, normal in fact.
But as publishing progresses, as writing and reading change, it is obvious that an all-white cast of characters, especially coming from a white person, is unrealistic. The world is not white people, it never was, but now that people are listening, now that POC writers are finally getting a chance to publish their work, it’s more important than ever for white writers to not get stuck in the old ways, to not see their worlds as all white people, to understand that white stories are not the only stories.
However, there is a difference between writing diversely and writing the stories that are not yours.
Ownvoices emerged as we began to celebrate the stories of gay teens by gay writers, about black teens and their struggles with racism written by black writers. Ownvoices was and still is a rejection of white stories being the only story. And yet, many white writers will have a POC protagonist with racist portrayals and dangerous depictions.
You see Twitter threads and blog posts and articles, explaining why an all-white cast won’t do, and how white writers writing ‘outside their lane’ won’t do too. And it’s where this question comes from ‘Well, what CAN I write?’, but this question is redundant.
Writers, ultimately, can write whatever they want. But it does not mean they are free from criticism. If you are getting annoyed that you cannot write an all-white cast but also cannot write a poorly researched, problematic depiction of a black, gay, disabled, mentally ill etc. protagonist, then should you really be writing at all?
I don’t think anyone has ‘the answer’ to what you can and cannot write. You’re going to mess up, and you’re going to have criticism. It’s normal and should be welcomed. Only you can decide what to write, but I think it’s important to understand that if you write a story about POC, as a white writer, you’re going to be picked to get published over a POC writer with a story about POC.
And is that right?