When I was working on my MFA in Creative Writing, my first manuscript concerned an African American family in 1900. I asked my mentors, “How do I realistically create African American characters? How do I know how they felt?” Their answer for portraying people of color, gender, Jews, Asians, and Native Americans was to reveal the universal qualities intrinsic to us all. I took that to heart. So I created a Native American character in my second book. In the third novel, I’m creating Jewish sisters and exploring Japanese racism in the Pacific theater of World War II. Apparently, that’s a big no-no.
In the last decade, there is a backlash to my privileged life as a white woman. In fact, I am told, I am unqualified to write about diverse characters because I will inherently instill tropes and stereotypes that are insulting. Or, I will become the white savior who attempts to elevate the marginalized but in doing so, I discredit the group.
Though my heart is in the right place, it is misguided. While I want to showcase marginalized members of history, creating fictional characters unlike me is the wrong thing to do. When I started my academic journey in the early 90s, I rode the progressive wave–teach the history of the marginalized. Let’s change the canon. Now I feel like my surfboard cracked in half, and I’ve been kicked out of the club.
I spent a great deal of time and money becoming a social historian. I love the research. Are the same issues facing white historians? Do I just give up writing, then? Or just write about white women? I am really fascinated by Jewish, African American, Native, and Asian history. I find their stories more interesting than my own. Here’s the informational article that got me thinking: https://yourtitakate.com/white-authors-write-poc/
I wonder how one respectfully gets around this writing obstacle? This extends to films, naturally. I just showed students Invictus as a way to connect my African American students to apartheid and racism. Nelson Mandela is certainly worth celebrating. Should Clint Eastwood have made that film? What about his film Gran Torino? Am I obtuse?
I’m not angry or pouting. I’m more curious in this day and age what is the answer?