Eight Guidelines for Writing People of Color

 
Photo courtesy of @ ThoughtCatalog

Photo courtesy of @ThoughtCatalog

 

by Sanjana Raghavan

If you’re a white writer, chances are you’ve wanted to write a character of color but worried about coming off as offensive or unrealistic. Diversity in writing is a good thing, and I’m all for increased representation—when it’s done right. As the daughter of Indian immigrants, I never saw myself in the books I read growing up. Now, that is slowly changing as more writers actively consider representation. So to help you better represent people of color in your writing, here are eight guidelines to keep in mind.

1. Be aware of stereotypes and then don’t use them. Even "good" or “positive” stereotypes — "Asians are smart,” or “Latinas are beautiful” — are harmful. Conversely, don't make us saints or superhumans, because we are also human (and a saint is a pretty boring character to read about, don’t you think?).

2. Do your research. Do not just rely on the one family of color that lived in your neighborhood when you were little, or what you’ve gathered from the media. Go out and read a ton of books by POC, go read Reddit communities by and for POC, etc.

3. Don’t describe our skin as food. I know this is a small one compared to the others, but this comes up often enough that it’s a huge pet peeve of mine. Imagine if I described your skin color as “mashed potatoes” or “whipped cream.” That would be weird, right? Just say their parents are Indian instead of opting for “mocha” or “caramel”.

4. Get POC to read your work, and then really listen to their feedback. This is helpful because they will catch things that you may not have intended, or can point out places which make the character seem like a stereotype. Don’t take their feedback as a personal attack; we all have biases we may not be aware of, and it’s good to listen and learn.

5. No dialect. Don’t try to type out accents. It often comes across as racist or off putting and is not necessary to your story.

6. Avoid making your only POC half white and then describe them with only white features. Mixed people have their own struggles to be sure, but all too often, POC only seem to be acceptable when we appear white.

7. Realize that racism is still an everyday reality. We don’t have the choice to ignore it, so neither will you when you write a POC. Keep in mind different people deal with racism in different ways, and research microaggressions to get a sense of everyday racism and ignorance.

8. There is more to us than “black,” “Asian,” etc. Develop characters who are human, who feel multi-dimensional. Race is an unavoidable part of life for POC, but we are also multifaceted and have varying interests. Black people can be engineers, Indian people can love hip hop and rap.


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Sanjana Raghavan is an undergraduate student at George Mason University. You can find her work at Lunch Ticket and New Flash Fiction Review.