Whitewash Your Story, You Hack!

Online, I see many posts telling authors not to write characters of X race, disability, or orientation. The #writerslife!

Don’t listen to them. What they demand is called “whitewashing,” a form of bigotry, which is consciously or subconsciously making all the “good” characters be like yourself. As an author, you can and should avoid the legitimate complaint of whitewashing simply by not doing it. Be aware of it and if you find yourself doing it, fix it. Easy, right?

The people I’m talking about for this article wander around online looking for issues to “feel offended” by. Then they can get righteously indignant and blame others for how they feel. They have the “delicate snowflake” syndrome, considering themselves to be special creatures, and don’t you dare presume you can understand! They ignore the fact that you don’t always need or want to understand a character’s life from a personal perspective. You just want to portray them for the sake of the story.

These self-appointed inquisitors can’t go read something else. No, they need to throw public tantrums about your book unless you are the same gender, age, ethnicity, disability, nationality, economic class, and sexual orientation as all of your book’s characters… You know, whitewashing. Still, for the inquisitor, whom you can’t always just avoid when you have diverse characters, it’s important to consider whether or not they’re actually trolls. If they have a valid point, then they’re lodging a legitimate complaint against what appears to be bigotry in your writing.

That’s why it’s important to be careful how characters are portrayed. Are they 2-dimensional caricatures? Do they reinforce negative stereotypes? While our stories, plots, and characters aren’t a reflection of our inner selves, how we approach developing them may be. Writers have a responsibility to do research and to portray people accurately, treating traits such as sexual preference, ethnicity, and disability not with kid gloves, but at least with respect. That takes only diligence and balance.

For example, I’ve had a character who was a Puerto Rican gangbanger, a vile human being, but he wasn’t vile because of his ethnicity or even because he was a gangbanger. I also had another Puerto Rican character who was just an ordinary guy rising up to face extraordinary circumstances. There really are bad Puerto Ricans, but not all bad people are Puerto Rican and not all Puerto Ricans are bad. It’s okay to have villains that reflect the real world, but so must your protagonists.

  • Thoroughly research the traits you give your characters so that you understand them the best you can without having those traits yourself.
  • Talk to people who possess that trait, bounce ideas off of them, pick their brains.
  • Present characters in a balanced way, showing that their traits aren’t what defines them as people. Even imaginary people.

If you’ve done your necessary research and talked to enough people to feel confident that you’re portraying characters accurately, then write the story you want to write. Push boundaries as the great writers always have. Make readers feel discomfort, or joy, or sadness — whatever your goal for the book is, go for it.

And when you run across the inevitable elitist Snowflake Trolls, you can and should simply ignore them. Once you are sure you’ve done your job right, you’re no longer under any obligation to engage them. They aren’t worth your time and arguing only gives them what they ultimately wanted, while ruining your day.


*Image: Robert Couse-Baker via Flikr under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

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