Writing a different race is a contentious topic in the publishing industry. We agree that we need more diverse books, but some argue that the focus should be more on recruiting diverse authors writing diverse stories. While this is true, and also needs to be addressed by hiring more diverse editors to create more systemic change, this should not bar people from writing outside their race—assuming, of course, that it doesn’t veer into cultural appropriation.
Beyond the basics of avoiding (or subverting) stereotypes, being respectful, and thoroughly researching, how do we write diversely?
Don’t be ambiguous.
Many authors think that they’re being clever by keeping their characters’ race ambiguous. The think this lets the reader see them as a full person without putting them in a racial box. This is problematic for three reasons:
- Part of the need for diversity is that people need to be able to see themselves reflected in media. It’s incredibly validating. Keeping it vague strips you of this opportunity.
- Race informs other parts of your life. Something as simple as going shopping while wearing a hoodie can be incredibly different for someone who is white vs. someone who is black or latinx. This context can reshape your story.
- White is still seen as the default. If the character’s race is kept ambiguous, the reader is most likely going to assume they are white.
Don’t play into white as default.
While we have to accept the reality that yes, many people see a lack of racial identification as an indication that the character is white, we do not have to contribute to it. If you’re describing the color of a black person’s skin, describe a white character’s skin color, too. This helps subvert the idea of white as default.
Give equal play.
The opposite is also true. Many times, descriptions of white characters go into detail about their eyes, hair, and build, while characters of other races are merely described by their skin color. If you’re going to describe white people richly, do the same for people of color.
Don’t compare people to food.
While it may be tempting to compare a skin tone to chocolate, caramel, or coffee—don’t. Why? It’s not only unoriginal, but many people of color find it offensive and dehumanizing. What asserts dominance over someone more than eating them?
Writing With Color has great posts discussing why you shouldn’t compare people to food and gives a guide for alternatives.
Get a sensitivity read (or several).
Once you’ve written your book, ask a person of the same race you’re writing about to read the book. If you wrote a diverse cast, it may be prudent to get multiple of these beta readers. The goal here is feedback. You want them to tell you if anything doesn’t feel right—if something is inaccurate or potentially offensive. Besides just asking a friend, you can also hire sensitivity readers. We’re currently pulling together a database of sensitivity readers for our own authors, but here and here are great places to look for someone who matches your needs.
Writing Diversely has a wonderful blog discussing all sorts of issues with writing diversely. It has a focus on writing people of color, but makes sure to highlight other diversity topics, such as writing LGBTQ+ people and people with disabilities.