When I started writing stuff on the “not your story to tell” topic, it kept pulling into two halves and I was trying to work out why. It should have been obvious really. I’m white, I’m middle class, I’m educated. I’m also queer and autistic with longstanding health issues. Inevitably I am approaching this topic sometimes from a marginalised position and sometimes from a privileged one. Jumping back and forth was making the whole thing disjointed. So this post is going to be from the perspective of having privilege, and then I’ll write another from the perspective of lacking it.
I’ve realised that it’s often more important whom a piece of writing is for than whom it’s about, so I’m stating right now that this post is for my fellow white people. (It is also about us). I have nothing to say on this topic that people of colour don’t already know. I’m not even saying something that they haven’t already said a million times. But since this is such a controversial subject, and many white people don’t understand why it’s a thing, and I’m sure those poc don’t really want to do the million and one(th?) explanation, I’m here to explain it to those of my own marshmallow-complexion.
But before I start: nothing that I’m going to say here indicates that you can only write characters who are exactly like you. That’s a straw man. We need diverse characters. We need heroes of every kind. They should be fleshed out characters, not stereotypes. The characteristics that result in their marginalisation should not be exploited for entertainment. But yes, white people can write black characters. Black protagonists, even.
An example of a white writer who’s written a protagonist of colour and hasn’t, as far as I know, been criticised for this portrayal is Ben Aaronovitch. His main character in the Rivers of London series, Peter Grant, has a white British dad and a black Sierra Leonian mum. The books don’t shy away from this heritage, and Peter does sometimes encounter people who treat him differently because of his skin colour. But what’s really important here is that the books are about a young police officer who’s training up to be a magical crime fighting wizard dude. They aren’t about, for example, a young man who is trying to rediscover his Sierra Leonian heritage through the fog of his own internalised racism and fear of the far right gang who live on the same council estate. That story would likely come under the heading of “not your story to tell.”
And in the interests of fairness, I feel that I should also mention that Neil Gaiman wrote Anansi Boys, which is very much rooted in Afro-Carribean culture and history, and he does appear to have pulled it off. Once again, I’m not aware of any complaints about that one. So… it can be done, I suppose? If you’re Neil Gaiman. Which I’m not. And you’re not. Unless you are. In which case: hi Neil! Big fan. In addition to a prodigious amount of research, Neil did run absolutely all of his writing by his good friend Lenny Henry. So I guess any big stupid mistakes were plucked out of it early on. And, look. He’s Neil Gaiman. Maybe he can be the exception. But when you’re writing, especially if you’re only at the start of a writing career, it’s better to assume that you aren’t the exception. By definition, the vast majority of us aren’t.
So. On to the problems with… you know… doing the thing.
I feel ABSOLUTELY sure that this won’t release a flood of indignant anger from pasty white ragebeasts with half finished sci-fi dystopian novels that aren’t very good.
Because it’s not like that’s a thing that’s happened literally every single time this topic has come up anywhere ever.
If you are white and have ever heard the phrase “not your story to tell” and responded with any of the following:
- Fuck you I write what I want.
- Oh you’re saying that I should only write characters who are EXACTLY LIKE ME?
- This is the death of art. THE DEATH!
- It’s optimistic to think that if white people don’t write these stories, people of colour will just magically show up and write them instead.
- What about [name of book]? If the writer followed these rules, it would never have been written!
This post is for you. There are so very many of you. It’s OK. Consider this your safe space, my little white snowflake army.
I’ve been through this argument a gazillion times and what always happens is that the people who get really shouty are almost all white and about 75% male. The level of vitriol that comes up can be impressive. “How dare you impose rules upon me! I will write whatever I want! Fuck you and your rules!” is… an approach. It’s a bit odd, though, when you hear this from someone who wants to be a better writer, is open to critique and accepts other discussions about good and bad writing totally calmly. Because so much of the process of becoming a better writer is just this: learning what rules there are.
What’s going on here? Why would other forms of critique be fine while this is not? Well, for one thing, this actually involves telling people “this story does not belong to you,” and white people are not used to being told that some things are just not ours. I say that as someone who hails from the same country as the men who sailed off across the world, got to India, and said “yeah, we’ll have this.” White people often get angry at being told that we’re not to use racist slurs even if they get reclaimed by their target group, or dress as [insert ethnic group here] on Halloween. White people are like toddlers who have a ton of toys and haven’t given a particular one a second look for weeks, but become incandescent with rage when it’s offered up to another toddler to play with. When a two-year-old does that, it’s annoying but understandable. When a forty-year-old does that… what’s going on, Gareth?
There was a time when the only people who could publish books were wealthy white men. That’s no longer the case, but there’s still a bias in favour of them within the publishing industry. White people have been writing the stories for centuries. This includes the stories of poc. We’ve always just sort of assumed that these stories are ours. That comes with the obvious issue that none of us… and bear with me because this is one hell of a revelation… knows what it’s like to be black.
I know, right?
At this point you may be wanting to yell at me: “Oh please, Cantatrice! That’s what the imagination is for! That is what research is for! Nobody knows what it’s like to be a vampire, either – am I still allowed to write about those?”
To which I reply: yes, but there are people who do know what it’s like to be black, which makes it a TEENY bit different. And no, you should not be allowed to write about vampires, because I can smell how bad your vampire story is from over here.
It really does matter who writes these stories. There are two main reasons why:
1) Poc have got this.
They can write the stories, and we should support them in getting those stories out there.
In the foreword to her short story collection How Long Til Black Future Month, N. K. Jemisin writes:
“I knew that as a black woman drawn to science fiction and fantasy, I had almost no chance of getting my work published, noticed by reviewers, or accepted by a readership that seemed to want nothing more than endless variations on medieval Europe and American colonization.”
She explains how she was reticent to write about black characters, because nobody seemed to want to read about them; how she had to fight her way past racism at every step in building her career, starting with the racism she’d internalised just by existing in a racist society. She also talks about the thrill of finally writing the characters and the stories she wanted to write, and getting them out to the world.
Jemisin is now, quite rightly, a giant within the world of SFF. But there must be many, many writers like her who never got their chance to shine because they were black. There are/were thousands upon thousands of stories in those brains, that will never be seen, because stories written by actual poc have largely been ignored by publishers. Even now, if they get published, they often get shoved into specialist sections in bookshops. Which is fine for readers who are looking for that kind of book specifically, but it’s terrible for sales. The exact same thing happens whenever LGBTQ characters show up. This is the problem with existing outside of what our culture considers the “default” human: white, male, cis-het and able bodied. A story about a straight white man is considered a story about humanity. A story about a black woman is a story about black women. And a sci-fi story about the ultimate triumph of humanity in the future often has no black people in it at all.
There are a limited number of books that get traditionally published each year. That’s the simple truth. And there is every chance that a publisher will say “sorry. Already have two books coming out about black characters living in the inner city. Don’t need another one.” It happens. Within self-publishing, there aren’t the same restrictions on what can be published, obviously. But there are still only so many people who read, and so many hours that their eyeballs are going to be trained upon books. We already have God knows how many books about black people that were written by white people. We don’t need more.
2) White people screw it up.
I’m not just talking about all the many white authors who didn’t even try. A story about racism from someone who hasn’t experienced it directly (1) is inevitably different from one written by someone who has.
Even now, books that have race and racism as a key element (as opposed to simply having a diverse cast of characters, which as I’ve said is completely different) make mistakes. One of the ways it can go wrong is when the author misunderstands what marginalisation looks and feels like in the real world. An example of this is The Palace Job by Patrick Weekes.
Many fantasy writers (including myself) figure that, if we’re inventing a new world to put a story in, we don’t need to carry over the racism that’s so prevalent in this world. There will be divisions in society, but they don’t have to be the same ones we live with here. Weekes did not do that: instead, he decided to write a black woman as protagonist in a world that is full of earth-style racism. The execution is not all that brilliant. Weekes has this character mosey along through the story and every now and then some other character will say something spectacularly hostile and racist to her. And then she’ll mosey on until the next time it happens. And so on.
Sometimes people do say spectacularly hostile and racist things. That absolutely does happen. As a white person who doesn’t see the 90% of the big ol’ racist iceberg beneath the water, it’s easy to think that this is what racism is. It’s easy to think that this is all that racism is. It’s a nice, reassuring thought, too. If you don’t do that stuff (and I really hope you don’t) then it’s easy to sit back and feel relieved that you’re in no way complicit in this problem.
But the vast majority of marginalisation isn’t someone shouting in your face. It looks like this:
It’s the sense that the world is just a bit smaller for you than for other people, and that you have to fight to claim your piece of it. It’s the odd looks and the weird assumptions people make. It’s who wants to be your friend, who’ll consider dating you (“just a preference” though!). It’s expectations about what your place is in life and how successful you’ll be. It’s how easy it is to get a job, how various authority figures treat you, and who gets the benefit of the doubt if you have a problem with someone in the dominant group. It’s always wondering to yourself: “Did I imagine that? Would he have said something different to someone else?” and being told you’re too sensitive when you’re quite sure you’ve just been subject to someone’s prejudice. It’s having a sense from the outset that you don’t quite belong, and that it’s going to be harder for you to prove yourself. It’s having to hide the parts of you that might be unacceptable in some company. Then you feel like you’ve betrayed your group and yourself by hiding those things just to have a slightly easier life. It’s having to think, regularly, that you might get physically harmed just for being yourself: having to consider if it’s safe for you to go somewhere. When someone does something bad to you, it’s facing the possibility that the very individuals who are paid to help will instead make things worse. When someone like you does something bad, you get dragged into collective responsibility for some reason. “Well,” people say. “We all know what people like that are like.” Whereas people in the dominant group who do something bad get a lot of hand waving and excuses. So you have to make an extra effort to be a model citizen. And it’s exhausting, and you know that if you make it through and succeed anyway, you’ll end up being used as “evidence” that there never was any marginalisation in the first place.
The way in which each of these things plays out in practice is so specific to context. It varies from one person to the next, one day to the next, and it can also fall anywhere on a scale, between completely overt, to “did I imagine that?” My own experience of homophobia does indeed include some examples of overt homophobic verbal abuse, and one occasion when a guy tried to throw a mostly-full can of Coke at my head (it missed). But it also includes the very nice man who, upon hearing that I was gay, went well out of his way to reassure me that he wouldn’t tell a soul. I replied that it was fine, that I was completely open about my sexuality, but he didn’t seem to hear me and instead continued to “reassure” me that my “secret” was safe with him. It included the friend who said “obviously, since you’re not going to have children-” and the various people who told me I couldn’t possibly know what I wanted if I’d never slept with a man. I could go on with this stuff: there’s a lot of it. The point is that most of it is not someone shouting in my face or threatening to kill me. Any one of these little things isn’t really a big deal. But it’s being treated as weird, less valuable and less valid, than the dominant group, over and over, that gradually gets inside people.
I can write in these things as they relate to being female, mentally ill, autistic and queer, but the specifics of racism will be different. In fact, even with this way more general summary, I’m not sure that I’ve got it right as it relates to racism. Please do comment below on this if you have something to add or want to correct me. But this is the bit that’s really hard to do if you haven’t been there. You can absolutely research everything about the town where your book is set, the job that the protagonist does, how to kill someone with a rubber chicken, and all the weirder stuff that writers google. But there is a point at which… you don’t get it when it comes to understanding the black experience. I don’t get it. We can read up and talk to people, but when it comes to the more complex human experiences, sometimes that’s not enough. White people have tried. Sometimes we’ve honestly tried really hard. We’ve still managed to get it wrong. When you’re in a marginalised group, and the only people writing representation of people like you aren’t like you, the fact that they keep getting it wrong starts to stick in your craw a bit.
Onward, then, to the depressingly common argument that “if people followed these rules [book] would never have been written and that would be terrible!”
Consider three books: Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and The Help by Kathryn Stockett. I’ve read all three. I actually enjoyed all three. And TKaM is a beautiful piece of writing and important to 20th century literature. But let’s be honest about this. None of these books about race and racism were written for black people. Even though there are black characters in these books, and even though the racism and injustice they face is important to the story, the spotlight is on where the white people are, and there’s a simple reason for that. The author was writing them with a reader in mind who was probably going to be white, and who was going to find it easiest to relate to the experiences of a white character. A good, kind white character, of course. A character who can be a portal to the white reader’s fantasy of being a hero against injustice. Some wish-fulfilment stories involve slaying orcs and capturing cities. Some involve being a brave white lawyer who’s trying to prevent a massive miscarriage of justice. These three books all involve white villains who are extremely racist, but there’s nothing in them to make the white reader feel uncomfortable, because hey, I’m not like that. I wouldn’t want to put a black man to death for a crime he obviously didn’t commit. I’m one of the good white people. The bar for being “one of the good white people” in these books is extremely low, so no white reader has to worry too much about clearing it. Especially as, sitting cosily on a sofa with a book in the 21st century, they don’t have to worry about the personal repercussions of being “one of the good white people.”
When Go Set A Watchman was published, many of the fans of TKaM were horrified to discover that Atticus Finch was racist after all, and the outpouring of grief over this always seemed very personal to me. It seems more plausible that Finch would be a conscientious lawyer who was determined to do his job properly, than that he was immune to the racist culture that surrounded him. But Finch was the white reader-fantasy character, so discovering that he wasn’t what we thought hit many readers hard.
The black characters in these books are passive. They don’t express pride or anger. They sometimes have the wariness of an abused animal, and sometimes they have to be won over, but as soon as the white person is nice to them, it’s all good. This weird passivity and total lack of anger towards the people perpetrating extreme injustice towards him is, of course, what has made “Uncle Tom” a derogatory term for a black person who sucks up to white people. Beecher Stowe thought that slavery was a terrible injustice, it’s true. But she also thought that Tom was the moral ideal for a black man: endlessly passive and forgiving, and loyal to the white people who held him prisoner and abused him. Beecher Stowe was opposed to the institution of slavery, but not because the whole concept is by definition barbaric. No, it’s because some (actually the vast majority of) slave owners were physically brutal. And because some slaves were pretty teenage virgins whose Christian modesty was at risk from white men who bought them specifically in order to rape and abuse them. (I don’t think she was nearly so concerned with the slaves who were not pretty teenage Christian virgins, but who got violated anyway.) She seems to believe that there were some slave owners who were kind-hearted and those guys did nothing wrong in owning other humans. This is a book that tugs at the white reader’s heartstrings, and it was extremely popular and influential. But it isn’t a book that celebrates the full humanity and equality of black people. And if some white people can read it, even today, and think that it does do those things, then we’ve really got a long way to go.
And yet… whenever the issue of “is this your story to tell?” comes up, the line that “excuse me but according to your rules these books wouldn’t have been written!” always features these three titles. Sometimes with a side order of “UNCLE TOM’S CABIN MOTIVATED PEOPLE TO ABOLISH SLAVERY! ARE YOU IN FAVOUR OF SLAVERY?” Well, to head that idiotic argument off at the pass: slavery shouldn’t have happened in the first place. It shouldn’t have taken a mediocre, sentimental novel to persuade white people that maybe it wasn’t right to own other humans. It doesn’t somehow make it a good book. When white people claim that this kind of book is important, and the world couldn’t live without it, we often fall back on some version of: “Well, it helped white people to see black people as at least partially human.” That’s appalling. We need to do better.
Compare those three books with Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston or Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. In these, the characters are fully realised; they are not defined as accessories in the life of a white character. They don’t want white people to save them: they want white people to get out of their way. They see all the more subtle kinds of marginalisation around them, not just the overt kind. These characters get justifiably angry about things, rather than latching on gratefully to any white person who isn’t a total dick. They don’t coddle the white reader or soothe their conscience. I’m willing to bet that if you handed all six of these books to people who’d never read them before, and asked them to guess which ones were written by black authors and which ones by white authors, they’d probably answer correctly. Especially if those readers were black. These are the kinds of perspectives on the black experience the world needs, and we only get them when black people write them. That is why it matters.
Next up: my own experience of seeing bad representation of people like me and getting really annoyed by it. (Annoyed? Opinionated? ME?) See you on the other side.
1: I’m not going to get heavily into the fight about the definition of racism. It’s tedious. Suffice to say, activists tend to approach racism in a more holistic way as a culture-wide issue about power, violence, institutions, and also the million little assumptions, stereotypes, bits of lazy thinking, snap judgements and so on (many of them subconscious), which lead to white people having advantages in all sorts of areas at the expense of poc. Many white people will wave the dictionary about and insist that it’s just being mean to someone because of the colour of their skin. These fights never get anywhere. I tend to go with the activist definition, because I think it’s a better approach to fixing the problem, and I think that the other definition lets white people off the hook for about 90% of the stuff that causes problems for poc. But anyway. I’ve never experienced racism according to either definition.