There is a fine line between representation and appropriation. While this is a topic of conversation in literature, it’s never discussed in movies or television.
Representation and appropriation are two sides to the same coin. Where one falls on the spectrum would depend largely on where one is looking from. Within the movie world, it’s imperative and normal for white directors and writers to create worlds in which the main character is a BIPOC main character. We have a list of movies, A LARGE LIST in which the screenwriter, the director, or both were white, and yet this topic isn’t talked about enough.
Some movies with white directors or writers: Hidden Figures, The Blind Side, The Help, Men in Black Series, Bad Boys Series, … the list is endless!!
On the flipside, we have the same problem within the bookish world where most people’s main argument is, “white people shouldn’t write for POC because it’s not their story to share.”
The main gripe to this difference is white directors and writers hire POC actors to fill the roles, so in some way they (the actor) are endorsing the writing. Meanwhile, that’s not the case with novel writers. All they have is their brain and laptop to back them up.
Now, if you must know, I am a part of the Black community and the Latinx community. Am I only allowed to write characters within this degree? I can’t write about white characters, Asian, Native American– none of that, right? It’s a little grayer because being a POC means we are related in a sense of how our roles are predominated in white society.
Here’s my hot take…
If you are a white author writing about BIPOC characters, putting them in the roles of main characters or supporting characters, you have to interrogate why that is. It also depends on the content of your story. Is it about racial discrimination, or does your character so happen to be a POC character with no real reason – they just are? Readers then ask, why? Why are you writing with POC? Is it to get attention, more money, more readers, more everything?
If you know any writer, you should know that money isn’t a priority. As long as they get a steady income, they’re happy. Having a character that isn’t white at the forefront isn’t a political move.
I would rather have a white writer diversify their characters than have them all be white, beautiful, and thin – then they would look the same. What bothers me the most is having the main character always be white and the side characters, all POC. It is like dipping your toe in the pool to test the water.
Now, there is a correct way of doing things and knowing where to draw the line
When writing about difficult subjects such as racial discrimination or something as simple as black dialect, the best way is to talk to some that have dealt with these attributions, such as a guide. Have a BIPOC that is related to the race you are using to read over your manuscript. Obviously, this person isn’t going to be accurate for everyone’s reactions to your work, but at least you have someone best suited to look over your writing. Whenever writing about something that you aren’t familiar with, what do you do? Research!
But you also must understand the discomfort from within these groups. Why do you think it’s your job to write their stories? What would make this novel stand out from the rest? These are questions you must answer, and no one will be able to answer them except you. Give yourself a purpose on writing sensitive topics. There is a difference between writing a story and wanting to write stories with no integrity. At the end of the day, it’s your choice what you want to write, but you will be judged on how you depict certain groups. This is called ‘criticism.’
The wrong way(s) to write BIPOC characters
The list is endless of what not to do as a white author writing BIPOC characters. The most heinous you can commit is taking a groups cultural and completely changing it only to benefit your story. This is notably shown in Stephenie Meyer Twilight Saga series with her portrayal of the Native Americans. Without proper research nor integrity in the writing, it can feel tone deaf. Sure, Meyer diversified her cast, but at what cost: completely rewriting a group to enhance her storytelling.
The Help is another prime example of what not to do. It was created by Kathryn Stockett in order to understand why couldn’t see the differences between the lives of her life versus black peoples lives. It doesn’t sound like this is uplifting black voices, but rather using their voices for her own benefit. White Savior complex anyone?
One of the stars, Viola Davis, agreed with the same sentiments as well. As noted, the writer of the novel and the director, Tate Taylor, were both white. This what she had to say then:
I just felt that at the end of the day that it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard. I know Aibileen. I know Minny. They’re my grandma. They’re my mom.”
“And I know that if you do a movie where the whole premise is, I want to know what it feels like to work for white people and to bring up children in 1963, I want to hear how you really feel about it. I never heard that in the course of the movie.”Viola Davis
Here’s a quick rundown of what not to do
- Don’t use BIPOC character’s just as a check mark. Make these characters round and not predictable.
- Don’t assume their struggles. Ask! Also, it is not a guarantee that are willingly to share their experience, so please be patient and kind.
- Do not change their culture to suffice your narrative. At that point, you’ve lost all credibility.
- And last, and certainly not the least… do the research if you are heavily talking about racial discrimination!
Maybe BIPOC writers should be writing their own stories
As for the other side, the side in which people don’t think it’s okay for white people to write in BIPOC characters, and that the best people to write these characters are BIPOC… you are right. They are. So write it. Do it! Statistically speaking, Black, Asian, and Latinx writers are still dominated by white writers in the publishing industry. If we had an equal amount of writers from all background, this wouldn’t be an issue in writing diverse characters and stories, but the fact is, we don’t.
At the end of the day, creating a divide between what should be allowed in your creative world feels like separation. You are white, so you should only have white characters. You are black, so you can only have to write black characters. We need to bridge the gap between what is appropriate and what is poor writing – (poor research, racial exploitation).
For more perspectives, check here.