Should White Authors Write Characters of Color?

Wendy Franco

In the spring of my sophomore year, I took a class where we read Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. The novel tells the story of two male record store owners – one white and one black. One of the first questions that came up during our class discussion of the book was whether a white author should be writing about black characters. We didn’t answer the question, or, for that matter, spend more than like five or ten minutes thinking about it.

When I brought the question to a group of friends, a few of them immediately called this appropriation. To a large extent, I agree with them. My first instinct is to answer this question from the perspective of a woman who has seen people who look like her slandered and villainized, and tell you it’s a no from me. An author can write about x, y and z characters in their stories because you need people to formulate stories. The issue arises when an author starts to say “I”. To write about people who look like me is one thing, but to take voices that are otherwise ignored and silenced and claim them as your own is problematic. Writing narratives in first person, or anything equivalent, allows the author to take on an identity and a voice, and we should be ready to question authors about why they chose this voice and why it was imperative for them to share this story. Raise your hand if you’ve ever read a book written by an old white guy that follows the life of slave in 1831 from the perspective of the slave. If you didn’t question the author, you’re only one of many.

This is not the black and white question that I initially thought it was. Art can be powerful – a statement, political. I believe in separating art from its creators and letting it be art for art’s sake. That, however, should not be an excuse to avoid criticizing it. As an English major, I’ve been conditioned to separate literature from its writer – to give validity to the voice guiding me. But living in the political climate in which I do, and knowing the historical and social implications that race has in politics, it would be a completely irresponsible on my behalf to read a book, narrated, for example, in the perspective of a Native American man and written by a white man, as completely separate from its author. These are power dynamics within the literature world that we need to explore.

If we’re not questioning the people who are producing the literature we consume, then what are doing? There is no point in me studying English, having a Humanities degree, if, as a woman of color, I’m not thinking critically about this type of literature. Students at Macalester forget that we are in such powerful position. 70 percent of the US population doesn’t have a college dress, and that small 30 percent of the population that is the biggest consumer of literature. This last March, the Pew Research Center found that “adults with a high school degree or less are about five times as likely as college graduates to report not reading books in any format in the past year”. The same study also found that “adults with annual household incomes of $30,000 or less are about three times [more likely] to be non readers”, with “hispanic adults being twice as likely as whites to report not having read a book in the past 12 months.”

We, as Macalester students, are in that small portion of the population that’s actively reading. We are currently among the top consumers of literature, and it is our responsibility to have this conversation – not because there is a right or wrong answer but because literature has an influence that we cannot ignore. We seem to forget about that a lot. Literature is the inspiration and driving vehicle for so many of the things we see. And I’m not just talking fiction. From Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species to H.G. Wells’s Invisible Man, all genres of literature influence music, film, and so many of the other art forms that shape our identities and interactions.

Yet, most literature circulation takes place within a small portion of the population. The effect and impact it has on this small, powerful portion of the population is felt by the masses through its effects in music, film, politics, etc. It’s the media that’s influencing and shaping our communities. From Kardashians to Miley Cyrus to even Bruno Mars, we’re quick to call out appropriation when it comes to musicians, directors and celebrities. But we don’t spend more than five minutes thinking about what Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. Musicians and high-profile figures are consistently used as examples when talking about race and privilege. But we exclude authors and writers from the conversation. As a community, we need to address this.

Should white authors write characters of color? It’s a complicated question, but I encourage everyone to try to think about it. It’s our responsibility. To quote Spiderman, “when you can do the things that [we] can, but you don’t, and then the bad things happen, they happen because of [us]”. If we don’t question what’s being put out there, given our ability to do so, then we are doing a disservice to those who can’t. Literature and literary criticism are not universally accessible, so let’s start the conversation.