Why I can’t write outside my race, I think. Probably.


Frog 3This is not a how-to.

It is a thought in progress.

This longer-than-usual post is not intended to persuade you to think a certain way. I’m simply sharing my struggle. In full transparency, I do hope it will encourage you to wrestle too.

I am puzzling over the question – how can I, a middle-aged white lady, promote greater diversity in children’s literature? Further, can I personally contribute my own work?

And now my noodle is steaming. Just call me Ms. Ramen Head.

Let me get specific now.

See, five years ago a character came to me while I was at an SCBWI-Michigan spring conference. I was in a breakout session with Donna Gephart. And, this kid, he never moved out of my head.

I LOVE this guy. But as a character, he is a challenge combo (without a side of fries. Darn.)

First, he is a him, but I can handle that. I like writing boy characters best.

He chose a hobby I have no idea how to do, but I can try to learn.

And, finally, he is African American. Yep. That’s where things get complicated. I didn’t decide that about him. It’s simply part of who he is–a significant part.

Now I am capturing his story in a middle grade novel, but I’m facing a few teensy questions. Oh, you know, like:

  • If it’s okay to me to write outside my gender, why not my race?
  • Is it really necessary for this character to be African American for his story to be told?
  • Am I betraying my character if I change his race?
  • If I do write outside my race, what is the potential for causing more harm than good (even with the benefit of sensitivity readers)?
  • If my book is published, what happens when I show up at a school with primarily African American students?
  • As an un-established author, am I prepared to face the elevated scrutiny my story will receive?

To go even deeper . . .

Executive Editor at Dutton Books for Young Readers Andrew Karre posed these questions at a recent SCBWI conference:

  • How diverse is the well of literature I draw from?
  • Why do I want to write a diverse character? In other words, where are the roots of my desire to write this character?
  • Is my only point of engagement with diversity limited to my manuscript?

In the end, all I want to create is a story that’s authentic and engaging. Most of all, I want this kid I love to be proud of the way I told his story. I think I can best do that without pushing myself to do things that will quite potentially hurt my readers and distract them from the story I want to tell. And so, since I have decided not to write outside my race, I think. Probably. I am asking:

  • How can I offer a diverse perspective in a way that’s true to myself?
  • How can I support diverse authors and diverse books?
  • How can I expand my understanding of all that diversity means?

Here’s the part I do know:

  • There’s clueless. That’s sad.
  • There’s clueless about being clueless. That’s dangerous.

I’m “pleased” to say I know that I’m clueless about a lot of things related to diversity, and really, that’s not the worst place to start. It means I need to be humble, and willing to learn, listen and ask questions. That I can do without question.

Mmm. Mmm. Mmm. Won’t you join me, my little Caramel Apples?

If you dare nothing, then when the day is over, nothing is all you will have gained. ~ Neil Gaiman



28 responses »

  1. If the character were an alien from outer space, would you have these qualms?
    In the writing of Andre Norton (a woman who was thought to be a man, when she wrote “pulp” science fiction), many of her characters were male and/or of a different, yet minority (sometimes even the last of a), race/species. And yet she had a great deal to say about the treatment of Native Americans, minorities (especially those who were displaced by war), and nature.
    When faced with a critical audience who may think that you do not have the “right” to create literature outside your mental ability, gender, race or species…point out to them that it is the attempt of trying to see something from another’s perspective that gives us the empathy to understand their point of view on different topics. Writers, good, bad or indifferent, are SUPPOSED to see things from many different perspectives.


  2. I’m wrestling with the same questions in a MG novel I’m revising. Right now I’m working on listening, being humble, and being supportive. The novel can wait. But love can’t.


  3. Deep and good thoughts all, Vicky! Thanks so much for this! I think we often look at authenticity in a skewed way and doing that can make us afraid to write outside of anything that is familiar. But if we only ever write what is familiar than the stories that stretch us the most and make us better lights in this world may never get written. I guess I’m on the side of telling the story that needs to be told for the child that needs to read it. I look back at diversity in literature and I immediately think of Cynthia Voight’s, Come a Stranger. A story so beautifully written it becomes part of whoever reads it. Cynthia is not African American, but her MC is. She was brave enough to take it on long before these conversations were part of every writer’s life. I’m glad we’re thinking and talking and taking an honest look at how diversity informs our writing and how that plays out in this moment in history. At the same time, I hope we stay brave enough to write the stories that move us no matter our ethnicity. Hugs!

    Great conversation!


    • Thank you, Patti. Writing a story featuring someone outside your ethnicity can be very different from getting one published in our current culture. One day, we will have an equitable playing field for everyone who has a story to tell. There will be no more “token _______” in books and need to cry for more diverse books because we’ll have plenty. It will be the norm. One day. One day. Be brave, Patti, and write on!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Vicky: Well put. Thanks for being candid with a very important topic, one that stalls many a creative voice. Love that you blog/write in support of respect for others, and therefore with this respect, you are willing to listen. Oh if only more of us were willing to listen. Creative blessings.


  5. I’m struggling with this too Vicky because isn’t the foundational importance of diversity realizing that underneath it all we are all alike. One doesn’t love better because one’s skin is pink or purple or black or white; one doesn’t wonder at God’s creation any less because one’s eyes are blue or brown; skin color, ethnicity, even nationality doesn’t change the most fundamental parts of what makes us human. For children – isn’t that what we are exploring and celebrating? If I’m writing about a child exploring a meadow why does that child have to be a little white girl just because I was?


  6. Well said. You are not alone. Canadian writers are grappling too. My characters are Ugandan (War Brothers the Graphic Novel) Thunder Over Kandahar ( Muslim) Esher (Jewish) — shall I go on? EVERY book has won major awards. I do it with teams of people, a first-class publisher, editor and copy editor. And I go into war zones (Canadian War Artist) to get the stories. I fight for each one.


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