Being White, Writing Black

I am a novelist and I am white. My great-grandparents immigrated to the United States and Canada from Ireland, Scotland, Sweden, and Finland. My ethnicity has been confirmed by DNA tests on both my parents. You’d have to go back to the prehistoric migrations to find any of my ancestors who were born in Africa.

So the question that arises is: Am I permitted to include black characters in my novels?

Why not? There are plenty of black people in North America. How can I set novels in California, New York State, or elsewhere in North America without including the occasional black character? If I consciously exclude black characters, then I could be legitimately accused of racism.

This leads to a second question: Am I permitted to give black characters important roles in my novels?

Of course I am. Again, if I consciously limit black characters to background roles – make them mere props – then I can be legitimately accused of racism for marginalizing them.

Which leads directly to a third question: Am I permitted to make a black character my main protagonist?

I should. If I cast black characters only as villains and sidekicks in my novels, then I am doing black people a considerable disservice. Sometimes black people are heroes in the real world, so why not in my novels.

This leads to a more difficult fourth question: How do I write black characters?

Do I make them literary Oreos? Do I describe them as black, but then have them think, speak, and act in the same way as my white characters? Or do I “write black”? Do I try to make them think, speak, and act as real black people. And I mean, real black people, not exaggerated stereotypes like some kind of literary minstrel show. Black people with aspirations and prejudices of their own.

You should not be surprised to hear that I’m going to try to make my black characters as realistic as possible. I may not do it as well as I would like, but none of my writing is as good as I’d like. All that I can do is to write the best stories that I can.

Which brings me to one of my recent novels, not published under the Ashley Zacharias name, but written under a different pseudonym.

My main character is an ex-convict who found religion in prison and returned to his old neighborhood to establish a store-front church. He’s no saint – he’s big and tough, a womanizer, and maybe a bit of a con man. But when the teenage son of one of his flock is accused of a brutal murder and bullied by the police into a false confession, my hero is asked to help establish his innocence because, as an ex-con, he “knows the system.”

I never mention race in this novel. I don’t mention anyone’s skin color, eye color, or hair style. But I do have characters in the neighborhood speak ungrammatically as people with little education would. They are quick to anger, and resentful of both the wealthy people who live up the hill, and the middle-class professionals on the other side of town.

Though I never say that they are black, there is no question that the main characters are written black. And not as black professionals, but as black working class. The other characters, the wealthy victims, witnesses, police, and lawyers are not deliberately written black, but are more neutral. Some readers envision them as white, some as black. The police and lawyers, in particular, are seen as ambiguous.

I submitted the first ten pages of this novel to an agent. When I met with her, face-to-face, her very first words to me were, “You’re not black.”  I explained that I don’t mention race explicitly in the novel, that it’s about class conflict and the abuse of authority, but that made no difference. The agent was never going to represent me, no matter how good my novel. She never used the words, cultural appropriation, but her words and demeanor made her thoughts perfectly clear. No matter how good my writing, in her mind, I had no right to create major characters who appear to be black unless I am black, myself.

The reverse would never be true. When a black author writes a novel about white characters, no one raises an eyebrow.

But if the author is white, it doesn’t matter what he choses to do – exclude people of color, or relegate them to the background, or make them only villains and sidekicks, or make them protagonists who speak and act white, or make them protagonists who speak and act black – he will always be accused of racism.

So, if I’m going to be damned no matter what I write, then I’m damned well going to write what I want, as best as I’m able. And I’m not embarrassed about that novel. The first ten pages were convincing enough that the agent expected me to be black. That tells me that I managed to write black adequately. I published my novel myself; agents can no longer bar the gate to publication. Some day, I will write a sequel with the same protagonist and I will self-publish that one as well.

I see no reason to let the self-appointed guardians of political correctness censor me.



About Ashley Zacharias

I'm a post-modern woman who lives a vanilla life and dreams about kinky adventure. I write BDSM pornography but have no interest in acting out my fantasies in real life. Find my work on and
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3 Responses to Being White, Writing Black

  1. Curtis Cook says:

    When I took courses in creative writing back in 1983-4 the professor told me to write what I know. Obviously that’s an admonition to be interpreted liberally, but I still find it a good general rule. One of the comments I received about a story I started a decade ago was, “Women don’t bend that way.” I didn’t know that, so I’m glad my First Reader pointed it out.

    I’ve never written stories with ‘ethnic’ characters or poor characters because I don’t understand them and can’t relate. (Even though I live on under $10,000 a year my circumstances are decidedly middle class and I was raised in the 1%.) My current protagonist is causing difficulty because she’s a breast cancer survivor. I’ve never had cancer of any sort and nobody I know has had breast cancer. The only cancer patient I knew personally was my grandfather (bladder), he didn’t survive, and that was more than twenty years ago.

    This places me in a predicament, since I’m using the protagonist’s reaction to her disease and treatment as her motivation for why she participates in the activities of her story. As a result, I’m struggling with whether I should pursue this any further. I’m afraid of delivering misinformation to the audience, since all I know is what Google tells me. If the audience knows I’m bullshitting them it will destroy their suspension of disbelief. If they don’t figure out that I’m misinforming them, then I’m performing a more serious disservice.

    To top it all off, am I even justified in using that experience as her motivation? I’m seriously afraid of getting feedback along the lines of, “I had breast cancer and it didn’t make me do X.”

    So, I’m currently wrestling with the same problem concerning which you seem to have perfect clarity. Congratulations.

    • cbconsultingsit600 says:

      (I wrote this before reading Ashley’s reply, and it echoes some of what she says but I think it also adds a little)

      The argument “I had {condition a} and it didn’t make me do {action x}” is completely fallacious. Those who want to read about real people and the things they really do can pick up one of any number of biographies out there.

      The thing about fiction – be it print, or the movies or TV – is that it tells a story about *specific* individuals and how they *did* do {action a, b, c — or z}. If everyone reacted the same to having breast cancer, or a magician father or creepy uncle, the world would be pretty damn boring. Who’s to say being raped as a child is going to make you take a gun into a clock tower and shoot people, or become a missionary in India? Who’s to say either of those actions is the right or predictable one?

  2. I should probably write a post about “write what you know,” because that’s the most common advice that authors hear. I think that’s terrible advice. There could be no science fiction because nobody has yet lived in the future. No murder mysteries because (except for Ann Perry) authors haven’t murdered anyone. No thrillers because novelists haven’t been chased around the world by evil government agents. Etc. The only books that we would be allowed to write are autobiographies.
    My alternative is to write what sounds good to you. It’s fiction. As long as it sounds realistic enough for your readers to willingly suspend their disbelief, then it’s good enough. Nobody with half a brain is going to use your novel as a technical manual for building a spaceship or committing a murder.
    My “clarity” is that I’ve decided to write what I like and not let agents, critics, or publishers stop me from presenting it to readers. And if some of my readers like it, too, then I’m happy. If none of them like it, then I can withdraw it from publication and write something better.
    That’s my best advice.

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