I recently wrote a short story and there was a key character who is sort of discovered at the end. A friend said, I’d love to know more about Rashid. And I had thought, as I wrote this story, I’d like to know more about Rashid.
In my mind, Rashid is a black guy.
Suddenly, I wondered: can I write about him? What right do I have to try and tell a young black person’s story — more so, a fictionalized person?
I’m a (cisgender) woman. I’m comfortable writing from a male perspective. I’d be comfortable writing from a trans or genderqueer perspective.
I’m a lesbian, but I’m fine writing from the heterosexual perspective.
I’ve never murdered anyone. But I’ve written from the perspective of a murderer.
But I’m white. And whiteness is an experience of privilege in American culture, whether or not my personal story is actually “privileged.”
Coming of age and working in a majority black city, I struggled with hating my race because I saw how my whiteness had made my life in this society easier in a multitude of ways. And no matter how much I saw, no matter how much I believed I ‘got’, I could, and can, never fully understand the experience of being black in America.
Wesley Morris, Still Processing, said something that stuck with me one morning when I listened to The Daily and the topic was “What Hollywood Keeps Getting Wrong About Race”: in Hollywood depictions of white-black relationships, white people, just by being with a black person, become less racist, better people — examples include: Driving Miss Daisy, Forrest Gump, The Green Book, etc. Meanwhile,the black person just has to be there; no depths of their story needs to be told — it’s all about the white person’s perspective and their transformational experience by being in the company of a black person. (This gets discussed with much more depth on the episode of Still Processing, with the fabulous Mr. Morris and Jenna Wortham, called “Fantasies.”)
And here I am: Jessica Tandy-like, wanting to tell the story of a black character I have in mind.
These are my fears — and I put this out there because I need answers from more voices:
- What the hell do I know about the black male experience other than what I can imagine — what I have read, seen, heard from friends, but haven’t experienced myself?
- What if I write a character who isn’t authentic and my words are unable to capture the complexities of, well, living and the black experience?
- What if what I write is crap and I offend someone? (That’s actually a true fear of just about everything I write…including this essay…)
- FINALLY: why do I have fears around how I write a character who is of another race and, more specifically, about whether I can write about a character who is black?
Perhaps I’m thinking too much and not simply doing.
Perhaps writers, real writers, don’t worry about this.
Honestly, I’d like to know this character and I’m going to start writing him, but I’m not sure it will go anywhere.