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I’m a white woman writing a black woman’s story: Let’s talk about it

One of the two main projects I’m working on at the moment is a screenplay about the life of abolitionist and author Harriet Jacobs. If you’re not familiar with her, check her out; she was amazing.

As I’ve started to mention this project to people, several have asked why I, a white woman living in the 21st century, who usually writes romantic comedies, am writing this dark drama about a 19th century slave. The only answer I can give is because I want to. Because I fell in love with Harriet and her own telling of her story in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and it’s a story that I want to share with people. Her experience is vastly different from mine, but I can relate to her journey of faith, and even where I can’t relate to her life, I care about it, and I care about her.

But to ask why I should be the one to tell this story is fair. Harriet isn’t alive today to write her own screenplay, and anybody writing about her will have to imagine her experience from the outside. But maybe an African American writer who has experienced his or her own version of racial prejudice would have insight into Harriet’s struggles that I don’t have.

This distills a larger conflict that I have with myself as a writer: should I actively try to incorporate more diversity into my writing, particularly with my protagonists? Is it wrong if I don’t? Is it wrong if I do? I would love to spend more time exploring the lives of characters who come from a different background than I do as far as ethnicity, abled/disabled status, religion, etc. It would open up so many stories that I find interesting and want to tell.

But frankly, I’m afraid: afraid that I’ll inadvertently portray a character in a way that offends someone. If I write a middle class female WASP and readers don’t like the way she’s portrayed, they’ll just say it’s bad writing. If I write, for instance, a Latino or Jewish or lesbian character and readers don’t like the depiction, they might think I’m a bad person. It feels a bit like damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If I don’t write diverse characters, I’ll be criticized for lack of representation in my work. If I do, I’ll be criticized for presuming to write about struggles that I haven’t lived.

The Own Voices movement advocates for people from underrepresented backgrounds to tell their own stories, in their own words. It’s a powerful and important idea. But it also creates the potential to discourage writers from writing outside of their own experience. And isn’t that what writing is really all about? Unless you’re working on an autobiography or a memoir, you’re going to have to exercise your powers of sympathy and creativity to imagine the life of someone who isn’t you, to put yourself in a character’s shoes.

Writing characters who are very different from you is tricky. I’ve read books where, for instance, it’s a white author repeatedly describing a black character in terms of his skin color, as if that’s the most important thing about him, or a male author repeatedly describing a female character in terms of her sexuality, even when she exists in the story in another capacity than as a romantic/sexual interest for the protagonist. This type of writing is painful to read. It quickly becomes offensive. But I’ve also read books where a writer depicts characters outside of his or her own “lane” and does so beautifully. A great example is She’s Come Undone, where the male author Wally Lamb creates an incredibly nuanced and believable female protagonist. You can tell that he lived inside this character as he was writing.

If we want more diversity in our books, movies, and television, I believe that we need to both create opportunities for writers from diverse backgrounds to tell their stories, and encourage all writers to include diverse perspectives in their work. Maybe it comes down to us challenging ourselves to be better writers: to more fully exercise our powers of sympathy and imagination. And in doing so, we can only hope to become better people.

4 Responses to “I’m a white woman writing a black woman’s story: Let’s talk about it”

  1. Sarah, this is *so* good. And here’s the funny thing: an utterly common-sense perspective such as this should be so completely non-controversial as to elicit yawns from the entire company. But common sense is rapidly becoming an endangered species. May you never be moved from your commitment to that which is sensible, wise, and real.

    -That Bird Fellow

  2. This is so good. I have wondered about this a lot, and I am glad you’re talking about this! This is a really good perspective on the issue.

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