Writing 101 | Writing People of Color

There are two common excuses that authors present to defend or justify an utter lack of racial diversity in their writing.

The first: “I lack deep experience with POC – how can I possibly write them?”

This excuse does two things. First, it undermines one’s ability as a writer. Writing is about empathy more than it is about first hand experience. Certainly, I’ve never died and been brought back to life, but my ability as a writer to empathize with a character who has allows me to present and explore that perspective. Second, and more damning, it treats POC as fundamentally different from white people. POC are not a different species. We think and feel and fall in love just the same as white people do. The difference is the perspective of privilege and of culture – something that any fantasy or science fiction writer can tell you is a matter of research. In essence, this excuse comes down to laziness and racial misconception.

The second: “I only have a white perspective – what if I get it wrong?”

This comes down to fear. From the perspective of a POC, this excuse is far less condescending than the first, but still plays into the misconception that POC are fundamentally difference from white people. In order to overcome this fear, you have to focus on the similarities, rather than the differences. And, like with anything in writing, do your research. Utilize resources. In the age of the internet, there are tons of blogs dedicated to discussing various cultures, and even blogs dedicated to answering questions related to cultural confusion. The resources are out there, and if you want to be an ally to POCs (or other POCs, if you are a POC) then it should be your prerogative to build a story with a racially diverse cast of characters.

I’m here, of course, to help you do that. If you’re looking for the basics of how to write people of color in a way that is not offensive and does not promote harmful stereotypes, this is the post for you. Without further ado:

How do I indicate the race of my characters?

For me, it is perfectly fine to come out and say, through dialogue or internal monologue, the race of the character. For instance:

Part of him was always shocked by how pale she was. Not like white people. Their pale was harsh, stark. There was a softness to her pale. He wondered if it was because she was Japanese; her pale didn’t give her the power it did a white person.

In the scene above, both characters already know each other. He can say she is Japanese because he knows she is Japanese. If these characters were meeting for the first time, this tactic may not play out as naturally. Another way to explicitly state race is through dialogue:

“I can see the headline now: 10-foot Mexican viciously attacks defenseless MMA fighter.”
“Dude. I’m Guatemalan.”
know that, but it doesn’t really matter to them, now does it?”

This tactic can work even if characters don’t know each other, but it may not always be natural. If you can find no natural way to introduce the specific race of the character, there are several other ways to indicate race.

One way is through the language the speak with their family or close friends. This tactic does require double checking by a person who speaks the language you are using. For example, if a character is a speaker of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) may say, “Ain’t got no care in the world,” instead of, “I haven’t a care in the world.” Seeing the former phrase may indicate to the reader that your character is Black or from the American South. Another way is to engage with their culture and associations. For example, a character could mention that their family is celebrating Chinese New Year, or a character could mention their involvement with the Black Student Union. Finally, you can make use of physical description to show that a character is now white. But that in itself can be a tricky thing to accomplish without being offensive.

How can I describe my non-white character’s physical appearance?

Let’s start with skin color. As a light-skinded Black person, I have a real problem with people comparing my skin color to food. Put simply, it’s fetishization. For any brown-skinned people food comparisons are often paired with attempts at seduction. For example:

“I love me some chocolate.”
“Gimme some of that caramel.”

Whatever the intent, it feels dehumanizing. There are way better ways to get the point across. Here is a list of colors you can – and should – use to describe a brown-skinned person.

  • Brown
  • Tan
  • Beige
  • Umber
  • Russet
  • Tawny
  • Copper

You can combine these with other colors, such a reddish-brown or golden-tan. You can even add descriptors such as deep, dark, or rich. All of these are better that using food.

There said, in terms of describing eye and hair color, there is nothing wrong with saying things like ‘chocolate brown eyes’ and ‘caramel colored hair.’ The food issue is strictly one of skin color.

As for hair, describing hair texture can prove difficult. If you have, for instance, a Black character with extremely thick, coiled curls, avoid words like wild, nappy or kinky. Try instead words like:

  • Coiled
  • Afro-texture
  • Natural hair
  • Ringlets

There are also hairstyles to be aware of, such as:

  • Dreadlocks
  • Fade
  • Braids
  • Twists
  • Fingerwaves
  • Bantu Knots

Describing hair coverings can be just as important as describing hair. For instance:

  • Durag
  • Bonnet
  • Headwrap
  • Hijab
  • Turban
  • Veil
  • Gele

These are all things to be aware of when building an appearance for a character that reflects their culture and hair texture. Just as not all Muslim women wear hijabs, not all Black people have the same hair texture. Just make sure to do your research before deciding what goes on your character’s head, so that you know who wears the specific hairstyle or hair covering and why they wear it.

Other unique challenges may present themselves when writing POC, such as:

How do I indicate the race of a character in a fantasy or science fiction setting?

If you have a story where you’ve built a word and cultures other than the ones that exist in the real world, then you must rely on strong physical description to get across the intended race of the character. A lot goes into the building of a culture, so don’t forget to decide which of their physical features is due to their culture, considering specific makeup or hairstyle they may wear. If the cultures you are using mirror real life cultures, it may also be helpful to allude to cultural features readers may be familiar with in order to cement the intended race of the character.

How do I avoid making my character a caricature?

This is an easy trap to fall into. For starters, you must be aware that POC, like white people, are very diverse in appearance, even if they have the same ethnic or cultural background. Also keep in mind: you typically don’t need to provide every minute detail of a character’s face or body. But you don’t want to avoid detail either. As stated earlier, it is perfectly fine to explicitly state a character’s race, but simply stating “She is Black,” and ending it there assumes that all Black people must look alike. You can take steps to briefly describe her face and body, but we don’t need ten pages on the subject. Also, it is important to pay attention to how you make a character talk and behave. Not all Black people speak AAVE, just like not all people with a Mexican ethnic background speak Spanish. Be aware of cultural and ethnic stereotypes, and don’t fall into the traps they present.

In conclusion

Don’t make excuses. Do your research. Have empathy. POC, much like white people, are people

With these tools in mind, go forth and promote empathy and diversity.

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6 thoughts on “Writing 101 | Writing People of Color

  1. Pingback: Valentine’s Day Special: Diversifying Literary Romance | Scribbles in the Margin

  2. Pingback: Writing 101 | Writing LGBT+ Characters, Part 1 | Scribbles in the Margin

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