Writing Outside Our Own Identities: Representation, Research, Sensitivity Reading, and Justice–#AuthorToolboxBlogHop

This post is part of the monthly Author Toolbox Blog Hop. Check out other Hop participants’ posts to learn about more aspects of writing craft and business, the third Wednesday of each month except for November and December.


If we are writers who care about social justice, we have to interrogate our work. How do our own social identities (race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, etc.) impact what we write? What does it mean for a writer with a socially privileged identity to write characters or narrators with identities different from their own? How does our writing interact with power structures in society?

In the end, we must ask: could our writing be harmful to people?

The Black Lives Matter protests that began this past summer have helped bring to light racism in the writing community. Today, let’s engage with the difficult but fundamental work of applying this to ourselves. It is uncomfortable. That discomfort is at the heart of why we must do it.

The personal journey that prompts this post

In early June, a literary journal expressed interest in a short story I had submitted. The story focused on an interracial couple and was narrated from the perspective of the white character.

I had first written the story about eighteen months before. As the George Floyd protests built and interrogation of white liberal allyship revealed much room for growth, I looked back at what I had written with a kind of terror.

Had I represented the Black character justly? Did he function in the story as a fully human, rounded character, or had I poorly sketched him, fallen back on stereotypes, used him as a tool for the telling of a different story? In my story’s representation of racial prejudice, could it result in harm?

Recently, my husband and I climbed up to our usual spot and were not disappointed. Two weeks of rain had made these yellowfoot mushrooms big and plump.

Why am I writing about my experience?

In the sections that follow, I’ll describe what I have learned through this process of engaging in serious reflection about representation in my writing. My goal in sharing my story is not a public performance of allyship. I am also not claiming I have done everything right. Frankly, as an ally to people of color, I still have a lot of work to do, both within and beyond my writing.

My goal here, rather, is to inspire others to embark on the journey with me, as well as to maintain focus on justice issues as the social media conversation has begun to drift away from the focus we saw during summer on the personal work of anti-racism. If you have been engaging in anti-racist interrogation of your writing, I would love to hear your experiences and advice. If it’s something you haven’t yet, then I hope these thoughts might inspire you to begin the process.

In this post, I’ll focus primarily on race representation, but these ideas are relevant to the representation of all marginalized groups. Resources exist that look more specifically at representation of other kinds of identities (see, for example, L. A. Lanquist’s Trans Narrative, a blog focused on representation of transgender people in fiction).

Hunting for mushrooms.

Can we write characters different from ourselves?

What does it mean for a white writer to write a Black character? For a cisgendered writer to write a trans character? Can male writers write female characters? Can able-bodied writers write characters with disabilities?

On the surface, two really clear perspectives emerge:

First, of course writers have to be able to include characters of different identities. We live in diverse societies, and to not include characters who reflect that is in itself harmful.

Yet, the writing of a character is by definition an act of imitation. When I write a character, I am inhabiting that person. A friend I spoke to posited the term “literary blackface,” that this act of imitation can be itself an act of violence, an implicit claim that we know another’s experience because we are writing from it.

Things become still more problematic if the character in question is the story’s narrator, who is inhabited far more intimately than other characters in the text. The writer has created a person and says, “I am speaking for them.” When so much of the discussion around social justice issues is the way experiences of marginalized groups are minimized, distorted, and tokenized, the danger of doing harm here is real.

Another issue involves not the story itself but our impact on others in the writing industry. As literature about people of color and other marginalized identities becomes more popular for a wider audience, too often the books written about people of color come from white authors. By publishing a story focusing on marginalized characters, we may inadvertently rob a writer of color of the chance to tell a story about their own community, #OwnVoices literature.

We can learn something too by interrogating our motivations. Are we including marginalized characters in our stories because we are trying to be diverse and inclusive? Although this might be well-intentioned, it often ends up a kind of tick-box, and the result is a diverse cast of token characters who are poorly researched, essentialized, and ultimately perpetuate stereotypes.

Many writers have addressed these questions from different perspectives and at greater length. Take a look at these resources that focus primarily though not exclusively on writing around race:

Using research to inform representation

To write justly about people different from ourselves, we have to first educate ourselves intentionally and thoroughly. This involves reading work by people from those identities. We need to listen to how people talk about their own experiences, and we need to read multiple perspectives within a community, because there is not one “gay experience” or “Latinx experience.”

We need to remember too that all voices are individuals. A character’s race or class identity may form a core part of who they are, but they will never be that identity alone. Every individual has both a host of other social identities that intersect with one another and also individual traits that make them unique human beings apart from any social identity they might have.

When we do this research, we need to not rush. We are not reading these texts to simply mine them for information, but to listen fully and deeply to what is being expressed, to the voice the words embody. As our understanding builds, we can recast our characters with these #OwnVoices perspectives in mind.

Revisions to consider

Systemic racism and other forms of oppression are transmitted from generation to generation through the socialization that we receive from the world around us. A piece of that socialization is the stories that we read.

By writing a story, we have power to portray people in positive or detrimental ways. That harm might be overt, but usually it’s more subtle, and whether we intend the harm or not is immaterial to the reader: what matters is the impact.

We need to look carefully at our stories and analyze how they set up power hierarchies, how they might reinforce or challenge stereotypical representations, how characters of marginalized identities exist in the narrative. Analysis tools like the Mako Mori and Bechdel tests, which examine gender representation in film, can be useful as starting points.

We should consider characters’ agency, as characters of marginalized identities so often appear in support roles in stories, stripping them of the agency to follow their own arcs. Examining balance of dialogue may reveal a greater focus on one character than another. Stereotypical representations might be deep-rooted in a story and require substantial revision.

In a lucky week of beautiful clear skies, we got our first frosts of the season. Unfortunately this means our pumpkin plant has shriveled. But the frost is beautiful.

Working with a sensitivity reader

I worked hard on my story, recasting, updating, looking for subtle ways my representation of this Black character might be problematic. Sometimes I worried that by actively seeking these stereotypical representations, I was seeing them even if they might not be there. When you’re holding a hammer, they say, everything looks like a nail.

But the reality of a racist society is that value judgements around race are all around us, and for those of us who are privileged in terms of our race, we don’t see them unless we look, unless we educate ourselves and listen to the experiences of others. I know as a gay person how meaningful it is to see a person like myself represented fully human. If I can’t take the energy and time to give the same to someone else, then I’ve failed.

The other reality of this is that at the end of the day, I’m still a white person whose understanding of race is incomplete. After I had done all that I was able to myself, I decided to reach out to friends who are people of color and ask whether they would be willing to read and comment on the story. One of these friends connected me with Chavonn Williams Shen, a writer, educator, and activist, and suggested that I hire her as a sensitivity reader for the story.

What is a sensitivity reader?

A sensitivity reader is a person of a particular marginalized social identity who reads looking for representation issues of that identity in a text. The sensitivity reader points out any issues that they find to the writer and may make suggestions for improvement. Sensitivity readers have become common in the world of Young Adult literature but work in all genres.

The role of sensitivity readers is sometimes controversial. Some construe sensitivity reading as censorship, or, on the other side, people worry that authors will offload the actual work of engaging critically with representation onto a sensitivity reader and continue writing harmful representations themselves.

Morning frost over the fjord. Days are getting shorter. Soon we’ll be walking to work in the dark.

Why working with a sensitivity reader is valuable

A good sensitivity reader can help us see what we otherwise could not about our own work and ultimately can help us educate ourselves for our future writing.

At the same time, it’s important to note that working with a sensitivity reader is not a free pass. Each reader is one individual person, and perspectives on representation within marginalized communities vary greatly. Some writers hire multiple sensitivity readers to get a range of perspectives. Whatever we do, we have to remember that the ultimate responsibility for our writing always lies with us.

When my friend suggested that I hire Chavonn, I felt unsure. I didn’t expect to be paid by the literary journal for the story. Was I prepared to pay a significant amount for a sensitivity reader when I knew I would not recoup the cost? What was more, when I sat down and meditated on this, I felt afraid. It was one thing to talk with a friend, a person I trust, but to send my work to someone I didn’t know who was specifically looking for racist ideas surfacing in my writing? My heart raced. I wanted to look away.

Fear is telling us something vital

The work of anti-racism is uncomfortable. If it were easy, we would all have been doing it for ages already. That fear I felt, when I discussed it with my friend, was what ultimately made it clear to me that I should engage. That fear was telling me that I had work to do.

I chose to reframe the issue of cost, looking at it not as relevant to this story alone, but as education on my journey as a writer. I contacted Chavonn, had an initial conversation about what we each expected from the process, and then sent her the piece.

Chavonn was professional, friendly, and most importantly, she taught me a lot that I didn’t know. She gave me really valuable suggestions that helped me deepen the representation of both the Black and white characters in my story, complicated my knowledge about African-American Vernacular English and how it is written, and supported me towards making real improvements in the story.

A hike the other day. I’ve been going out for exercise. Here we’re looking back down on campus from above.

The writing just gets better

Chavonn directed me to an interview with Tiphanie Yanique. In it, Yanique makes this point:

The first thing I tell my students is that they must write bravely. That means writing towards the things that most make you uncomfortable—and part of why that is brave is mostly because it’s not easy. Brave writing means failing a lot of the time—even when writing well, there will be failures in the work. ... When we are in a position of power with what we don’t know (a male writer writing women characters, for example) the work is much, much greater. This is not only an ethical issue, ... but this is an issue of craft. ... That means listening to critics. When someone says your work is racist, they are suggesting that you are not writing well. Period. Your characters are reductive.  Your plots are simplistic. ... So, just write better.

Writing fully human characters of different identities is not only about the way our writing affects others. It’s also about just good writing. By really examining who the character is, getting inside their experience, listening to the voices of real people who share their identity, being open to criticism and making changes in response–these things are about good writing. Stories become more complex. The characters become more real. It becomes a better story.

Last thoughts

The story is going to be published this spring! When it is, I’ll share the link here on Words Like Trees, and I’m hoping that its readers will find it meaningful.

I have more work to do around representation in my writing, in other stories and in future projects, just as I have more work to do in other aspects of my life around anti-racism and other forms of justice. This is an ongoing process we should keep engaging with.

Do you have resources, reflections, or experiences around these issues? Please share them in comments. We’re all still learning about this.

Thanks, and best wishes for the week,
Jimmy

On the way back down, I saw this double sun reflected on the fjord below.

6 thoughts on “Writing Outside Our Own Identities: Representation, Research, Sensitivity Reading, and Justice–#AuthorToolboxBlogHop

Add yours

  1. This is a situation/question which occurs to me often, and the feelings of fear and indecision you describe are very familiar to me. Bookmarking this so I can go back and carefully read each article you linked to. I’m excited to broaden my knowledge and widen my viewpoint. Thank you!

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  2. This is such a fabulous post, Jimmy. When the story is published, if you think of it, maybe add a link to it in a toolbox post, because I’m so excited to read it. Thank you for pulling together all the thoughts that bump around in my head that I hadn’t found the words to write as well as you did here. Looking forward to seeing you in the New Year!

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  3. Thank you for linking to my blog! This is such a thoughtful and relevant post; I can tell you’ve done work to get to this point. I’m glad you spoke not just about the harm a story’s narrative and characters can do, but also the harm that can result from the book being published by taking away opportunities from authors of color. Keep up the good work!

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  4. Such important points you’ve brought up, Jimmy. I think about how I could possibly represent other ethnicities or races or genders in story. It is extremely difficult to pull off well. I will save this post to look deeply into the sites you mention and the points you’ve made. All best to you!

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