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I am planning to write a book about a life of a person. However, the protagonist is a black person. The main plot is not about ethnicity things, but where the plot happens I have to talk about some situations. The book is about romance, but the protagonist is poor and goes to a university to study medicine (in my country we have great public universities).

I'm white, and my life is very different of the protagonist; I don't personally know what it's like to suffer hate due to ethnicity. In my mind, if I write a book about this character, I will be committing cultural appropriation, and people won't take my book seriously.

How can I manage this? Do I write the romance ignoring ethnicity problems and suppose this doesn't happen in the story's world, or do I talk about this theme (even a little with a lot of research) and be judged by others people saying I'm not capable write about this theme?

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    Where is your character from? That will have a greater impact on how you might show him/her responding to racism. If they are from a more affluent area than the norm, even the poorer among them would have had better experiences. – Rasdashan Mar 15 at 18:35
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    @VinciusMorais Just want to point out that writing about the experience of POC isn't cultural appropriation. Cultural Appropriation (or to be technical, "Cultural Misappropriation") has more to do with harvesting particular culturally significant practices from a culture in ways that they deem harmful or disrespectful to members of that culture. An example might be wearing a Native headdress. If that headdress has a specific sacred meaning, to wear it out of context dishonors the ethos of the garment and creates misunderstandings of the "host" culture. – user49466 Mar 16 at 11:26
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    That being said...just don't write about our experiences poorly. 😁 – user49466 Mar 16 at 11:27
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Find someone (very patient) to talk to who comes from the region or circumstances you want to write about. Ask questions like:

  • Here is a situation, is it realistic for this character to be in?
  • What would he think about it?
  • How would he react it it?

Do this a lot. You will learn a lot doing that.

If you ever see this person wince or have a similar reaction, realize that you got something very wrong and work with them to go back to the point where it went wrong and fix that. It is always better to dig out a major flaw than to keep working harder and harder to make an ever growing number of cosmetic fixes to keep things believable.

This might be enough help to justify a co-authorship with that person or, at the very least, a strong acknowledgement.

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Empathy.

Writing the "Other" is fundamentally about empathy and doing your best to inhabit their context.

  1. The first thing I'd do is identify what story you want to tell. And I don't mean what story as-it-relates to race. Simply your overall themes and purpose for the project.

  2. Once you've done this, determine whether your theme is better suited to our world or another world. If it is our world, based on your premise, you have to deal with race

  3. If it is an alternative world, consider whether your theme is served by imagining racism-to-not-exist or whether your theme is better served by saying something else about racism. The relation of racism to Theme/Purpose can be as simple as wanting to tell an inclusive story that POC can relate to.

Prejudice is such an expected part of human cultures and conflict, that it's fairly unrealistic not to have it, even in speculative works. Such a society would require pretty extensive changes and/or very special contexts to have minimized or abolished all forms of ethnic prejudice and the power imbalances that metastasize prejudice into Racism. A society without racism is even harder to engineer than a society without war.

If racism is something you are including, (And I generally advocate that people not ignore racism in fiction) the first thing to understand is that racism is omnipresent for black people in America. (I'm assuming your story is set in America or an American analog. If not, the rest of this feedback may need to be amended or discarded to fit your setting.)

And when I say omnipresent, I mean it. Nearly every single interaction we have, even with other people of color, is influenced by race.

Whether you cross the street. The feeling when you log onto Stack or social media. Going to see a doctor. Driving to work. Buying or using a ticket on public transportation. Everything. 24/7. Until you die.

This is not to say that it is conscious. But it is always, always, always there. And it will absolutely be there if your romance is interracial. Black people need to be incredibly selective about who we choose as interracial partners. If we're getting personal, one of my absolute worst memories was turning to a partner in a long term relationship, feeling kind of low and angry and powerless after a race-inflected experience. The intimacy and connectedness of years can be blown up in a single moment of realizing exactly how different you are from an intimate partner. Race creates entirely different perceptions of the world and approaches to it. To seek a deep connection with someone who knows you, only to have it replaced with a gulf of racial misunderstanding is a pretty horrible experience.

It was an abject lesson that even decent, well-intentioned people can "not get it". It also etches in you the consequences of people "not getting it". Which can range from unpleasant to life-changing or dangerous. The people that "get it" are so few that you basically have to check folks on racial issues if you plan on having any kind of genuine interactions. It's pure self-preservation.

Because white supremacy is an omnipresent factor it creates a kind of "battle" mentality. Imagine its like an additional diagnostic that's always running in the background, alerting you to times and moments when we need to expect different treatment. For example, on the way to work yesterday morning, a cop-car was driving, slowly, next to me as I walked.

Were they checking me out? Don't know. I didn't make eye contact. But I noticed.

Should I take out my headphones? Who is around me and what are their demographics? If I'm stopped, how much irritation can I afford to express? If I make this turn, as usual, will that make me seem suspicious? Is the cop black? How much does that matter? How quickly should I produce ID? What happens if they somehow realize I have a pocketknife? Are the gloves in my pockets printing like a weapon?

Imagine that going through your head, in only a five second span. Now imagine that for more than five seconds. A minute. An hour. Two hours. Until lunch. During lunch. All day.

All year.

Forever.

Welcome to being black.

Other things to bear in mind? Well, black folks' honesty on race is kind of an inverse bell-curve. On one end is low-intimacy/high-honesty, and on the other side is high-intimacy/high-honesty. With a huge dip in the middle. All those "black friends" who people think "are okay with XYZ"? They're bull@#%&*&% you. If you're using us in some example in some conversation, there's a 90% chance we don't actually like whatever behavior you're discussing and are too polite to ask you to stop.

I could go on forever, but the bottom-line is:

Race and racial considerations have an omnipresent impact on our lives. It doesn't mean we change our outward behaviors in any way, but remember that idea of a "running diagnostic". That's the best way I can explain it. If you feel unfit to the task of this character, I'd suggest soldiering on. Precisely because the mere act of asking this question makes you better equipped to write that character than like 90% of the non-black population

You passed my first 'check' LOL.

Best of luck.

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Write. What. You. Know.

This has been said so many times that nobody hears it anymore, but it that is because it is true. You cannot make a story engaging that you don't know in a deep and real way. Before you close up your project, let me explain that there are many ways to come to know something. You can learn it (not like a book report, more like converting to a new religion: you have to live what you are trying to know).

If you decide to not pursue this, please don't do it for the wrong reason. The right reason is: "I cannot internalize this story and character to the point where they flow out of me naturally when I'm writing". The wrong reason is: "I may be guilty of thoughtcrime for writing this." (That's a 1984 reference). If you are going to be straight-jacketed in your artistic expression by your religion, whatever it happens to be, your expression will suffer a lot. It doesn't matter if you are a Christian contemporary novelist who refuses to use normal, natural language dialog or a communist who can't write anything that might be spun as positive about specified "enemies of the state", the arts always suffer under the boot of dogma, so just throw that "cultural appropriation" bogeyman out right now if you ever want to write something worth reading.

On the other hand, maybe it is not the right project because you have no good avenue to truly know your subject. That's fair. Your story has to be real and true to you in a way that is personal, or it won't be personal to your readers. If you can't bridge that gap, don't write it. I do believe that it is entirely possible to deeply and truly understand cultures and backgrounds other than your own, it just takes work and (preferably) immersion.

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    +1 for your middle paragraph and the thoughtcrime reference. I'd +2 it if I could. Regarding "write what you know", I'd add "study, learn, research what you don't know. Then, once you know it, you can write about it". Not knowing something is not a permanent situation. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Mar 16 at 19:10
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Let's explore the proposition you're making here. You're saying "a white person cannot know what it's like to be black. Ergo, a white person should not write about black characters." So, white writers should exclude black people from their stories? That's rather racist, isn't it? The opposite of your intent.

The way forwards is research and empathy.

There are many things your characters experience that you never have. Shakespeare has never been a Danish prince, nor had his father poisoned by his uncle. Tolkien had never carried a Ring of Power. Clarke never saw the inside of a spaceship, let alone travelled into space. It is the writer's task to try and imagine what it would be like, put themselves as much as they can in the character's shoes. That's the empathy part.

But to put yourself in the character's shoes, you've got to know what shoes those are. That's where research comes in. If you were writing about the experience of a priest in ancient Egypt, you'd do the research: what their day-to-day was like, social status, social mobility etc. Why would you do less for a character who lives in our time, with plenty of information readily available, and when you can actually ask people about their experience?

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The best way to do it (in my opinion) is to imagine your character's situation from your eyes. How would you react if you were in that situation (skin colour aside)? What would you do? What wouldn't you do?

  • Welcome to Writing.SE! Please take a look at our tour page if you haven't already. With regards to your answer, I suppose if by "situation" you mean the complete situation (a.k.a the background of being discriminated against in a multitude of different ways - see user49466's answer for example), then yes, trying to imagine it is the right thing to do. The narrow situation, for example walking into a shop, there's no "skin colour aside". Unfortunately, "shopping while black" is a thing. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shopping_while_black Those nuances are part of what OP tries to figure out. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Mar 17 at 1:47
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I'm not theoretically opposed to a white author writing a black protagonist, but I've rarely seen it done well, and often seen it done badly, even by people of good will and intentions. It might be worth taking the time to ask yourself why you're choosing a protagonist so far outside your own experience. Unfortunately, most of the black characters I've encountered in white authors' books are what you might call "black-for-white" characters. They represent something symbolically (perhaps authenticity, street credibility or style, on the good side; primitivity, pathos or social dysfunction on the bad side), but they are imagined from the outside, and have little to do with actual black people as we exist outside the white imagination.

If you were to convince me that you were going to do a credible job with this, I'd want to know what qualifies you to write this book, not out of some imagined standards of political correctness, but strictly from a practical point of view. Do you have close black friends you've had long conversations with? Have you interviewed a large number of black people (or even one)? Have you read a lot of books by black authors? In short, is there anything at all you're basing this on other than your own stereotypes and preconceptions?

If your answer to all those questions is "no," then don't do it. You're going to write a bad, culturally appropriating book (although that, of course, doesn't mean it might not also be critically acclaimed and popular, although almost certainly not among black critics and readers). And the reason is because you'll be really writing about yourself (because that's what you have experience of) but presenting it as something other than what it really is.

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