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Should White Authors Be Allowed to Write POC Stories and Characters?

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

I know what you’re thinking… It’s a really controversial question with no simple yes or no question.

Recently, this debate has been appearing a lot in my TikTok feed. I keep finding videos of TikTok accounts calling out popular white authors for their lack of representation of POC and LGBTQ+ characters in their novels. A really common book franchise I have noticed being called out on for the lack of representation is the popular YA series: “A Court of Thorns and Roses” by Sarah J Maas.

You may have heard it before or seen it while passing by the YA bookshelf section in a Barnes & Noble but basically, if you are not aware of this trend or seen the videos, TikTokers have been calling out the author for barely having any POC in their main cast of characters and for killing off their only characters who represented them. Although I have not read the book to confirm it myself, I can say I am familiar with this phenomenon itself.

It is not the first time a book has had barely any representation of POC characters. Honestly, even TV shows and movies do the same thing. POC characters are always either the best friend, side kick, second love interest, villain or just the background character. It happens all the time but that’s the problem: it can’t always be like this. We need more representation and diverse books. But who decides that? And how to do we get that?

Before we come up with our own answers to the main question: “Should white authors be allowed to write POC stories and characters?” – we need to understand the publishing book industry first.

white authors have the lead in the book industry

It is nearly impossible to count every single book written in history. Even if we tried to keep track of every book of all genres written in a year, the sample would be too big and astounding for any concrete results. It would also take a while. So I decided to look around and I found a small dataset by Richard Jean So and Gus Wezerek, writers of a New York Times article called “Just How White Is the Book Industry?”

These two men acquired a long list of English fiction books written between the years 1950 and 2018 then narrowed it down to well-known books published by well-known companies which led to 8,004 books, written by 4,010 authors. To decipher how each author identified in terms of race and ethnicity, they had three research assistants interview every author, even looking through articles, social media accounts, and more. If there wasn’t enough material to be sure, they took the author and their book off the list.

Out of the 7,124 books that had authors who were able to be identified, they discovered that 95% of them were written by white authors. According to the article, 89% of fiction books written in their sample during the year 2018, were written by white authors. In contrast, 11% of fiction books were written by an author of a different race… That’s a big difference.

Although there has been an increase over the years, especially after the BLM protests last year over the summer- it isn’t nearly enough. Not only that, but the article even mentions how the heads of the big four major publishing industries are all white. Each of them have made promises to push their companies into becoming more diverse but the article points out that while it may seem like there are lots of books being published by POC, it is not at all what it seems. Out of 220 books that were listed in New York Time’s best selling fiction books, only 22 were written by POC, despite the fact that “more than half of the 10 most recent books that were awarded the National Book Award for fiction were written by people of color.”

And that’s not even the full picture- white authors still get paid a lot more than non-white authors as seen by the #PublishingPaidMe trend on twitter. It is discouraging for POC authors who are working hard on their craft and struggle to make a living while getting their work out there. Wage gaps are not an uncommon disadvantage many minorities often deal with in America especially in the work field but that is not the only problem POC authors face in the publishing industry.

But why is it like this?

Hidden racial biases, microaggressions, and racism play a large role in why POC authors do not get published as much as white authors do. In many cases, publishing companies only spend money on books they think will sell on the market. If the majority of books are written by white people then it goes without saying that more books written by white authors are being read. If there is a book with a black character on the cover, it doesn’t sell as good as a book with a white character on the cover. So by using that excuse, book publishing companies will deny books written by black authors because it is “not in the market.”

According to New York Times, L.L. McKinney, an author of young-adult novels who started the #PublishingPaidMe hashtag has witnessed these microaggressions and hidden racial biases in person. In the article, she describes a moment where she “heard things like, ‘We already have our black girl book for the year.’

Likewise, Alvina Ling, VP of Little Brown Books For Young Readers, recalls in an article, his own experience hearing similar things. While trying to buy The Hate U Give at another publisher during an auction he was participating in, he heard high-up sales person tell him that “black people don’t read’ and “white teens won’t want to read about a black teen.”

When books are published by black authors with diverse characters, most often black characters, they are usually books about the struggles of being black or a minority. This is not inherently a bad thing. Books like that can widen our perspective on communities and their issues while tackling misconceptions, stereotypes, and educating others. But… after too many books like that, it starts to gather a negative reaction instead. It starts to drain the readers.

We want to see books about black princesses, regular hispanic teenagers, muslims CEOs, etc. Not every story has to be about the trauma a certain minority community undergoes. Our lives are not only ridden in tragedy- we are people too. We have personalities, hopes, and dreams.

Sadly, books like that normally don’t sell and what happens most of the time is that book publishing companies will push their Black and POC authors to write books centered around tragedy and struggle. Especially with the pressure of inclusivity that has sparked from our nation’s current racial tension, a lot of publishing companies have been adding these type of books and enlisting POC authors for these exact reasons. However, it is not enough. There is more to diversity and representation than simply talking about our trauma- that isn’t true representation. It’s damaging and harmful. We need more than a simple performative measure to make the publishing book industry “more diverse.”

And so… we ask the question:

Should White authors be allowed to write books about POC stories and characters?

Well, some people might argue that because White authors make up the majority of books being published then if we want representation, it might as well be done by them. Others argue that by allowing white authors to be the main driver of the diversity train that they will only feed to the negative stereotypes and hidden biases they may have while writing their POC characters. In doing so, they will not only portray bad representation but also spread false and harmful stereotypes about groups of people.

There are sides to this debate that say if a White author wants to write a book about POC stories or characters then they need to do their research or at the very least have a POC ghost writer who can assist them. There are also people who argue that white authors should not do either. But if that is the case- if white authors do not write any POC characters into their books then that will only mean even less representation, as they have the reign of the publishing industry. We already barely have any representation so by denying White authors that, we are faced with a harsh decrease all together.

Many people argue that white authors don’t understand the perspective or experiences of a POC character so it is offensive and inaccurate. But couldn’t the same be said of any author writing any race? Should a Hispanic author only write Hispanic characters because they do not understand the experience of anything else?

So why don’t black authors simply write books with diverse representation? Well, we already listed several disadvantages that prove why that is easier said than done. It is proven that black authors usually do incorporate more diversity into their books but it can be all for naught in the grand scheme of things when a book by a white author with a majority white cast is put under the spotlight the entire time or if they simply don’t land a deal with a company for trying to be more inclusive when it’s not wanted by the company or the “market.”

As you can see, this isn’t an easy question. It is hard to easily come up with a straight “no, that is wrong” or “yes, that’s okay.”

Student opinions

To show just how complicated this debate is and how diverse our opinions can be, I created a google form and sent it out to different groups of people to answer. Here are some anonymous student opinions below:

The first question was: What is your opinion of White authors writing stories about POC struggles, their history, or life?

“White authors really don’t get it or nearly understand what the POC struggles are so, I don’t feel that the struggles get represented correctly.”

“I believe it is appropriate in certain situations, if POC were consulted and involved in the process. However, I think it’s insensitive if POC are not considered or involved, as a white person telling the struggles of POC without any real basis.”

“I personally don’t think it’s ok for most white authors to write stories about POC life and everything that comes with it because writings like this require a touch of realism that can only be achieved through personal experience. Unfortunately, some of these writings ring with the sounds of stereotypes that often shine too much of a light on struggles rather than perseverance, personal growth, or success.”

“Honestly, it doesn’t bother me as long as they have their facts straight. Honestly, it shows me they understand and took time to understand the struggles POC went through.”

“It shouldn’t be done without the help of a POC writer.”

The second question was: What is your opinion of white authors SIMPLY writing POC characters into their books?

“I think it’s wrong.”

“Weird.”

“That’s totally fine, we exist as normal people and can have normal lives. It’s only different when it’s specifically about our struggles.”

“White authors, in my opinion, can write POC characters in their books as long as they aren’t subject to the all too common stereotypes that are placed on characters of color. These stereotypes like the “black best friend,” “nerd Asian,” or “Hispanic characters that speaks in broken Spanglish” are harmful in the fact that kids emulate what they receive. If they only see themselves as a certain type of person throughout media, subconsciously, they tie themselves to this falsehood.”

“I think that as side characters or from a limited point-of-view, White authors can write POC characters while highlighting the importance of the character to the story rather than discussing struggles at-length.”

“I think it’s wonderful, and it encourages more representation in books. However, as I said before, it’s important that actual POC are involved and consulted depending on how they are being represented in the writing. It’s extremely important to avoid stereotypes or demonizing POC in books, especially when written by white authors.”

And lastly, the third question was: “White authors should research and educate themselves before writing a POC character” – What is your opinion on that?

“Assuming they intend to include cultural pieces of the character, for sure. If not and it’s just a character who happens to be of a different race and the story doesn’t involve those kinds of issues? No problem really.”

“I completely agree because if they didn’t do research they’d be relying on stereotypes to write their characters.”

“I completely agree. It seems self-entitled to believe they can write a POC without any real knowledge or background. It’s showing respect and sensitivity to research before writing about a community they’re not apart of.”

“This statement is absolutely true. Without adequate education, they resort to personal experience, which may not be the most positive or truthful. It’s always better to seek research and education when writing with representation.”

My opinion

Personally, I feel like it is okay to write POC characters, regardless of the author’s race. I do think it is a problem when an author is subjecting their POC characters to racial stereotypes or using them as background characters. If you go outside and take a walk and simply look around, you will see so many different people of different races, ethnicities, sexualities, etc. The world isn’t white… it’s vast and colorful. While a white author may be accustomed to what they grew up with and too afraid to write POC characters out of fear of backlash, they are doing nothing except writing the world as they see it. Diverse. Colorful. Different.

I would prefer if POC stories were left to POC authors but I do believe that stories are not prohibited. I think if a White author wants to write a book about any struggle pertaining an outside minority group then they should do their research. I think it would be useful to have a ghost writer of that community or even interview people, read other books about that issue, etc. But simple writing a POC or minority character does not require research.

I strongly disagree with the phrase “White authors should research and educate themselves before writing a POC character” because it implies that we are different. It is dehumanizing. POC characters are just normal human beings like me and you. We don’t need to be researched- we just need to be written as regular people. It is not that hard to simply look around and write about a friend you have that is a different race or sexuality. We are not a mystery or a puzzle that needs solving.

However, I do believe that if you are writing a character who is a specific religion like Muslim or a certain sexuality, there is a certain level of knowledge that an author of any race should obtain before writing the character. You cannot write a Muslim character and have them take off their hijab- you have to know that it its offensive to their religion. Likewise, if you want to be an ally to the LGBTQ+ community then you can’t write a pansexual character and not understand pansexuality. If you specifically want a certain trait then do the research.

Above all else, I think as readers, we should be supporting authors of any minority group more. If we want more representation from a raw source then we need to start supporting and building a strong market demand for it. Don’t judge a book by it’s cover – a common phrase but a useful one. If you see a book written by an author of a minority group, give it a chance. It might end up as one of your favorite books, who knows.

And finally, I believe we shouldn’t bash non-POC authors for writing POC characters and trying to add diversity unless it is harmful. It is not their job to write POC characters nor are they obligated to, we still need to understand that it is THEIR book. However, we can still voice our demands and our wants, encouraging White authors to be more inclusive in their cast. There is no fault in criticizing an author for their lack of representation and voicing our opinions on how they should add more while also understanding that it is their book and ultimately their decision. There are many allies out there who get it right and we can do much more good in putting our energy there to support them and our other POC authors, providing more opportunity for others to follow suit. But never forget to always hold an author accountable for bad representation.

So… with all that being said, I think it’s time to ask you: What is your opinion? Should White authors be allowed to write POC stories and characters?

Julisse (pronounced JEW-lease) is an English major with an Educational Studies minor, inspiring to be an English high school teacher. She has plans to one day publish her own books and go back to school to hopefully get her doctorate. She likes to watch anime, read, paint, and write during her free time. She loves to read articles about activism and self-care tips.
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