Writing about Ethnic Characters

I’ve heard Edwina Perkins speak twice. After her first presentation, entitled The Danger and Power of Words, I felt like I’d been sucker punched. I was more prepared the second time. After all, I’d invited her to be the guest speaker at our American Christian Fiction Writers N. Georgia Chapter meeting. Her message is powerful and should be heard by all Caucasian writers and editors.

Edwina is the managing editor of Harambee Press, an imprint of Iron Stream Media out of South Carolina, that gives publishing opportunities to ethnic writers. “Harambee” is Swahili for “pulling together.” Not “coming together,” but “pulling together.” A big difference.

In both presentations, Edwina challenged her audiences with a question: “What is Juneteenth?” Out of the corner of my eye, I witnessed many participants thumbing their phone screens. Her answer: “If you don’t know, then you need to be especially careful when writing about ethnic characters.” She’s right. How can Caucasian writers fairly represent the ethnic population if they don’t know the answer to such a basic question?

She offered an example of a content edit she received from a Caucasian editor. He recommended that she delete a small section where characters were using hand fans featuring the logo from a funeral home. He’d never encountered a funeral fan and assumed readers wouldn’t understand their use. Edwina pushed back and won. Funeral fans were important to developing the culture in the scene.

The only really painful thing about racism in publishing is the books that are not around.

Tracy Sherrod, editorial director, Amistad

Edwina has three suggestions for writers who truly wish to capture the true culture of ethnic characters. Now that I think it through, these points can apply to all writers, especially those of us with light skin.

  1. Talk — Get to know those who don’t look like you. Talk with them about the hard subjects with an open mind. Learn about how you can pull together.
  2. Grace — Offer grace to those you don’t understand. You’ve never walked in their shoes, so you have no idea why they may act in a way you’d never dream of behaving.
  3. Action — In her second presentation, Edwina encouraged us to find ethnic writers and invite them to our meetings. She also challenged both audiences to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe and watch the movies, The Green Book and 12 Years a Slave. She especially recommended we view Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk on YouTube, The Danger of a Single Story, which I did and both giggled and gasped.

For those of us Caucasian writers with pre-published manuscripts, there is a solution to ensuring we’re representing our ethnic characters fairly. Edwina has gathered a stable of talented sensitivity readers willing to evaluate specific scenes. I, for one, will be sending my manuscripts through her brain trust. 

I also will do my best to follow her suggestions. How about it, my white friends? Are you willing to pull together with me?

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