Is My Character “Black Enough”? Advice on Writing Cross-Culturally

Stacy Whitman photoStacy Whitman is Editorial Director and Publisher of Tu Books, an imprint of LEE & LOW BOOKS that publishes diverse science fiction and fantasy for middle grade and young adult readers. This blog post was originally posted at her blog, Stacy Whitman’s Grimoire

I recently got this question from a writer, who agreed that answering it on the blog would be useful:

My hero is a fifteen-year-old African American boy [in a science fiction story]. A few of my alpha readers (not all) have said that he doesn’t sound “black enough.” I purposely made him an Air Force brat who has lived in several different countries to avoid having to use cliche hood-terminology. I want him to be universal.

Do you have thoughts on this either way?

Is there a possibility that my potential readers could really be offended that a) I am “a white girl writing a book about black people” and b) that my character doesn’t sound black enough? I’ve looked through your blog and website and haven’t found anything specific to my needs on this particular question. Perhaps I missed it?

…should I use Ebonics or not use Ebonics?

First of all, black people—just as white people or Latino people—are a very diverse group of people. There are people who speak in Ebonics (which I believe would be more accurately referred to as BVE–Black Vernacular English) and people who speak plain old suburban English, people who speak with any of a variety of Southern accents and people who have Chicago accents, people who speak with French or Spanish accents (or who speak French or Spanish or an African language). So the question of whether a particular character in a particular situation sounds “black enough” is a complicated question, one that even the African American community can’t necessarily agree on. Within the community (and I say this because I asked a coworker who is African American, who can speak with more authority on the subject than I can) it’s often a question that draws on complicated factors, such as money, privilege, “selling out,” skin tone (relative darkness or lightness—literally, being “black enough”), and hair texture, which all relate to how much a part of which community a person might be.

The question, then, is fraught with loaded meaning not only to do with stereotypes, but also socioeconomic meanings. The question can also tend to be offensive because of that diversity and the loaded meaning the question carries.

Which leads me to the question of your alpha readers. What are their demographics? Is it a diverse group? What is their experience with the military? Is more than one of them African American? When writing cross-culturally, you’ll want to be sure that your beta readers include sufficient numbers of the member of the group you’re writing about. Every individual experience will be different—one person’s opinion on whether a character reads as African American will probaThe question is fraught with loaded meaning not only to do with stereotypes, but also socioeconomic meanings. The question can also be offensive because of that diversity and the loaded meaning the question carries.bly differ from another person’s, especially if their socioeconomic background and regional experiences are different. An African American from the St. Louis suburbs will have a different life experience than someone who grew up on a farm in Louisiana, whose experiences will probably be different from a kid who grew up in Harlem or someone else who grew up in Seattle.

If your local writing group isn’t very diverse, you might need to branch out for beta readers who you can rely on to comment on that particular element of your story—perhaps through an online writing group, perhaps through the SCBWI. You might even approach a local high school and ask if any of their students who come from a similar background to your character might be willing to give you feedback on your manuscript. Do you have connections with a local Air Force base? Perhaps you might network with people you know in the military to find someone who can give you feedback on that aspect of the character building.

To answer your other questions: it’s always possible that someone will be offended by a white person writing about a person of color, but generally, most readers I’ve talked to who care about diversity in fantasy and science fiction want that diversity to come from everyone, not just writers of color. This is why I emphasized alpha readers—it’s important to make sure that if you’re not from that background, you do your research (which it sounds like you have) and then run it past someone other than yourself who understands that culture or background (in this case, you’ve got two cultures going on: African American and military, particularly Air Force, which has a completely different culture than Army).

A few someones is even better, to ensure that you get different points of view and can mesh that feedback into something that works for your particular character, who will be an individual in his own right and not a representative of a group that plays into a stereotype.

Which leads into yourPeople often have different vocabularies when talking to different groups of people...Ask yourself, What's the context my character is in? next question: should you use Ebonics? And the answer to that is: I don’t know. Do African Americans in the military use Ebonics? Do only some of them, and does it depend on their family history/region of origin? Do their kids speak to each other in Ebonics? Or do they have their own way of speaking that’s particular to the Air Force community? (My uncle was in the Air Force and I have a couple cousins who might read this who may be able to answer that question; they’ve never spoken anything but “Midwestern” to me, but they might have spoken differently to their friends who were also Air Force brats.)

And that’s important too: people often have different vocabularies when talking to different groups of people. When my roommates from Georgia talked to their family, their accents became stronger. When I talk to my rural family, the word “crik” has been known to creep back into my lexicon. So ask yourself, “what’s the context my character is in?” as well.

And of course, that’s just me spouting off from the point of view of an editor. Here are some great answers we’ve gotten from readers:

Ari:

The question about Ebonics is just…. I don’t know. Being “black enough” does not mean you use Ebonics so that shoudln’t be the deciding factor. However, my guess is that as a “military brat” he wouldn’t use Ebonics. I know some African American people who were in the army and they don’t use it. But that’s the army, not the Air Force, so it could be different.

I would be offended if your black character never talked about certain issues we face like the subtle racisim, especially as a black guy. But since’s science fiction it may never come up, although if it starts out in the 21st century in America then the character should acknowledge the fact that he gets looks of suspicion in certain areas because he is an African American guy…

That is so true about how people speak differently wiith different groups of people. When my mother is back home down South, she regains her Southern accent. My father speaks Spanish with his relatives. I use a lot more slang/Ebonics with my African American friends and Latino friends. So that is a key factor. Something an African American person has to learn to do is be able to “speak two languages” in a way. Around white people and authority figures, most of us speak properly, no slang. But I know from what I’ve done myself and from what I’ve seen my parents and their friends do, when African Americans are just with each other, they loosen up and their is less of a concern for “speaking properly”

Cleve:

I’m an African American dad & writer, and my advice to the writer is to skip the ebonics. Not every African American speaks with ebonics, and I fear it may come off as condescending and offensive if you attempt to tell your story in such a way. “Not black enough,” is offensive as hell, wether voiced by black or white people. The character is African American, there’s nothing wrong with him sounding like an American. Period.

Doret:

I believe all writers can create believable characters of another race. But to do this writers must be familiar that race.

Should I use Ebonics or not use Ebonics? – that question makes me cringe. A White author asking this should really take a look at their character and ask themselves, what do I know that will give life to this character of another race.

If they still want to do it, research. Listen in on conversations. Read books by Black authors. Ask around find out which non Black authors have created believable Black characters and read those , also read the Black characters by non Black authors people found unrealistic.

AudryT:

IMO, your character needs to speak based on their influences, not on readers’ opinions of the world. Where do their parents come from? How do individuals from their parents’ backgrounds, childhood neighborhoods, and social class speak? How does that influence your character? Does your character have an opinion about how their parents speak and do they make conscious decisions about their own way of talking? How can you use the character’s voice and upbringing to flesh out the character better and further serve the plot of the novel?

Readers, feel free to chime in and help out writers who write cross-culturally: what other issues should they be aware of when writing African American characters?

Further reading: 10 Great Resources for Writing Cross-Culturally

15 Comments

  1. Posted March 26, 2014 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    I’d agree that the alpha readers suggestion of not being “black enough” is quite offensive. I had a CP once note this to me and he got an earful from myself and another CP because he was projecting his lack of knowledge on me to promote stereotypes of my own culture.

    And I disagree with comments that say the character HAS to talk about racism even subtle racism in this piece because this may not be reflective of the piece at all. Not everything with diverse characters has to be an “issue” book and I often note that in my own writing that when I write more to my background as an African-american people expect me to write about race and not all my work has anything to do with it. So write to the reality of this character who is an American and someone from a military family and may have a diverse set of influences in how he acts, behaves, speaks, and so on. And yes, definitely try to find a diverse set of beta readers/CPs who can note this as well.

  2. Posted March 26, 2014 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    I interpreted Ari’s comment to be speaking more to the more subtle experiences of a contemporary teen that might come out in a scene (in a full-length YA novel) rather than approaching racism as a theme of the novel. And I agree with her that if the context warrants it, such as contemporary 21st-century high school, the character might experience microaggressions. But I also agree that it depends on the story and that most readers would rather the story be *about* something more, particularly in SFF. But ignoring microaggressions in a particular context where they might be experienced is to be avoided.

  3. Posted March 26, 2014 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    Another decision to make: should the character code switch?

    I suppose some people speak the same way in all situations, but I speak differently when I’m at work verses when I’m at home or around friends.

    Also, code switching can be done by any character – regardless of their ethnic background.

  4. Posted March 27, 2014 at 12:18 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Young and Writerly and commented:
    Great post on writing diverse characters without resorting to stereotypes. Research, ask, and listen. Remember, no matter where people are from, they are human first. Focus on that, not your own agenda and prejudices, and you will be an authentic storyteller.

  5. Jujubee
    Posted March 27, 2014 at 3:58 am | Permalink

    This whole piece is cringeworthy. I’m an American of African descent. I want to write a story about a White woman. Should she speak like a valley girl because OMG don’t all white girls talk like that? You get the picture.
    My question to the questioner is this: what is your motivation behind writing about an African-American if you need to ask this question about “Ebonics”? Perhaps there is an underlying curiosity / fear of cultures exotic or unknown to you. In that case, unless your character is going to wear the full African-American experience, racism and all, let it go and write about something you know. To understand that experience, the first thing you may come to understand is that regardless of your geography, class, profession, patriotism, you will still be seen by many as less, unusual, frightening, novel, the exception that proves the rule. (author: what is “plain English”?!) This is never just left out because it’s not convenient that day to think about racism. No black American is immune. So check that sucka.

  6. jacquelinegrant282395071
    Posted March 27, 2014 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    My concern with this question is not because this is a caucasian woman writing about a black character but because the writer should really be intimately familiar with the character (especially if writing from a perspective outside their own background) to know how their character would speak. The question as to whether she should have the character speak “Ebonics” sounds as though the writer might need to spend more time familiarizing themselves with the culture out of which this character has been molded. I am West Indian American and, honestly, when I showed this question to my family and friends they looked at me as though I had two heads. There isn’t a black “type.”

  7. Posted March 27, 2014 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    Very good point, Jacqueline–you boil down a long post very well! It is about characterization–knowing your character as an individual.

  8. jay3fer
    Posted March 27, 2014 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    Wow… so much to think about here. I recently found your “diversity gap” infographic and contributed my own thoughts on healing the gap here.
    These posts have really gotten me trying to figure out how to keep my own writing (and my own kids’ reading) as diverse as possible.

  9. jess
    Posted March 28, 2014 at 12:12 am | Permalink

    Why do you feel the need to write your title character as a Black person if you are not Black? The fact that you even need to ask this question means you are not insightful enough, wise enough or culturally aware enough to handle such subject matter. You clearly do not know what you are doing or what you are talking about so stop. There are plenty of Black writers writing about Black stories from a Black perspective.

  10. jay3fer
    Posted March 28, 2014 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    She doesn’t say whether the original author who asked her the question was black or not. So saying “You clearly do not know what you are doing or what you are talking about so stop.” sounds really super-harsh.

  11. no
    Posted March 30, 2014 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

    The person asking the question stated they were White and female.

    This is why White people in Hollywood or elsewhere should not be socially obligated to be in charge of Black representation. Don’t demand Black models from White fashion houses….support Black designers in the first place. Don’t demand Black characters in your White sitcoms…support Black directors and writers in the first place. If we want to be represented we should continue to take charge and do it ourselves.

  12. Posted April 12, 2014 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    My first novel had two male protagonists. People have asked me what kind of research I did to write from the perspective of a gay man. I really didn’t do any. I had a story to tell, I felt as though I knew the two main characters intimately. I felt that if I were to study what “gay men” as a group are supposed to think they would risk becoming a stereotype or cliche. Whenever you are thinking of people as a social category rather than as individuals with their own quirks who are affected by the social roles they are cast in, then I think you start to miss out on making the character genuine. When I was younger I used to screw up relationships by trying to figure out what “men” think and then projecting that onto the guy I was with. Now I just try to get along with my particular partner and to know who he is. It’s the same kind of thing.

    Just another point is that no two people will ever read your work and have the same opinion of it. This is true whether it is a beta reader, a friend, an editor or a reviewer. What one person likes, another person will hate. So you need to listen to feedback and decide yourself what your next step should be. Your reader said the character wasn’t “black enough.” The problem may not be with the language at all. It is possible that there is something else missing in the characterization that is not getting the point across that you were trying to.

  13. Posted April 23, 2014 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    I would have to agree with Post#5-March 27th. The energetic resonance of the question is “cringe-worthy”. First and foremost is intention. Is the character coming through you as African-American or are you forcing your agenda onto the character because someone told you you’d be published if you wrote a Sci-Fi or Fantasy novel with an African-American as the hero? Be honest with yourself and your story will read honest. The character should tell YOU who they are and not the other way around.

    If you’re a writer seeking to write cross-culturally, you should ask yourself if you have any subtle racist blind spots. Often we have hidden baggage that needs to be addressed and don’t even know it. You need to get clear. The vibration comes before the word and I believe that readers will feel it if there is “icky” or forced energy involved no matter how hard you try to hide it.

    Also, I would say, forgo the ridiculous use of “Ebonics” at all cost-please! That word should be tossed into the sea of nothingness and forgotten forever. Stacy absolutely nailed her reply and hit all relevant points. It’s nice to know that we have Editors who are of sound mind when it comes to understanding the broad scope of ethnic communities. By the way, will TU Books be opening up submissions anytime soon?
    http://www.storytimephoenix.com

  14. Posted April 23, 2014 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

    I get the same thing with my Latino protagonists that use Spanglish. I’ve been told that there isn’t enough ‘Spanish’ or that I need to basically have the translation right there. I’m a former bilingual teacher and taught in two different inner city school districts. My grandfather also was half Mexican. I grew up with Spanglish, my parents/students used it, and I still use it. It’s just a big bugaboo for me when I have those tell me that my characters don’t reflect what they feel is a ‘true’ Latino per what they know which most times can be the stereotypical gang banger. **I shudder on that one as there is many different flavors of the Latino community that I wish would be shown more. Positive examples that aren’t the stereotype.

  15. Posted April 24, 2014 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately…. Both the lack of people of color as main characters and as authors. I’ve worked in the schools with predominantly low income African American students and families for the past 6 years and have loved every second of it. I fight for them in an educational system designed for white middle class kids that so often fails them. I am well-versed in Ebonics or Black English Vernacular, well-trained in cultural competence. And there is a lot more that goes into people that one dialect a portion of them may speak–to generalize that to all black people is like saying all white people talk like East Coast WASPS. There’s a lot more beyond that you need to research and understand. I think too being mindful of all the stereotypes and actively working against putting any of them in your story, too; more than not putting them in, making your character actively defy them. I am well aware of my own white privilege and the benefits in accords me every day (when I was living in the US anyway; things are a bit different in Singapore). Even with all that, I don’t know that I would be brave enough to write a book with an African American main character. No matter how culturally competent I am, I am an outsider crossing a line that I may not have the right to. I am the majority with the audacity to think I can write the perspective of those my ancestors have oppressed, the effects of which we are still not free of as a nation. I’ve decided recently if I win the lottery or sell my book by some miracle, I want to start a mentoring program to help encourage and develop writing skills of aspiring authors of color so they can have their own stories published. their own stories. Perhaps I’m too sensitive about this though, who knows? It’s just my opinion.


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  1. […] See on blog.leeandlow.com […]

  2. […] Is My Character “Black Enough”? Advice on Writing Cross-Culturally – I waffled on linking this because it appears to be written by a white woman, but the advice seemed solid and she does include other people’s answers at the end. YMMV […]

  3. […] other thing I saw was this great article examining whether a character would be “black enough” if he didn’t use Black […]

  4. […] Is my character “black enough”? […]

  5. […] Stacy Whitman talks about AAVE (African American Vernacular English)/BVE (Black Vernacular English) […]

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