I had a recent Twitter debate that started with the idea of authors using racial slurs in their books and how POC (People of Color) don’t want to see any of this, even if the writer is well-intentioned. At first, I didn’t understand, and I thought it was an attempt to censor other writers. But as I continued on in the debate, I came to understand that it’s not about censorship. It’s about respect. It’s about listening. It’s about understanding that POC have experienced life in a very different way.
This conversation was the first time it dawned on me just how different life can be based simply on the color of your skin and where you live. I’ve always felt a little angry at the idea of White Privilege. I’ve never been all that well-off. I’ve felt I’ve earned everything I’ve fought for in life. But that’s because there are many forms of privilege (and lack thereof), and it’s not always easy to see the way you benefit from privilege if you’re struggling through life in general.
Privilege is about the idea of “all else equal.” All else equal, a black person will face many more disadvantages in life than a white person simply because of the color of their skin. It’s an entirely different experience. Sure, there are racial slurs against whites, but whites have always been in power in this country. It’s easy to laugh that off. When there’s such a long history of outright hatred and systematic discrimination tied to racial slurs that describe POC, it’s an entirely different experience.
I can try to understand this intellectually, using the sense of empathy I’ve developed as a reader and writer. But I can never truly understand how it feels emotionally to see these words in print: words that have always been used to dehumanize people who look like you. The closest I could come is society’s attitude toward mental health (since I have bipolar disorder). But even that is not nearly as pervasive. It’s simply the closest I can come to understanding emotionally what POC go through, and that shows just how big a gulf there is between my understanding and the lives POC live every single day.
Now you might be asking: But what if it’s true to your characters to use racial slurs?
This is where I ran into trouble in this debate, where I got a little angry and therefore failed to listen as well as I should have. I thought it was stupid to say you couldn’t ever use racial slurs. Now I’ve never had any intention of using them in my own writing. I don’t believe racial slurs have any place in civilized society. Plus, I tend to write in secondary fantasy worlds, which do not have the same racial histories as our own. But I did argue that writers should be free to use whatever words they’d like. In one sense, I still believe this is true. Writers are free to use racial slurs, but readers are also free to denounce them for doing so. Publishers are free to refuse to publish them. That’s the nature of free speech. You’re free to say whatever you want, within reason, but you also have to suffer the consequences for your words.
Now you might be asking: Then how do I portray a racist character?
That’s where it comes back to the old advice: Show/Don’t Tell. Or, more accurately, you could say the difference between lazy characterization and stronger characterization. It’s easy to have a character throw around racial slurs. It’s like a giant signpost saying, “Look! This character is racist!”
Instead of using a slur, you could show how that person treats POC. In the end, this would be richer characterization. It’s harder, yes, but it makes a better story, and it shows more sensitivity to marginalized groups. In my Twitter debate, it became very clear to me that many POC don’t want to see these words. At all.
As writers, we want to bring out emotion in the reader, but it has to be the right kind of emotion. Reminding them of injustice and privilege is not the way to do this. Especially in the fantasy genre, many people read to escape the harsh realities of our world. Or they’d like to see a story in which people who look like them are the heroes. I’ll admit that I haven’t been great on this front. I have a few darker-skinned characters in Empire of Chains. The God War is much better in this regard, as most of the important characters are POC in a secondary world. But I could still stand to do better in this regard.
You might also ask: Does this mean I can’t write stories about racism at all?
The short answer is that I wouldn’t recommend it. As I said above, it’s difficult to understand exactly what POC have been through. As a white writer, am I really in the best position to write a story about a black person’s experiences of racism? Even if I do extensive research, even if I consult with all kinds of black beta readers to make sure I get it right, it’s still not the best way to go about tackling the issue of racism.
Instead, what we can do is support POC writers who are writing these experiences. We need to read their books to come closer to understanding the struggles they’ve been through. And even if it’s in a secondary fantasy world, we can still read their fresh perspectives on things.
N.K. Jemisin is a great example of this. I’ve only read three of her novels, but I have really enjoyed the different perspective she’s brought to the genre. The Fifth Season was especially good. Jemisin’s stories don’t explore racism in our real world, but they do depict fantasy worlds in which POC serve very important roles.
There is a lot to be gained from reading more diverse perspectives. It opens our minds to experiences other than our own. Most importantly, if we support POC writers, we will get more of these important stories. And it’s not like supporting POC writers is going to take anything away from other writers. Reading is not a zero sum game. You can still be successful as a white writer even if more POC writers are in the genre.
In conclusion, it goes back to the idea of “Write what you know.” When it comes to fantasy, this advice becomes more nebulous. How can I know what it’s like to ride on a dragon? But that’s not really what this advice means. It’s more the idea of “Don’t write things you’d get wrong, things that would actually hurt people when you get them wrong.” It doesn’t matter if it’s intentional or not. Sure, it changes your value as a person, but it doesn’t change the hurt that people experience.
Again, it’s about respect, and it’s about listening. I may not always listen as well as I should, but I’m trying to grow as a person and a writer.