Last night, I read this post by Justine Larbalestier and couldn't get to sleep for a couple of hours after. I wanted to post a comment, but couldn't get all the thoughts that were crowding into my head out in any sort of coherent way. So here they are now, for you. Don't you feel lucky? *grin*
Justine is a solid ally to people of colour. She puts her money where her mouth is, walks her talk, and does her best to help promote and further the efforts of authors and bloggers of colour. She also writers her characters of colour from what I like to refer to as the "inside out." Not everyone does. When characters of colour are written from the "outside in," it is obvious. They are there because of an external reason, they are not organic to the story and to themselves, and they sort of sit on the page, instead of living in the story with the other characters. This is true of any character that lacks depth and complexity.
My main concern with the above-linked post (and what I sensed from some of the comments) is that some folks may walk away from it with the idea that, "Hey, I did my best, and if they don't think I did a good enough job, well frack them."
I know this is not what Justine intended. I'm almost positive that she meant to say something more along the lines of, "Stop making it an issue. Writing people of colour is no different than writing anyone else. You'll get that wrong, as well, so just go ahead, do it, then face the music." In other words, own it. Wherever you're at, whatever ignorances and prejudices you may possess--they will come out in the writing. Stop being so afraid; face them. Then do the very necessary and painful work we are all meant to do on this planet: grow.
This is what I mean by writing from the inside out. From what I gather, Justine would approach writing her characters from their human-ness first. They are psychological, emotional beings *first*, and then the layers of their cultural, ethnic, and social/economic identities are added on--this is where the research comes in. When you're writing from the outside in, you start with the "other"-ness (thereby researching that first) and it is almost always harder to get it right that way.
I'm with Doret when she says in the comments that she is skeptical when white folks write PoC characters. The history there hasn't been so great. In an ideal world, PoC would get to tell our own stories--in the vast chorus of contradictory, complex, multi-faceted voices we encompass. We would be represented in all our compexity just as white folks are on television, in the movies, and in magazines. But we do not live in an ideal world. There is a glaring dearth of PoC getting publishing deals. Always has been, but certainly more so now that the economy is in the midst of a swan dive.
Even in my own personal experience--I have a book out, I've had positive (some might say rave) reviews for SHINE from established industry resources, and my book is selling. Yet, here I am, back at square one, having to prove that there is a market for my work; that there is a market for South Asian authors *beyond* writing about race and discrimination. Across the pond, there is more acceptance of stories by and about "Asian-Indians" that are funny, that are fantasy, sci-fi. Look at the success of films like Bend It Like Bekham, Bhaji on the Beach, and books like Narinder Dhami's delightfully funny MG series, Bindi Babes (made into a television series, if I'm not mistaken), and Jamila Gavin's fantasy novel, Coram Boy (made into a play) -- not to mention the numerous television shows featuring South Asians in a variety of roles.
So, to my white brothers and sisters: certainly, write your story. Populate it with a true reflection of the world you live in. Bring to life strong and powerful characters of all colours. Do so with the ferocity of an ally and the tenderness of family. But please don't be so cavalier as to shrug and say, "I did my best, and frock you if you don't like it--plenty of your people thought I did a great job." Take the criticism in as well. After the urge to defend yourself has passed, pick through the feedback and see if there's some learning there. Because the reality is that masses upon masses of "our people" have absorbed toxic levels of self-hatred from the images and messages (and *inaccurate representations*) that surround us. Many of us have learned to believe that we are less than, not worthy, undeserving--and are simply grateful to be allowed to exist among you without fear.
I would add to Justine's analysis and say that you must, absolutely, throw your heart and soul into getting it right. And if you're *worried* about getting it right, that's a good sign--it means you care. It means, to you, it is important to be respectful, to be accurate. And then stand fast in those gale force winds of criticism. Don't just take the pats on the back and the "thank you so much for acknowledging that I exist" feedback from PoC. Listen to the stuff that's hard to hear, too. Even if you have to leave and come back to it when it's not so hard.
Because it does matter. More than you might possibly ever know because, as PoC, as authors of colour, we are being stripped of our voices. I would love to be able to continue to tell my stories, and I will continue to try -- to keep doing my very best and putting my words out there, so that they may reach my readers. The readers who email me, desperate and grateful for a reflection of themselves not in the *characters* of a novel, but in the hand that writes them. In authors of colour, they see someone who was able to do what, for so many of us, is *still* the impossible.