Writing While White

I am a white author. When I write about social justice online, I use phrases like “fellow white people” or “we white women.” I do this intentionally. And yes, like @helloalegria says in the tweet above, it was weird and uncomfortable at first. But you know what? The more I used language that was precise, the easier it got. Plus I began to have much more productive conversations online about dismantling racism and white supremacy.

What does this have to do with middle grade books?

As a white author who has grown up with white privilege and who has benefited from the racism inherent in most (all?) American institutions, I am accustomed to being the “norm” or the “default.” If I read a book, where a character is described as having brown, curly hair (like for example Hermione Granger), I will mostly likely assume that the character is also white.

Because I am “used to being the default definition of ‘people’” as @helloalegria says, I also need to be aware of how I might perpetuate the white default definition of ‘people’ in my books.

This happens if I make a point of describing the skin tone or ethnicity of characters of color but don’t describe the skin tone or family background of light-skinned characters. Doing this makes anyone who is not white into “the other.” And that, fellow white authors, no matter your intentions, is white supremacy at work.

Martha Brockenbrough is a white author who was very intentional in her approach to writing about race in the novel The Game of Love and Death. I asked her to share with us what she was thinking during the process. Here’s what she said:

In college I learned about “marked” language. This was language that assumed male as the standard, and it’s why we say things like “female lawyer” and “male nurse.” (Nurses are stereotypically female, so “male nurse” even works as a punchline.)

With The Game of Love and Death, I didn’t want to center whiteness, and particularly not in the chapters told from the viewpoint of Flora, who is a Black pilot. Where race is observed, blackness is the default. So race is only seen when it is not Black. 

This is part of the empathy we need to cultivate when we are writers. To authentically inhabit characters and understand how their lives feel given our power structures, which favor white people, men, and white men in particular. 

Language is powerful. We build the world with it in so many ways, and as writers, we have the opportunity to build worlds that change the way readers think. And this is what art is supposed to do. It’s supposed to make us feel, and as we process those feelings, we develop a point of view on what it means to be alive.

I love what Martha is saying here. We owe it to our readers—all of our readers—to consider the world from their point-of-view, and to do that, we white writers must be willing to consider that our own point-of-view should not be the “norm” or “default” way to the see the world.

*The title of this post — “Writing While White” — is a shout-out to a blog that I highly recommend called “Reading While White.” Definitely check it out!

** After writing this post, I found another excellent post of the same title by Marianne Modica. Click here to read it.

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Amber J. Keyser
Evolutionary biologist-turned-author Amber J. Keyser has a MS in zoology and a PhD in genetics. She writes both fiction and non-fiction for tweens and teens. Her young adult novels include POINTE, CLAW (Carolrhoda Lab, 2017), an explosive story about two girls claiming the territory of their own bodies, and THE WAY BACK FROM BROKEN (Carolrhoda Lab, 2015), a heart-wrenching novel of loss and survival (and a finalist for the Oregon Book Award). She is the co-author with Kiersi Burkhart of the middle grade series QUARTZ CREEK RANCH (Darby Creek, 2017). Her nonfiction titles include THE V-WORD (Beyond Words/SimonTeen, 2016), an anthology of personal essays by women about first-time sexual experiences (Rainbow List, Amelia Bloomer list, New York Public Library Best Book for Teens and Chicago Public Library Best Nonfiction for Teens) and SNEAKER CENTURY: A HISTORY OF ATHLETIC SHOES (Twenty-First Century Books, 2015), among numerous other titles. More information at www.amberjkeyser.com.

2 responses to “Writing While White

  1. Thanks, Amber. Reading while white, helps me to write while white, which helps me to live while white, which helps me–I hope–to work to change the insidious dynamics of racism for America.

    [Reply]

  2. Interesting and important post. Mitali Perkins is another author who has written thoughtfully about writing about race.

    [Reply]

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