I’ve spoken on many panels about craft, identity, and representation. Inevitably, when the moderator opens the discussion up for questions from the audience, the same kinds of comments come up over and over again:
As a White person, is it okay for me to write a book from the point of view of a Chinese character?
As a cis person, what kinds of stories can I tell about trans people?
Am I doing harm by writing a disabled character even though I’m not disabled?
And so on and so forth. These are all different forms of the same underlying question:
Am I allowed to I write a character of a different background than me?
This question is distinct from whether you can do something. That seems to have a more clear-cut answer: you can put whatever the fuck words you want on a page. There is no one and nothing with the power to stop you.
Whether you can complete the task depends on your knowledge and skill. I can write a story about linguistics, as I have a good understanding of the subject, but I can’t write a story about entomology because I would need to do research first. Similarly, I can draw from experiences I already have to write a story about being Chinese American, but if I wanted to write about a nomad in Kazakhstan, I can’t, because I know nothing about what the day-to-day details of living such a life are. I would have to figure those out before I could even begin to conceptualize what kind of story I’d want to tell.
It’s the nebulous idea of being “allowed” or “not allowed” to do something that seems to make people freeze up. They have a fantastic idea, or they’ve come up with some amazing characters, or they’ve built up a huge secondary world—whatever it is, the work draws from a culture that isn’t their own. They’re looking for a blessing before they release their creation into the world. Some people don’t start writing, don’t even let themselves start thinking about a story without asking for that blessing.
But the field in which I sow my fucks lies fallow: I am tired of these questions. I am tired of this gaze that only seems to widen the gap of empathy between those in the center and those on the margins. Saying “don’t do it” is easier than saying “do it wisely.”
Yes, it’s true that there are systemic problems in publishing that actively marginalize people. Yes, the voices of those in power are privileged over those who are oppressed.
Your story will not fix that.
That’s why it’s a systemic problem. The author is not the one at the gate deciding who will be let in and who will be excluded. Tailoring your work to the limits of the industry does nothing but reify those limits. When people say that White authors shouldn’t write narratives from the point of view of characters of color under the assumption that such an absence would open up a spot for a writer of color to tell a story about characters of color, they reinforce the idea that there are limited spots available at all, and add to the intellectual segregation of writers of color.
But beyond a notion of quotas, what has become existentially grating is the idea that those with privilege don’t even have to try to bridge the empathy gap. What is reading and writing but an exercise in empathy? You are putting yourself in the mind of someone else. People of color have to empathize with White people just to survive. The conditioning starts the moment we’re born. We have to consider what White people would think if we behaved a certain way. We watch movies and TV shows about the myriad experiences White people have and empathize with the motivations of even the most evil of characters. Most of us even start our writing journeys by writing White characters without asking ourselves why. Understanding Whiteness is the bridge we’ve had to build just to live. 
The empathy gap exists because people in power don’t realize that that bridge even exists. Privilege is a home built on land that is sturdy but surrounded by chasms. Those living in a house of privilege have easier access to resources and support, often to the point where they never have to leave—everything they have is already there; they have no need to cross a bridge and leave town. But those living without those privileges have to build those bridges to access that same support that others take for granted. Some people might have to travel very far and cross that bridge just for the most basic of needs, like having food to eat.
But bridges are not one way. It is incredibly demoralizing as a person of color to hear White people ask whether they’re allowed to even step on the bridge, when people of color have never been asked for our consent before we were made to build empathy bridges to Whiteness. How can you know how to treat a community respectfully if you’ve never spent time within that community? How can you know which topics are sacred and which are taboo without having a conversation with someone in that culture? How can you write about a character who’s an outsider without being made aware, down to your bones, that you are in a place where you don’t belong?
There is no permission slip for diversity. The only way to understand what matters to a community and what kinds of narratives a community wants to hear is to spend time with them. I believe that the very act of decentering the privileged, of making two-way bridges that expand empathy across all groups of people, will destroy these antiquated notions of one group of people mattering more than another. Fail faster, learn from your mistakes, and create narratives that reflect the true complexity of the world.
- It’s not just race, either. Any axis of power and oppression. But I’m focusing on just one axis for clarity of discussion. Feel free to apply this to others, with whatever adjustments are necessary to make it relevant. ↩︎