“I am a White Writer”

I haven’t said much as the writing community attempts to cut open the festering, repulsive ulcer of racism and sexism in an attempt to heal and change. I’ve tried to be supportive, and listen, and pay attention to what is happening in the world. I’ve digested and pondered and discussed and…

The fear I now face is that I may never completely understand. I’ve never been the victim of abuse due to my gender or my skin. Even being a women, when my female peers talk about scary men and abuse and being insulted for their sex, I’ve never felt in danger because of a man. I don’t know if it means I am that sheltered or that lucky. Men have always been a source of comfort for me; my fathers, both biological and step father, both compassionate and well-meaning men; my loving partner; the older and younger men in my life, who have stood as friends and guides.

I listen to the world, and hear that remaining quiet about racism is wrong. I listen, and hear that defending authors of color is wrong too, because it’s my white privilege allowing me to have a voice louder then their’s. I listen, and hear that I can’t talk about the plight of women of color, because it’s my white privilege that allows my voice to be heard.

I listen, and I see the terrible hate that seems to come from everywhere, and I don’t know what to do. I don’t even know if I’m supposed to do anything.

This post isn’t supposed to be all about me, but it’s the only thing I know I can speak of without hurting or offending someone. I read an article about a man who hesitated most of his life to speak up about sexism, to be “that kind of man,” the one who uses his privilege to speak for the trampled sects of society. It gave me hope even as it destroyed it, that I, a white writer, could… do something.

He said that no matter what, speaking about issues such as these, it’s going to offend someone. He said it was inevitable. That everything was trial and error until someday we get it right.

My best friend is a bi-sexual woman. My partner is a gorgeous Filippino/Native American man. They both me stories of sexism and racism. Sometimes weekly. Or daily. It’s not like I don’t hear, or I don’t see.

I’m scared of it all. I’m scared I’m a worse person than I thought. I’m scared the hatred and pain will suck me in, and it’ll be all I can see, and I’ll become bitter and hating, too. I’m scared I’ll be able to do nothing.

The main character in the series I am writing is a part Romani — Gypsy — young woman. I didn’t choose her race because I wanted to create a non-white character. I don’t remember the exact point where I chose Romani, but I wanted her family’s history to be nomadic, outcasts, a little secretive, and a little magical. The Romani fit.

Yet. Her father is white. Her mother ran away from the Romani lifestyle to marry her father. Rumors follow her grandmother of an affair with a non-Romanian. My main character is ethnically Romanian, but she’s gadji — not living true to her culture. Raised in a white privilege household, she might as well be white. Because race isn’t just a skin color, it’s a culture and a history, and of that, she has little from her ethnicity.

I don’t address racism issues as a core theme, at least not in the first book. Sexism shows up as a theme, as a barrier to my main character’s goals. Maybe because it’s easier to write. Maybe because when I was first writing the series, that was issue swirling most in what I read.

Maybe my de-emphasis of her heritage is racist. Maybe I should be pushing it, showing more truths, educating the world on the reality.

But can I, without making it all worse?

Can I, without readers and reviewers screaming that I did it wrong?

My genre is alternate-history fantasy, which means I can play with history and time and culture, both as a plot device, and, as an excuse if I screw up. But I don’t want to it to be an excuse. If I do this, I want to do it right.

But more than that, should I? Am I, in my white privilege, simply showing my entitlement, or actually making the world a little bit better? Is it even my right to do so?



After I wrote this, I got some responses and ideas to ponder. The basic gist was: write about diversity, but don’t write AS BEING gay/trans/POC/disable/etc if you’ve never experienced it. Let the people who have experienced it talk about it, and support them.

I don’t know if it should be the rule; ‘write what you know’ has never been my favorite advice. But at the very least it’s a starting point.

I’m still figuring out what that means for the character I mentioned above. But for now, I’ll do my best to be respectful and do what a writer does best: explore the unexplored, imagine the impossible, and touch the heart of humanity.

About R. K. Brainerd

I've been writing since my pre-teens, mostly in the realm of fantasy and sci-fi. Taking interesting concepts and dropping complex characters into fantastical worlds is my jam. I also raise dairy goats and herd cats, the evidence of which can be found on my Instagram. Welcome to the adventure. View all posts by R. K. Brainerd

12 responses to ““I am a White Writer”

  • jac forsyth

    A few months ago, I was mistaken for a Muslim woman and laid into by a bunch of school kids. They shouted abuse at me and called me a terrorist before threatening to beat me up. It felt totally surreal, like my brain couldn’t process what was happening and in that moment I realised just how protected by my colour and nationality I normally am. I don’t know if we have a right to write about things like racism, but I suspect that if we don’t, then it remains on the sidelines. I’d rather write about it and be accused of not understanding than not write about it at all.


    • R. K. Brainerd

      Oh my god. That’s awful… and probably normal to many people.

      You’re right about the last bit. I suppose I’m just a little afraid of what I’ll find when I get there.

      Liked by 1 person

      • jac forsyth

        I know mate. When the kids were screaming at me, a guy stopped and asked if I was okay. I said, ‘I’m just appreciating that some people have to deal with this sort of crap every single day.’ But I knew then that I wasn’t even scratching the surface of what it must be like. Good luck with your writing.

        Liked by 1 person

      • R. K. Brainerd

        Hey, at least someone had a heart about it. There’s the silver lining, maybe? Not all people are crap.

        Thanks for the luck. Same to you.


  • yssirhchrissy

    I’ve had these same feelings as well. But it seems like we’re at fault whether we do or don’t, so we might as well follow our hearts. And keep loving as hard and as empathetically as possible on the way.

    Liked by 3 people

  • lightafireinstead

    I have been struggling with this, as well, especially with so many fellow writers who are POC posting things about appropriating/misrepresenting culture yet wanting more POC in books… I’m white and female. I can write about sexism a bit. I’ve experienced a small bit of it. (Less than most of my friends, from how it sounds.) I can even write a LITTLE bit about racism, having traveled a lot for my age. But I’m not a POC, and I don’t have a good view into the culture I’d be writing about if I tried. So I tend to stick to the old “write what you know” line. That means a lot of people who DO have a good view into the culture of the POC demographic will find that there isn’t clear representation of them in much of my writing. That makes me sad and I want to change it. And yet… Many will say I am using my privilege and/or misrepresenting that same demographic if I try. So I don’t. I write what I know. I tend to avoid dwelling on or even mentioning skin color or ethnic backgrounds in my writing, leaving it somewhat open to reader interpretation. (Though really, how many naturally red-headed or blonde POC do you know? Often color is implied, but I can’t avoid that… I can only try to avoid the direct mention of it.) I know I’ll never make everyone happy doing what I do with that issue, but I also don’t want to write about something I don’t understand, to pretend like I DO understand. It feels like we often get stuck between a rock and a hard place on issues like this… Aha, sorry for the rant. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • R. K. Brainerd

      No, I’m good with the rants. Honestly, I’m glad I’m not the only one feeling like this. I knew I couldn’t be the only one, but it’s nice to know that others are struggling with this question and how to do this best as a writer.

      I saw a Tumblr post someone shared the other day, that talked about how writing ABOUT marginalized groups was important (and representing them other than as stereotypes, obviously), but not writing AS a marginalized group, as if we understood/experienced racism. I think that helps me a little with the question.

      Liked by 1 person

  • lightafireinstead

    That’s a good thought, yeah! My writing style might make the distinction a bit fuzzy, but it definitely helps to make the distinction to begin with. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  • azpascoe

    Oh my god, I’m putting together a post on just this at the moment! In fact, I’m kind of scared to read too much of this in case your brilliance seeps into my brain and I’m incapable of writing my own post on it :p I’m going to link back to this when I publish my own post, if that’s ok! It’s just really cool to know that people are dealing with/thinking about the same stuff 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  • The Responsibility of Privilege – A Z Pascoe

    […] bloggers in a similar vein: R.K. Brainerd over at Awake Dragon recently wrote a piece called “I am a White Writer” talking about her own perception of the privilege associated with being a white writer when […]

    Liked by 1 person

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