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Creating Space for Black Characters

It is Black History Month, and while black history should be celebrated year-round, I thought what better time to talk about the representation of black people in our writing than this very moment?

We read the book Caste by Isabel Wilkerson for book club. It was a deep dive into the hidden caste system in place here America, and how the system is rooted in our country’s fundamental racism. Eye-opening and powerful, I strongly recommend you give it a read.

This book got my mind to wandering—as my mind often does. I began revisiting old sentiments I had first encountered in college.

Growing up, I was aware of racism in America. My parents instilled me with tools of kindness and acceptance towards all. This open-mindedness would help me navigate my life in ways I could not have anticipated back then.

In college, I met the people who would become my life-long friends. Among them were two African American girls who I would grow particularly close with. We were all studying storytelling then and consuming copious amounts of media constantly. We were playing video games, exploring the vast complexities that come with stories in games. We’d watch movies and shows. We’d dissect stories to their cores to understand what worked and what didn’t.

It was here, in one of these moments of studying stories—particularly American stories—with my close friends, that I would have one of my first awakenings. One of my friends asked a question that knocked me flat on my ass. She said, “This story is great and all, but where are the black people?”

At first, I felt my defenses rise. There were black people in stories, of course. In my mind, I sifted through all of the media I’d consumed lately and tried to put my finger on the people of color (POC) I could remember. I must admit, there were not many.

To my black friends, the question was rhetorical. They knew there were no black people because they had experienced this their whole lives. The lack of black people in modern media was staggering. In 2015, studies showed 90% of lead actors were white, leaving behind a measly 10% of leading roles left to minorities. An almost laughable percentage considering non-white people make up around 40% of our population here in America.

But this question of: Where are the black people? would be one that my white friends and I would carry with us for the rest of our lives.

The pain that came with admitting to our black friends that there were no black people in something we were consuming felt… horrendous. It was here I began to see.

But it was not just an outward question. I cannot account for the reasons other writers don’t add black people to their stories. Maybe it is unintentional. As unintentional as our hidden biases that we all bear. Maybe it is on purpose. A possibility that makes me sick to my stomach. Maybe some writers do not know many black people and fall to leaning on stereotypes that perpetuate the never-ending train of systemic racism. I do not know the answer.

Once I turned the question inward, I realized that not only was it important to represent and uplift black people in my own writing, but it was necessary. And why is it necessary? Because the pain I felt seeing my friends unrepresented—people I cared for with my whole heart—was overwhelming. This pain also led me to consider how microscopic my own suffering is in comparison to what it must feel like to never see someone who looks like you in the stories you see.

It’s not hard for my mind to connect the dots. I never had to worry about seeing a little, blonde-headed white girl in Disney movies. I never had to wonder if there would be people who looked like me in the newest teen drama I was watching. Even in video games, I knew that in the character customization, there would many white skin tone options and hair styles. White people have been dominating the spotlight for hundreds of years here in America.

It was in these early moments I began to piece together my true first understandings of the representation of marginalized people in all forms of media. It is almost standard to have a white male hero in American storytelling. Some handsome man with a chiseled chest and chin.

But you know what? I had seen enough of that already. I wanted to see different heroes. I wanted to hear different stories. I wanted to see protagonists that were handicapped, gay, or a POC. Or maybe a combination of some or all of those things. I wanted to see protagonists that looked like my friends.

I am not here to try and tell you how to write stories. I am simply here to remind you—as well as myself—that we have to take extra care to make sure we are showcasing life as it truly is in our stories. To ask ourselves: Where are the black people? To be mindful of the things we are consuming, and to take time to celebrate diversity and uplift the marginalized groups that have been silenced in our country since its beginning.

I will leave you with these final thoughts from Wilkerson’s book:

“The price of [white] privilege is the moral duty to act when one sees another person treated unfairly… With our current ruptures, it is not enough to not be racist or sexist. Our times call for being pro-African-American, pro-woman, pro-Latino, pro-Asian, pro-indigenous, pro-humanity in all its manifestations. In our era, it is not enough to be tolerant.”

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