A few years ago I took a creative writing course. It was an attempt to light a fire under me, since I had a habit of abandoning every story that I ever started. While I was writing, I was feeling a bit stuck… as usual. I knew that if I didn’t make it clear that my protagonist was black, that everyone would assume she was white by default. I wanted to make it clear, but I didn’t want to drum it into people’s heads (as you often have to do to get the point across). So I decided to acknowledge the race of the non-black characters. I received my assignment back with a line through the word white and a note on the side that read something like: “Unneccesary. We don’t need to know what race s/he is.” I waited until after class to speak with her about it, I asked her why she had crossed out the word white. I thought it was hypocritical; how many times had I read a story that defined its (secondary,) characters by their races? “The old black man”, and so on. Luckily, she recognized the fault in her white gaze and apologized.
I may not have been told the words, “White is right.” but I definitely knew it, from a very young age. How could I not? In all the stories I read people of color were forever delegated to the background or were completely invisible. I was used to reading about white characters. I was used to watching them on my television set. I was used to seeing white people on the covers of ALL of the magazines. White was default. White was normal. White was the norm. White was beautiful. I grew up hearing things like: “You’re pretty for a black girl.” It was supposed to be a compliment, but it felt more like a punch to the gut. No matter how many times I heard that phrase, I never grew immune. It cut deep. It was evident that the standard of beauty was not someone who looked like me, and it angered me. It baffled me. I watched movies and television shows and willed people of color into being. I remember watching Boy Meets world and thinking, Shawn Hunter should date a black girl. And when he fell in love with Angela, my voice grew hoarse from yelling “Whaaaaaaaat.”. It had worked! When I read books I’d ignore descriptions and imagine characters as black. I craved color because the overwhelmingly white world that I lived in was just that. Overwhelming. I brownwashed to maintain balance.
I remember having a friend over to my house as a kid and coloring scenes from The Little Mermaid or some other popular Disney film. It would be twenty years before Disney produced a black princess but with the help of my trusty brown crayon (not even Burnt Sienna would do), I had that covered. There was something so satisfying about seeing a black Mermaid. And hell, she’d still have the red hair, just like my friend Carly who had dark skin like me and hair the color of a shiny penny. I remember asking a friend who was sleeping over, “Why are you using PEACH?” She had stayed true to the Alice in Wonderland that we were all familiar with. I was baffled, weren’t there enough white, blond haired, blue eyed Alices in the world? If you had a chance to make Wonderland reflect the world that you lived in, why wouldn’t you take it?
So back to the grindstone for me. I’ve been trying to focus on reading romances featuring characters of color, but I find that a lot of them are still written with the white gaze in mind. It’s soul crushing. It’s exhausting. I’m tired of reading what appeals to white readers. I’ve got a couple of stories that I’m working on featuring Black, Mexican and Korean main characters. I’m going to write what I want to read, and hopefully do it well.