Writing All-White Casts When Racial Diversity Is Unrealistic?
How to think sensitively about racial representation when real-life setting is predominantly white
Yay, we’re starting to get reader questions! And the first one’s a hard one. Buckle up, folks.
A reader asks:
Can you give some thoughts on providing racial diversity in a place that is, as a matter of current fact, massively white? For example, in realistic-style story in a Midwestern or Mountain state (of the US) where people grow up seeing one or two POC's ever, is it irresponsible/insensitive to maintain a mostly white cast? Is "But that's realistic!" an acceptable excuse in this case?
[Additional context about the reader’s writing project cut as they asked me not to publish that part.]
First of all, I think it’s very clear from the additional context you gave me that you’re deeply concerned about representation issues, and I’m glad you’re giving thought to this question. Thank you for asking it. Now let’s dig in.
Yes, This is Going to Feel Unfair.
The first thing to keep in mind about any sort of diversity in writing is that the world is really, really screwed up. This is important. I so dearly wish that we could all write anything we wanted without having to think deeply about how it will affect systemic bigotry. And I want to acknowledge that it absolutely does suck that, to write responsibly, we all do have to consider that. (Not forgetting, of course, that it sucks a lot more to be the people directly affected by said systemic bigotry… but it’s like how the patriarchy can adversely affect men too; this part of it sucks for all of us.)
To put it another way, if the world had beautiful, perfect equality, a book written to have an all-white cast would be neutral, one book among many, a random happening in a deep and wide plethora where everyone could see their own demographic represented in many myriad ways. Unfortunately, we don’t have beautiful, perfect equality. We have a world in which people have been, over and over, denied or erased or barred from stories because of the color of their skin, and where all-white books, white characters, and white authors have in many ways unjustly dominated.
And it might seem really, really unfair that we creators have to consider the screwed-up-ness of the world. A screwed-up-ness that was started with deep-rooted historical atrocities well before any of us were born. A screwed-up-ness that continues to the present day in horrible acts and deep biases both conscious and unconscious — but acts you and I haven’t perpetrated and biases we hate (whether in others or in ourselves) and would dearly like to see fixed. It might seem unfair to have to consider all that — it is unfair, to everyone. But that’s the reality we’ve all been given. And in order to keep from being a part of perpetuating it, to the best of our ability — we can’t ignore it.
I can’t give you carte blanche here, nor an easy path where the switch suddenly flips from “not okay” to “you found the loophole!” There isn’t a loophole — there’s just a lot of hard thinking. Heck, I feel it too, in my own writing, all the time — worrying about these issues can be frustrating and difficult, because the world is frustrating and difficult.
So with that all in mind, let’s get to your question, and some things you can ask yourself about writing an all-white setting with an all-white cast.
Is There a Reason?
In my opinion, the first and most important thing to consider is the reason you’re choosing to set your book in a predominantly white area. Because that’s a choice.
This is the flip side, to me, of the not-so-well-intentioned thing people sometimes say about POC characters — “well there has to be a REASON for them to be POC!” No, there really doesn’t. The world is full of nonwhite people; it’s perfectly natural that we show up all the time in books movin’ and shakin’ the plot.
However, I do think that there should be a reason to choose to have a lack of nonwhite characters. Not because there aren’t places and spaces where that would realistically happen, but because of what we were talking about above — that every book we put out in the world is having an impact on the landscape of media, in a world that already has all this context and baggage in it. And a world where your nonwhite readers will already have been living with really hecking frustrating representations in media for years and years and years.
Releasing a book into that awful contextual tradition that we all share, I firmly believe that the default should be not to write an all-white cast. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong ever to have one, it just means that there should, in my opinion, be a good reason for it. A reason for deviating from that multiracial default and setting your book where that wouldn’t be the case.
If you’re asking me, which you are!, a good reason to set your book such a place (and subscribe faithfully to the all-white demographic breakdown) wouldn’t be because it’s easier, or it’s what you know, or because it just happens to fit your own experiences. A better reason to choose such a setting might be that you’re trying to say something culturally specific about a particular community, and that the setting — and its accompanying demographics — are vital to telling that story.
But know why you’re making such a choice, and acknowledge to yourself that you are choosing to tell that story in that setting instead of a different one. In the context of the world we live in, are the choices you’re making worth it, to tell that story? Sometimes the answer will be yes, sometimes no. We writers are in the driver’s seat, and we have to own what decisions we make on the page.
Remember the Context of Predominantly White Cities in America
Since you mentioned predominantly white American towns, I think it’s also worth keeping in mind how they got that way.
Historically, many concentrations of white populations in America did not happen by accident. They were instead the direct result of white people ostracizing other demographics of people, either through social bigotry, racist laws, or flat-out violence. (I could keep linking forever, but this link is probably the most relevant to what I’m about to talk about next, and shows how very similar towns in similar geographic spaces can end up with vastly different demographics.)
So when you’re asking yourself the above question about your reasons for your setting, do consider and remember the history these settings come from. There are, for instance, lovely Midwestern towns that are packed full of racial diversity — I live in one! However problematic large swathes of our geographic history are, it’s not the case that every single Midwestern or Mountain town in the U.S. is whiter-than-white. So if you’re asking yourself the above questions about having a good reason, ask yourself about the history of where you’re thinking about and if it’s really important to showcase one of the towns that grew out of such practices rather than changing the setting to another very similar town that allows you to show more inclusion.
Again, sometimes the answer will be yes, that that particular town is important to something you’re trying to say in the story you’re telling. Probably more times, the answer will be no.
Beware of Siloing
If you do think about it and decide this setting is vital to what you’re doing — do also remember that sometimes a white person who grew up “seeing one or two POC’s ever,” as you said in your question, can be a fallacy. Because of people “siloing” within their own communities, which can be influenced by race and culture, some places have a lot more diversity than a resident might profess to see.
For example, I had a friend once who grew up in a small Midwestern town and said she never, ever saw any POC growing up. She joked that I was her first Asian friend (it was true!).
But it turned out, I discovered in conversation later, that she lived right next to a huge Native community. The Native people were very much there in her town, even if her family hadn’t generally crossed paths with anyone in their community socially when she was a child.
Here’s another example. As an adult, the first time I went into Milwaukee, we ate brunch in the Third Ward. I looked around and, aside from me and my friends, it was 100% white people. I freaked out a little bit about it to the friends I was with, because I knew Milwaukee is 40% Black. Seeing how freakishly white the neighborhood was made me feel really uncomfortable there, and drove home to me just how segregated Milwaukee is.
As writers, it’s up to us to make sure we’re not siloing, but considering all different types of ways we can write about people and communities. Maybe consider how these different silos of people might cross and interact in your story, and how you can use that to deepen the narrative you’re telling. Just because you’ve decided that particular setting is vital to what you’re doing doesn’t mean you have to stick with one community within it — that, again, is a choice you’ll make with the story and characters.
How Are You Choosing Your Main Characters?
Here’s something else to consider. Even if a setting is 99% white, you can still choose to make one or more of your main characters not white, and show them navigating a setting in which they are a minority.
The reason many writers might balk at this is the so-called “realism” of the laws of probabilities. How likely is it that a randomly chosen protagonist will be in a 1% minority? But we don’t write about random protagonists! After all, it’s not likely a randomly selected person in our town is going to be the Magical Chosen One, either. And it’s not as if it’s likely you only have one main character, either — there will probably be plenty of people in your main cast, most of whom will be drawn into the story by virtue of something special about them anyway.
We already write about special people with interesting stories, by virtue of having chosen them to write about. You can certainly choose to make your main characters any race you want, no matter what the demographic setting around them.
More choices, always more choices!
(For examples: two books that come to mind immediately that star POC characters in a majority-white historical setting are Alice Payne Arrives by Kate Heartfield and The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo by Zen Cho. And I’ve see plenty of majority-white settings that have nonwhite characters in secondary roles, as well.)
Minority People Hang Out With Other Minority People
The advantage to choosing one or more nonwhite main characters is also that you can automatically have more of them. Even in a predominantly white community.
Because we stick together.
It’s honestly a little strange to me (and sometimes tokenizing) to see a single minority character in an ensemble cast. In my experience, it’s been far more likely and realistic for people who identify as being a minority to seek each other out!
Predominantly-White Ethnic and Cultural Communities Also Exist
One reason I do think can be a good one for choosing to have an all-white community and all-white cast is if you’re writing about a predominantly-white cultural group (in America or elsewhere) and the demographics are important to the way that family or cultural community interacts and sees the world.
On the flip side of this, I do think it’s a problem when an author has decided ethnic culture is not a big part of the story for any character… and still chooses the all-white cast in an all-white setting. I come back to: why? Why make that choice? Often it’s because the author is imagining a white default instead of a multiracial one, and feels they need reason to stray from whiteness rather than a reason to allow its dominance. Whereas I think the more helpful mode of thinking is the reverse.
Tangentially, I’m reminded of Petra from Jane the Virgin or Alice from Widows. They’re both white characters in a multi-ethnic cast, but in neither case could they be said to be blank slate cultural defaults compared to the characters around them. Instead, their cultures (Czech and Polish respectively) inform them just as much as the other characters are affected by their cultures and ethnicities; they’re in no way “defaults” being compared to “otherness.” This is talking individual characters and not full casts, but I still find it illustrative. Because if you’re writing a whole book of Petras or Alices, that’s a far different thing than if you’re writing, say, a fantasy fairy tale that could easily look more like this than this.
Fiction Can Fiction
Finally, going back to the demographics of setting — it really is okay to cheat sometimes. Again, let’s go back to putting things out into the social context that is our reality. A show like Buffy: The Vampire Slayer that shows no Hispanic people in SoCal, or a show like Friends that is all-white in NYC, is unrealistic AND damaging to our screwed-up world. That kind of thing removes opportunities from nonwhite people and reduces empathy for nonwhite experiences.
But if the realism of the demographic breakdown isn’t important to the story, or is only somewhat important to the story, picking a setting you like for other reasons and then tweaking it to be more multiracial — you’re allowed to do that. It’s fiction. A lot of times that’s going to be just fine. Really!
The following is about representation of women rather than racial diversity, but in the afterward of Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein admits:
Bear in mind that despite my somewhat exhaustive quest for historical accuracy, this book is not meant to be a good history but rather a good story. So there is one major leap of fictional faith the reader has to grant me, and that is Maddie’s flight to France. Women ATA pilots were not allowed to fly to Europe until well after the invasion of Normandy, when German-occupied territory was safely back in Allied hands.
(It’s worth noting Wein has also already done what I noted above in choosing characters who were a minority in her setting — she is writing about the very real female ATA pilots in WWII.)
I’ve seen other authors do this too. While it’s not great to erase bigotry as though it never was, there’s a lot of spectrum between doing that and adhering absolutely rigidly to the demographic percentages you find on Wikipedia.
In the End, it’s Not About Excuses, It’s About Choices
You asked me, Reader, about whether setting made for an “acceptable excuse.”
I think you’ll see from this long, long, long post that to me, that’s not really the question. The question isn’t about rules or excuses. It’s about choices, and reasons, and why we make the choice to write something a certain way. It’s about considering carefully and thinking deeply.
There are, certainly, stories that choose to use a predominantly white setting, a predominantly white community within that setting, and all-white characters within that community, that I would still call excellent stories justified in making those choices and to which I would give my heartiest recommendation. There are others where reading them would make my heart clench and ache as I see in them the purposeful erasure of people like me.
In the end, only you can decide whether these are the choices you want to make with your writing, or not. I can’t give you a stamp of saying a certain setup is “acceptable” — but I sincerely hope you’ll be able to use all this to figure out the answer to that question in your own eyes. (I also suggest finding thoughtful critique partners who can read your work and chew this over with you for your individual manuscript.) And I hate to get to the end of what is probably thousands of words at this point and not even answer your question — I’m sorry! — but I truly do wish you the best of luck with your work in progress, and thank you for striving to write responsibly in a messed-up world.
One final note. I feel sure that there are some people who will read this post and come away from it thinking that I said an author can NEVER write an all-white cast, or that in order to do so the author must write a 40-page treatise on why it’s necessary, or some similar nonsense. To be crystal clear: No, that’s not what I’m saying at all. What I am saying is — if you choose to have an all-white setting and an all-white cast, know that you’re choosing it, know why you’re choosing it, and feel comfortable with your reasoning within the context of our world.
As always, this is only my own opinion, but I hope it helps.
Whew, that was a long one. Someone send me shorter questions for next week, please!