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What If We Do Wait?

Amy Leibowitz culture own voices representation sensitivity social justice writing

Recently, I shared the above meme. The text of the main point reads:

i really like the advice "write marginalized characters but don’t write about marginalization unless you experience it"
absolutely i think cis people should expand their horizons and write trans characters, but they shouldn’t write stories about being trans. likewise I think allistic/NT authors should write about autistic characters! but not stories about being autistic.
represent us. absolutely. but don’t tell our stories. let us do that.

Some people took this to mean hetero-washing or white-washing or cis-washing or (fill-in-the-blank)-washing marginalized characters. In other words, pretending that being part of a marginalized community didn’t matter and that they were “just like” the privileged group.

That isn’t what the meme is saying. What this is getting at is books where, for example, trans characters are coming out/transitioning and that’s the whole point of the story. Or a story where the main conflict is about a gay character being forcibly outed.

Try imagining Beloved or The Hate U Give or Things Fall Apart as written by white authors and you’ll have some idea what’s meant in the meme.

My point here, though, isn’t about all of that. In one of the comments, I got asked how many more decades we would’ve needed to wait for shows like Atypical or Pose if we only allowed them to be written by the marginalized people they represent.

And my question in return is, “How many decades more will we now have to wait for marginalized creators to finally be recognized?"

We have already waited decades. Neurotypical, able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual, white people have been telling the stories of marginalized people (often badly) for a very, very long time. They have been paid for this work, frequently without passing along those earnings to the people who helped them along the way by sharing our lives and our stories. In some cases, we have even paid them to listen to us, or they have been paid by their day job wherein they encounter us and mine those relationships for stories to publish.

And then they dare turn around and tell us to be grateful because they’ve raised “awareness” about us through their work.

This is not the majority of creative people. Most are not taking intimate portraits of our lives and monetizing them. And in the case of television or films, if done well, they not only actually pay their consultants but they also hire actors who are part of those marginalized communities.

But it does happen. And so I’m proposing a solution. Not just a “please don’t do that.” What I’m asking is that writers be intentional about reading books by, for, and about those marginalized populations and then lift up their voices.

The second thing I ask is probably harder. If you’re a writer, and all or most of your work centers on a marginalized group you’re not part of, ask yourself why. You might be surprised at the answer. Many people have come to discover that they are insiders themselves. Others have confronted fears or resolved complex personal issues. Understanding our motivations as writers helps us become better and frees us to learn and grow.

Most of all, though, I’d like to keep this conversation open. What does it mean to you to tell stories about your own experiences? What other meaningful information might be found in that meme? How do we show care and respect for marginalized people, whether our own group or another one? Let’s talk, and let’s work on these things together.

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