Can White Female Writers Write Characters of Color?

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Lena Dunham’s GIRLS has become one of the most talked about shows in 2012. Dunham who released a short film called Tiny Furniture got praises for her writing and directing on her small project. In an informative NPR interview entitled, “Lena Dunham Addresses Criticism Aimed At ‘Girls’,” the article addresses how Tiny Furniture led Dunham to a deal with HBO to write, direct, and produce GIRLS. Although this show has gotten many accolades, it has also garnered interesting criticisms. One of the major criticism that caused controversy about this show is that: Dunham has not created characters that are people of color.

The same NPR article addresses how Dunham did an interview NPR’s Fresh Air. The article points out this highlight from Duhman’s interview in how she responds to the criticism in neglecting to create and include characters of color:

“”I take that criticism very seriously. … This show isn’t supposed to feel exclusionary. It’s supposed to feel honest, and it’s supposed to feel true to many aspects of my experience. But for me to ignore that criticism and not to take it in would really go against my beliefs and my education in so many things. And I think the liberal-arts student in me really wants to engage in a dialogue about it, but as I learn about engaging with the media, I realize it’s not the same as sitting in a seminar talking things through at Oberlin. Every quote is sort of used and misused and placed and misplaced, and I really wanted to make sure I spoke sensitively to this issue. …

“I wrote the first season primarily by myself, and I co-wrote a few episodes. But I am a half-Jew, half-WASP, and I wrote two Jews and two WASPs. Something I wanted to avoid was tokenism in casting. If I had one of the four girls, if, for example, she was African-American, I feel like — not that the experience of an African-American girl and a white girl are drastically different, but there has to be specificity to that experience [that] I wasn’t able to speak to. I really wrote the show from a gut-level place, and each character was a piece of me or based on someone close to me. And only later did I realize that it was four white girls. As much as I can say it was an accident, it was only later as the criticism came out, I thought, ‘I hear this and I want to respond to it.’ And this is a hard issue to speak to because all I want to do is sound sensitive and not say anything that will horrify anyone or make them feel more isolated, but I did write something that was super-specific to my experience, and I always want to avoid rendering an experience I can’t speak to accurately” (http://www.npr.org/2012/05/07/152183865/lena-dunham-addresses-criticism-aimed-at-girls?ft=1&f=1008#).

I am very intrigued with this because I’ve read interviews from Conversations with Toni Morrison edited by Danielle Taylor-Gutherie. In Kathy Neustadt’s “The Visits of the Writers Toni Morrison and Eudora Welty,” Morrison responds to Neustadt’s question: “In Song of Solomon, the main character is a man, and you seemed to have no trouble getting inside of him. Do you think that men and women in general can write about each other honestly?” Morrison responds with not only if men and women can portray it each other honestly, she also broaches if white and black writers, especially white writers, can characterize each other in their writings: “They ought to be able to do it. It shouldn’t be a problem—it’s just a question of perception. You know, it’s like we were saying in class yesterday, about that question that always disturbs me, that question of identification with black writers and about being able to understand the book in spite of that. It’s always a bothersome idea. But Nadine Gordimer writers about black people with such astounding sensibilities and sensitivity—not patronizing, not romantic, just real. And Eudora Welty does the same thing. Lillian Hellman has done it. Now, we might categorize these women as geniuses of a certain sort, but if they can write about it, it means that it is possible. They didn’t say, ‘Oh, my God I can’t write about black people’: it didn’t stop them. There are white people who do respond that way though, assuming there’s some huge barrier. But if you can relate to Beowolf and Jesus Christ when you read about them, it shouldn’t be so difficult to relate to black literature.

When Morrison’s and Dunham’s thoughts are compared side by side, what happens is magnificently powerful. Morrison addressed Neustadt’s question in 1980. Dunham responded in her interview in 2012. Morrison is an established African-American writer who has won many awards and accolades for her writing. Dunham is a Jewish-American woman who has been given praises for her honest writing about how twenty year old women are portrayed. What does this have to do with Dunham’s comment about her inability to write black characters initially in the first season? And what does have to do with Morrison’s response 32 years prior?

Well, here are some educated guesses. Maybe Dunham hasn’t read Morrison’s interviews. Maybe Dunham doesn’t have friends of color. However, it is very, very uniquely intriguing that Morrison has also stated in another interview done by Claudia Tate what critics think about black writers and how black people do not have ideas to write: “Critics generally don’t associate black people with ideas. They see marginal people; they just see another story about black folks. They regard the whole thing as sociologically interesting perhaps but very parochial. There’s a notion out in the land that there are human beings one writes about, and then there are black people or Indians or some other marginal group. If you write about the world from that point of view, somehow it is considered lesser. It’s racist, of course. The fact that I chose to write about black people means I’ve only been stimulated to write about black people. We are people, not aliens. We live, we love, and we die”

The discussion about Dunham and Morrison and their take on writing black characters is a complicated and complex discussion. Morrison made this statement in 1983 to Claudia Tate. This is three years after the interview I used quoting her on writers especially white writers, should not have a problem with writing black characters. So, when discussing Dunham and Morrison, isn’t Dunham right in some capacity? Isn’t she choosing to write what she knows as she stated? In Dunham’s world, as she admits, she comes from a Jewish WASP background. In her world, she may not be closed friends with people of color. Should a person brand her from not including ethnic characters in her first season of GIRLS since Dunham has explained that her world is colored limited in her personal life? That her perspective is color limited because she is writing what she knows; she is writing about herself and her experience which is a 26 year old white female experience? Now, Dunham didn’t say that she has limited black friends or friends of color. I am making guesses based on what she said that she comes from a Jewish and WASP background. So, again, I am assuming that Dunham does not have black friends or many black friends or no black friends because she does not further specify the general-specific response she gives.

Then, that begs the question, is that the reason why Dunham maybe not writing characters of color because she does not personally or intimately have friends as such? This woman is 26 years old. Many people assumed that twenty-something year olds are heavily exposed to diversity. That isn’t true, and people should not generalize that. I taught in a Northeast Georgia rural town for half a year, and there wasn’t much diversity. I grew up in a Middle Georgia town which didn’t have much cultural diversity. When I taught at this school, boy, did I feel the heat. Stepping into that town and stepping into that school is why I left the rural town I was raised in. I didn’t want to be exposed to just “black and white” because usually small rural towns have the reputation of segregation, discrimination, and prejudice. Usually, that racist reputation in many small towns, unfortunately, is true. Some of these kids are growing up in these towns which practice the same racial caste system although many of these kids are being exposed to some television shows and films where diversity is prevalent.

Just like in rural Southern and Northern towns in Georgia, there are other areas of our country where young people are not exposed to much diversity. If they are, their family’s attitudes might influence them not to immerse themselves in diversity. I cannot say for certain this is Lena Dunham’s case, but it possibly could be. As someone who comes from a small Southern, middle Georgian rural town, well, and who went to a liberal arts college like Dunham, and who has been exposed to all kinds of people, and their cultures, and their attitudes, how come I am confident to write or have the ability to feel the confidence to write any type of characters concerning sex, race, ethnicity, gender, and class? Throughout my childhood, I was heavily exposed to writer writers. I got interested in the horror genre—R.L. Stine’s Goosebump series, and then, the Fear Street Series. Then, I started becoming interested in Zebra romances and Stephen King. Due to me experiencing colorism among my black peers throughout middle school, I identified with white authors easily because the majority of my friends were white. I had a few black friends but not as many as white friends. It was quite easy for me to think that there was only white writers—especially white male writers. However, somehow, I didn’t care about what their skin color was. I liked their writing. I was exposed to the horror genre—books, films, and television shows because my mom loved horror genre herself. It was until I got into high school, and I started to really examine our small town library that I found that there were actually black writers writing black fiction.

This is why I am I am writing the discussion about Toni Morrison and Lena Dunham. I am deeply captivated by the discussion of how individuals create characters and how they are criticize if they don’t show diversity in their works. I relate to Morrison and Dunham. I relate to Morrison because she writes about black people in a way that I recognize those characters. There were individuals in Cochran that were similar when I grew up with that similar to the characters I read about in her novels. I relate to Dunham because I was once in my twenties, and when I reflect on my experiences, I can relate to her characters, or I can feel relieved that I did not screw up as bad as her characters. Yes, one is an eighty something year old black woman who has won major literary prizes—Pulitzer and Nobel—while the other one is a twenty something year old who is just beginning her career. Their commonality is that they are both women whose trades are to write characters that are reflective of their experiences.

There are many topics to touch upon in this conversation that I have not even begin to scratch the surface. What about sex concerning Morrison’s and Dunham’s characters? How does Morrison and Dunham portray women and men in their fiction works? How does Morrison and Dunham portray old and young characters throughout their works? How should we see one writers as being established and being in the writing game longer than one who is just beginning her career? My writing discussion is about looking at two women who have given differing opinions about how they write white and black characters. One woman who didn’t think about writing characters of color until criticism made her take notice of who leaving them absent, and while the other choose to write about her own race because she was not seeing enough black fiction to choose from to read. This writer knows that black Americans are important and should be represented by writers in their fiction because they are AMERICANS.

What I am expressing is that Dunham needs to really think about how she is going to respond to the criticism about not having enough diversity in her show. I give Dunham a free pass because she expressed that she was focused on creating a story that involved around her (“write what you know”). However, sometimes, a writer needs to admit clearly why they have done what they’ve done. I applaud you for admitting why you didn’t have characters of color in your writing. Yet, I do agree with Morrison. You should not let your doubts of portraying people of different cultures and backgrounds deter you from attempting to write about them if that is what it is.

Criticism is a bitch, and it is a worse bitch when you try to write about something that you think that you are not qualify to write about. If you try to write about it, yes, you can get crucified for it. However, it’s a Catch-22 situation, and if you don’t do it, you damned. If you do it, you damned. Basically, when we let our writings out into the world, we are damned in a way that some folks are going to cheer for us, and some folks are going to try to blast us out of the universe. However, I am glad that Dunham will try and write characters of color. Yet, I will also like to say maybe this is a teaching lesson in writing and open-mindedness for all writers who need to think about how they are going to portray characters in their works.

In order for one to write, one’s mind has to be opened. I hope that Dunham decides to venture out and find out more about black culture. However, even if she didn’t, as Morrison says, she should be able to do it because she can relate to other people and other characters from other novels. She will have to find her rhythm and the truth. If she is a good writer, and she will have to demonstrate that she is a good writer, unless she loses her wits, I think that she can achieve in writing other minority characters. It’s no sweat, right?

Well, it is sweat, but I will say that if writers don’t try, how do they know that they can succeed? Dunham said she was going to do it. Well, I am looking forward to it. No pressure. If writers cannot do something justice, take others criticism, the good criticism in stride and write better ethnic characters, then what is point in wanting to grow in their writing?  We are humans trying to continue to perfect our craft.
Sophia Muriel Flemming

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