[SWP: Behind the Book] Writing While White
Written by
Ellen Bravo
August 2015
Written by
Ellen Bravo
August 2015

Writing fiction requires a substantial mix of audacity and humility. The writer sets out to illuminate a sliver of reality. Even though that place may be achingly familiar, it will contain spaces and experiences the author has never lived. How do we fulfill our promise to the reader?

The challenge is especially thorny for a white writer tackling issues of race.

Ignoring race isn’t an option, because silence is also a statement. Even cultural pieces we may like can lose impact because of their omissions or distortions (think Seinfeld and Girls in an overwhelmingly white New York City, or Boyhood in a Texas seemingly devoid of Latinos except for one conveniently in need of rescue.)

My guidelines while writing my new novel about campus rape, Again and Again were simple:  stay humble, ask and listen, learn from good models. I see this as a life-long journey, as both a member of society and a writer. Knowing we’ll fall short shouldn’t stop us from taking on the challenge.

Traps I wanted to avoid included introducing white characters without describing them as white while trumpeting the ethnicity of any character of color. I was also on the lookout for tokenism – making someone non-white but leaving that reality stripped of meaning (think Will Smith’s character in Pursuit of Happyness.) And I didn’t want white saviors swooping in (a la The Help and so many other examples).

In my novel, the main character is a white, Jewish woman named Deborah Borenstein who heads a nonprofit called Breaking the Silence, focused on violence against women. From the outset, I knew who her chief of staff would be - Marquita Reynolds, a sharp and strategic African-American woman who drives the story’s resolution. My task: avoiding the Black Sidekick Syndrome, a one-dimensional character who exists only to glorify the white protagonist.

I started by having Marquita name that problem herself and call out Deborah for failing to recognize it. Here’s an early exchange they have about some women on the board of Breaking the Silence who are giving Deborah a hard time:

“[They] see me as your little sidekick. Neither of them has ever talked to me alone… Whatever comes out of my mouth, they’re going to think you wrote the script.”

“And I should cater to that view why?”

“I’d be happy if you just saw it.”

A friend, Rinku Sen who publishes Colorlines, helped me see another way Deborah (and I) played into this problem, when Deborah announces a promotion for Marquita without discussing it with her first. I went back to the manuscript and had Marquita confront Deborah about this – “If you know I earned it, don’t make it feel like a gift.

I also wanted to show, not state, that these two women are friends. I tried to do that in several ways: by reflecting their familiarity with each other’s lives; by a reference to Marquita and her partner, Malcolm, coming over for dinner in a flashback about how Deborah’s family dealt with household chores; and by making clear that Deborah’s daughter, Becca, feels close to Marquita and views her as a mentor.

My novel describes a women’s organization in Washington, DC in 2010. We see a struggle between competing strategies – one that centers on young women, mostly women of color, who rely on organizing in the field and building a leaderful movement (thanks to Black Lives Matter for that word), and the other a more hierarchical, DC-centric notion that aims to promote one national leader and build a brand rather than a base. In these and in other details I can’t reveal without spoilers, I tried to weave issues of race throughout the fabric of the novel, even though specifics of the story line (especially who the rapist is) meant that the two key characters are white.

The challenge doesn’t end with the writing. Any white woman today talking about rape needs to be mindful of this country’s sordid history of using “protection of white women” as a pretext to lynch Black men and terrorize Black families – a refrain we recently heard from the white supremacist responsible for the church massacre in Charleston, SC. As I promote my novel on Facebook and soon on tour, I’ll keep talking about this and saying “Not in Our Name.”

I am profoundly grateful to the many friends and colleagues over the years who have opened my eyes by their example, their organizing and their calling me out. I hope my novel reflects their teaching and in a small way adds to the crucial conversation our nation needs to have on race.

Let's be friends

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  • Catherine Curan


    I've been giving this issue a lot of thought lately, and I was happy to see your insightful post. I understand why white writers shy away from the challenge of writing about race, but you nailed it with your comment that "silence is also a statement". Thanks for sharing your experience and suggestions. I look forward to reading your book!

  • Brande McCleese Writing


    This was such an amazing read! Thank you so much for sharing your insight but for also understanding that this is a conversation worth having. I read Susan Straight's Take One Candle and Light A Room and she discussed some issues that I'd never seen in a book by a white woman. I commend you for delving deep into the interactions and creating a realistic relationship between these two women. 

  • Michelle Cox

    Ellen, I admit this isn't something I've thought much about for the characters of my novels.  Thank you for this insight; it has given me a lot to think about.

  • Ellen Bravo

    Thanks, all!

  • Irene Allison

    Very thoughtful and very thought-provoking. It takes courage to write about such complex issues. Thank you for your insights. 

  • Amy Hassinger

    Really thoughtful post, Ellen. Thanks for sharing your approach and concerns. As a fellow white woman deeply concerned with the entrenched racism in our country (and within ourselves), I appreciate your willingness to confront it on the page and learn from the experience. 

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    This is a very helpful post, Ellen. I see writers struggling with this all the time—either not writing race well, or just avoiding it. So important to get an outside reader on something like this. Thanks for the good suggestions.

  • Kate Raphael

    Great piece.  This gives me some very good ideas about how to approach the undeniably thorny issues of how white women who care about fighting white supremacy can write true to our own experience without denying or appropriating the realities of race in this country.