The Plight Of The POC Storyteller

In which we discuss why you’ll rarely find any gay black male characters in my stories.

Recently while discussing Scott Pilgrim, my buddies and I got on the topic of the challenges that POC storytellers contend with. Speaking from personal experience here, one of the biggest challenges that POC storytellers have to do endure is being accused of author avatar/insert or pushing an agenda.

It’s not often you’ll find a gay black man in my stories. You may find a gay POC, or a black male but I typically won’t put one that’s gay and black if for no other reason as a precaution to avoid author avatar/insert and being accused of it. The sad part is that even though George Lucas has gone on record stating that Luke Skywalker was based on him, most people wouldn’t make the connection, as opposed to if I tell a story about a black and/or gay character, as a minority, people will automatically assume I’m author inserting just because I share those same features with my protagonist.

    RANDOM STRAIGHT WHITE PERSON (RSWP): Come on Neo, tell the truth. That character is you.
    NEO: No, it’s not. This person was actually based on a colleague from work. The only thing this character and I have in common is that we’re both gay and black. But that’s it.
    RSWP: No Neo, that’s supposed to be you. He’s both gay and black and so are you. CLEARLY it’s you.
    NEO: If you read it, you’ll see, it’s really not me. We couldn’t be anymore opposite.
    RSWP: Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight. *pats Neo on the head* And I suppose next you’re going to be claiming that you people can actually write an escapist piece devoid of racism, homophobia, coming out and AIDS.
    NEO: Excuse me.
    RSWP: Where are you going?
    NEO: To find something sharp.

Too often I’ve witnessed (and again from personal experience) when a POC storyteller is trying to promote or tell a story about the POC experience or a universal tale that just happens to feature a POC as the protagonist, suddenly we’re accused of pushing “an agenda.”

This is why Shondra Rhimes, a black woman and executive producer of Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice couldn’t cast Isaiah Washington for the role of Derek Shepherd (played by Patrick Dempsey) even though he auditioned for it. Obviously in that case it worked out for the best but the point still stands. It should also be noted that I do applaud Ms. Rhimes because while both shows have their flaws (to….put….it……mildly), she consistently casts blacks and other POCs (and for that matter LGBTQs) in crucial and compelling roles and puts them on the same footing as the white characters which never happens. But even though both shows are ABC’s biggest hits, neither of them would’ve been given half a chance had Meredith Grey or Addison Montgomery been a WOC.

This is also why when stories featuring POCs don’t succeed (usually through the incompetence of the head honchos/execs), that’s used as an excuse for a moratorium on all POC stories. Yet if say an Ashton Kutcher flick flops or a Gambit comic book tanks, I don’t hear anyone calling for a halt on all media featuring white protagonists. Because, that’s just silly. And yet when stories like Blade, Rush Hour, Romeo Must Die, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Spy Kids, Batgirl (the Cassandra Cain run) and the Karate Kid do beat the odds and succeed, the Powers That Be still don’t want to capitalize on this opportunity.

And being a gay POC, not any better.

    SPESHULl STR8 WOMYNZ: OMG! Your story features gay boys. I totally have a fetish for them. FWAP! FWAP! FWAP! Let me read! Let me read.
    NEO: Ummm….okay.
    SPESHUL STR8 WOMYNZ: Oh…… of them is black. I only like pretty gay white boys. I can’t masturbate, I mean enjoy this. And your gay characters aren’t authentic. They’re not fabulously flamboyant like real gays are.
    NEO: You do know we’re not the Borg. And we can be action heroes too as the story illustrates.
    SPESHUL STR8 WOMYNZ: And where’s the romance? How do you expect me to live vicariously through them because I refuse to deal with my unresolved sexual issues?
    NEO: But the world needs to see that gay people can be superheroes too.
    SPESHUL STR8 WOMYNZ: This isn’t about you homos. This is about me and my needs and my desires. You seriously need to stop with your self-hatred and trying to be straight and know your place.
    NEO: ……………………………………………………………..

You’re almost better off having a white person promote a POC story because there’s a better chance of people looking at the merits of the narrative as opposed to say the black guy who’s just (re)telling a story from “his limited and myopic experience/imagination.”

And while I applaud and thank the creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender cartoon and HBO’s critically acclaimed and under-appreciated The Wire, I can’t help but wonder if they wouldn’t have been given the same chance and opportunity (and these creators were taking a chance pushing stories with POC leads), if they weren’t white.

So yeah, this yet another hurdle that marginalized storytellers have to contend with. And if you’re wondering why there isn’t more diversity in the media, this is one of the many reasons why.

9 thoughts on “The Plight Of The POC Storyteller

  1. I definitely hear what you’re saying. And cosigning IRT having a white person promote a POC story. I seriously doubt that “Undercovers” would have been green-lighted if J. J. Abrams were black.

  2. I see this too a lot, especially as someone who used to write (admittedly, horrible) fiction. Mixed race female? Must be a self-insert! Ignore the fact that at the time of my writing phase, I associated with a higher than average percentage of mixed race people and viewed it as something if not normal, at least not overwhelmingly ABnormal. Same for interracial couples. No, that is not supposed to be me and whatever white/Asian/Latino boy I had a crush on, it’s the main couple of the story and they are fictional.

    I also notice the positivity given to art about minorities is a lot greater when it was created by whites at least in part. Like, it’s great that some white artists can finally branch out and make art where nonwhites are more than background props. But nonwhite artists are trapped: if they make art about minority experiences, it’s self-insert and too narrow. If they make otherwise generic art with nonwhite characters, it’s still ‘a black thing’ or ‘an Asian thing’ or whatever, and dismissed. Art about white people appears not even to be an option. :/

  3. I talked about how the personal is radical over at Love’s Labors Lost.

    To promote further discussion, have you ever noticed how you’re supposed to “write what you know,” but when a POC does it (especially when it doesn’t confirm stereotypes about you) all of a sudden you’re supposed to “go beyond your limited experience”?

  4. Imagine if a moratorium on Gambit comic books would make space for more media featuring protagonists who are people of color. Two birds, only one rock.

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