On "Whitewashing" a Korean character

Anonymous said: The MC in my story is a Korean teenage boy living in a apocalyptic sort of world. I’m not sure how to write him considering he’s had almost no interaction with his culture or people of the same ethnicity. I don’t want to white wash him at all. Thanks

Hi, Anonymous! Glad you wrote in :)

Let’s have a chat about “whitewash” first, so we can get on the same page.

Bear with me! There are TWO different contexts for that phrase. One is when POC living in the West are accused of being “whitewashed” when someone thinks they don’t act ______ enough. POC face discrimination from both white people and fellow POCs who try to police our cultural identities. It’s like when people call Koreans/Asians ‘bananas’ for not being “Asian/Korean” enough on the inside.  

"Whitewashing" in that context is not a real thing. It’s offensive to say someone is "whitewashed" not because it’s bad to be white. It’s offensive because it implies there’s a wrong/right way to be Korean. Access or familiarity with Korean culture/community isn’t what makes somebody Korean. You’re Korean if you’re of Korean descent, period. Mixed-race, mono-ethnic, adopted, doesn’t matter. Koreans are Korean. 

White is not a culture. It’s not an ethnicity. White is a status of privilege, not of skin color, which is why light-skinned POC or white-passing POC still don’t have true white privilege.

Please remember that being American or Canadian =/= white.

It is perfectly understandable for people to reflect and be shaped by the dominant culture of where they were born/raised. Some choose to keep closer ties to the culture of their heritage, and some are more comfortable with the culture of the country of their birth. SO, if your character is of Korean descent but don’t have many ties/access to Korean culture, that doesn’t mean they’re “whitewashed”!

The second context/meaning of “whitewash” is when characters of color are represented by white people. It’s most often used to describe characters of color in literary media who are portrayed by white actors/actresses. This kind of “whitewashing” DOES exist. It leads to erasure, misrepresentation, and/or tokenism. Those are legitimate, valid concerns when writing characters of color, particularly if you are not of the same ethnic background as the characters you are writing. Please reference the diversity and tokenism tags for more information on that!

Because your work does not have a character who is originally Korean that is being portrayed by a white person, I don’t think you have to worry about “whitewashing” in the second context. (If your book gets optioned for a film, though, try hard to make sure they don’t cast a white guy as your MC!) But tokenism is still a genuine concern. 

Now, getting to the rest of your ask!

This ask is a little vague, so it’s hard to give specific advice. Is your protagonist someone of Korean descent that grew up in a country other than Korea? Or are they being raised by non-Koreans? Do they know they’re Korean?

You mention that your world is apocalyptic, but not where it’s actually set. If your MC is a Korean teenager, then there’s obviously still the concept of certain nations (like Korea) around. What difference does knowing he’s Korean or being Korean make in your setting? If your MC doesn’t have a connection to Korean culture/community, what culture/community are they plugged into? PLEASE be sure not to turn this Korean character into a token/shallow stereotype. 

Given how many people fetishize and exotify Asians in general and Koreans in particular, please ask yourself why you decided to make your character Korean. Don’t write a Korean character who has no ties to their culture because you want a character who “looks” Korean but don’t want to research Korean culture. That’s not going to lead to a positive/realistic representation of Koreans in your work. 

Koreans who grow up in non-Korean environments definitely struggle with their identity, so research that! Many people are who ethnically Korean don’t feel like they are culturally Korean, and that can be a painful struggle. Some even have close ties to Korean community/culture, but don’t “feel” like they’re Korean. (A famous example is comedian Margaret Cho!). Others feel this way because they are adoptees or being raised by non-Koreans. Does your MC feel lonely because they’re one of the only Koreans they know? Or does that not matter to them?

A good way to ensure diversity/non-erasure in your work is to have actual diversity. So consider the culture/community your protag is in and make it one that is diverse and respectful in its representations. Have MORE than just an all-white cast of characters and one Korean. Also remember, just because your MC is Korean doesn’t mean his entire identity/existence has to revolve around being Korean, Anon~ Hope that helps!

~mod Stella

anonymous said:

Hi! First I want to say that your blog is a godsend and I've only been following it for a few weeks but I've learned a lot. Anyways I'm about to start a story were most of my characters have powers(just being like stronger faster smarter etc) and one of my main characters is a black male and I assigned him a power called iron skin, where hes basically indestructible and I'm worried that that plays into the stereotype that black people are tougher/can resist more pain. Should I change it?

Avoiding Stereotypes by Changing Character and/or Traits

Luke Cage! You might want to change his power because a character like this already exists. But that’s the only reason.  

Assuming you didn’t know about Luke Cage, the real question asks whether you should change some aspect of your story to avoid reinforcing a stereotype. I’m also assuming that you either meant the character’s ethnicity and/or their power. Change the character to a White man to avoid potentially writing a stereotype?

You could change the character to another POC, but you are going to run into the same problem. Change the characters powers to avoid writing a stereotype? You might be avoiding one stereotype and reinforcing another. Why don’t you avoid the stereotype by just writing a three dimensional character? If your story hinges on stereotypes, you need to rethink your story not your character. 

I’m getting a little frustrated with people thinking that it’s the character’s race that is the problem with the story. This is why stories featuring POC don’t get made! What do you gain by changing a POC character to White? I can’t think of any benefit other than it shields you from potential criticism, which as a writer, you need to be open to if you plan to get any better at writing. And that goes with anything worth doing. Writing diverse characters is worth doing to not only to expand your knowledge, but also contribute to representing a portion of society that has limited representation. 

Here’s a quote from Gene Luen Yang, a famous comic writer and artist. 

"I believe it’s okay to get cultural details wrong in your first draft. It’s okay if stereotypes emerge. It just means that your experience is limited, that you’re human. Just make sure you iron them out before the final draft. Make sure you do your homework. Make sure your early readers include people who are a part of the culture you’re writing about." (Bolded for emphasis)

Keep your story the way you intended it to written. Push yourself past the fear. As I’ve said before in Avoiding Racial and Patriarchal Stereotypes, you are only reinforcing more powerful stereotypes by changing a character’s ethnicity to White.

More Reading: 
Gene Luen Yang’s Diversity Speech

~Mod Najela  

I get the concern with making the Black man a basically indestructible, pain-resistant character. And I would like to see more roles and powers in Black characters than strength-based ones. As mentioned in the FAQ, yes, people truly believe Black people (even children) feel less pain and thus we receive less medicine as well as sympathy when hurt and injured, even emotionally. Because we’re so strong that we can take it, right?

I personally am wondering why so many Black characters default to having a power connected to how strong and/or indestructible they are, and I personally want to see more depictions than this. Sleek characters, speedy characters, element-yielding characters, nimble characters… and not always your iron-skinned, impenetrable powerhouse. Black people are more than just strength.

Since you said “it” I’m taking you’re asking if you should change his power rather than his race. Najela already provides some wisdom above for both cases, but I’d hope, in any case, despite his body being so strong, he is allowed to have emotional vulnerability.

Does he have loved ones? Friends? A significant other? Family? Hell, a cat? What exactly are his weaknesses, even if they’re not physical? What could send him to his knees? Is his persona as hard as his skin?

You’re avoiding trouble when you make him a three-dimensional character, aka human, so i’d recommend that if you don’t want to change his power.

I’d also hope that, if there’s another Black character with powers, they don’t all have power based on indestructible strength, for then it really would feel as if you’re pressing in that strong, and often “scary" stereotype.

~Mod Colette

Make sure your characters are worth spending ten hours with. That’s how long it takes to read a book. Reading a book is like being trapped in a room for ten hours with those characters. Think of your main characters as dinner guests. Would your friends want to spend ten hours with the characters you’ve created? Your characters can be loveable, or they can be evil, but they’d better be compelling. If not, your reader will be bored and leave.
—  Po Bronson
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