Having lived for six years each in New York City and London, I thought I was no stranger to diverse, urban environments. But when I moved to Johannesburg, South Africa almost seven months ago, race became a whole new – and much more significant – conversation. For the first time in my life I’m in the racial minority, yet my white skin broadcasts more privilege than it ever has before.
The in-your-face racial dynamics in South Africa have made me give new and weightier consideration to my responsibility as an author to represent diversity in my novels. I’ve always deliberately included POC characters in my novels: in my debut The Striker’s Chance the soccer-playing hero is close with a black teammate; my romantic suspense Secure Target sees a white Afrikaans-speaking cop looking up to his older, wiser, Xhosa partner; and in my upcoming Carina Press release Love in Straight Sets the hero runs into his black ex-girlfriend. The world isn’t all white, and so it’s important to me that the people in my books aren’t either. But does strictly casting POCs as secondary characters do more harm than good? When does “secondary” become “token”?
The last thing I want to do when I introduce secondary POC characters is to latch on to the “black best friend” trope. At the same time, however, as a white writer I would never consider writing a POC as a main character. I don’t inhabit that specific life experience, so don’t feel I could ever bring authenticity to that fictional point of view. That may sound silly considering I’ve “inhabited” characters ranging from a professional tennis player to a woman on the run from a serial killer, but race strikes me as a unique, complex set of experiences that I wouldn’t dare try to interpret.
So, faithful readers, what do you think? As a white writer, do I cheapen the presence of POC characters by perpetually giving them a peripheral role? Or is secondary visibility better than none?