Is White Writing Black, Right Writing or Wrong Writing?

Ruth Hartley Storytelling, Politics, Race, Southern Africa, The Tin Heart Gold Mine8 Comments

To the left of the painting are several African workers in a garden in the hot sun. To the right in the shade is a white woman with a young girl laening on her shoulder

Detail of African Garden, an oil painting by Ruth Hartley 1980

Writing black and white people, men and women, good and bad.

This is a rewrite of post on Marginal Scribbling that contains some complicated ideas that need thrashing out with other writers and readers. I intended to repost this anyway but it seemed more relevant after the launch of my novel The Tin Heart Gold Mine because I was asked by Nick Inman how I, as a white writer, wrote Black or African characters. My original post, written in response to a Thought Leader article in the South African Mail and Guardian, raised some of the issues around that question but the answers aren’t straightforward. It’s true to say that I hesitated at first about writing about black characters out of personal and political sensitivities and experiences. I then decided that even if the plot was about skin colour or racism, I was writing about people first and what they think and feel, so I simply went ahead.

Is White Writing wrong?

The South African writers who inspired me to write questioned racism and white superiority, Alan Paton, Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer, André Brink and J M Coetzee, opened doors onto new perceptions and empathies. They continue to illuminate the road to change. They were writers, not white writers.

The world, however, has changed enormously since the end of apartheid. Identity politics concern us and I too have to ask myself who I am and who I am writing about. Writers who write about people different from themselves are questioned as to their motivation and authority. That may be as it should be. We want to hear an authentic voice. Do we also want to prescribe limits to a writer’s imaginative and creative abilities?

Somerset Maugham says

Well, by an ironic coincidence, my latest book club read is  The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham. Maugham, the novelist, is a character in his own book but says he can’t write American characters because they are foreign to him and therefore known only from observation. “You can only know them if you have lived them . . . if you are them.”1  In his view, even Henry James failed to create an Englishman after living in England 40 years. I have also heard arguments that a man can’t create a realistic woman and vice versa but in today’s world is it possible to leave out one gender completely or write a book in which there are not people of different skin colours?

Intuitive leaps

If writers don’t make their intuitive leaps into other states of being and other worlds then we’ll never understand each other. There will be no future Charles Dickens, no future William Shakespeare, absolutely no future science fiction or fantasy and a future Ursula le Guin will not be able to imagine a world where there is no racism or sexism. Autobiography might be the only acceptable literature or perhaps there would be a cultural apartheid where writers and books only served their own communities.


Western culture and society have legislated for racial and sexual equality but not yet achieved it. There is a vociferous debate about how privilege is maintained and what part literature plays. To avoid offending anyone the safest position to adopt would be not to write and not to speak but to hide one’s thoughts. The result of that stance would be not to learn, not to adapt, not to develop ideas and not to hope to change the world. Writers must write, thinkers think and speakers speak out for their beliefs.

African books

Good books have been written about Africa by writers who were not African. John Le Carré wrote two books set in Africa, The Constant Gardener and The Mission Song. Barbara Kingsolver wrote The Poisonwood Bible. Should a literary version of the Bechdel Test for movies be applied to these books? For example the number of black protagonists who are not servants, the ratio of main black characters to main white characters, even the blackness and cultural authenticity of the characters. Would black writers have to have the same questions asked of their books? The Bechdel Test fails movies where female characters are objectified or reduced to stereotypes. Literature is rated by fully drawn characters, good plots and good writing.


Good writers do not write to a dictated political formula.
Good writing may, however, be political.

These are the questions I have to ask myself:

How am I to write today? What am I to write about? Who am I to write about? What am I? What kind of writer am I?
Writers should write about what they know – that is true – but how do we know what we know?


A note on my painting of The African Garden. It can be read simply as a painting of an African garden. It can be read as a study of the contrast of strong light on black skins and the shadows on white skins. It can be read as a political painting. How do you see it?

1 The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham,Part 1, Chapter 1, Page 3.

8 Comments on “Is White Writing Black, Right Writing or Wrong Writing?”

  1. Tia Azulay

    Hi Ruth,

    I really enjoyed this post. You pose some important questions, and it seems clear that, while you remain open to the discussion, you have also arrived at some answers that enable you to continue writing. I agree that if writers were to avoid offending anyone, they would have to stop writing. Because, if you were to take the “write only what you know” mantra to its logical conclusion, it would be impossible to write about any character besides yourself. You do not “know” another person just because you share the same skin colour or were born in the same town. In fact, most of us do not even know ourselves…. so even autobiography might become illegitimate! 🙂

    For me, your painting is all those things that you mention, and more. It reveals some of the things that you the artist “know”, but more of what you see (or saw at the time). The artist’s seeing at the time of creation may be underpinned by “knowledges” not available to the present viewer, and the viewer brings other “knowledges” to make their own sense of the image. However, most of us do not stand before a picture with enough humility and patience to allow all the possible meanings to emerge and interact.

    1. Ruth Hartley

      I am glad you enjoyed this post. Your point about the ‘knowledge’ the viewer or reader bring to art or a novel is important.
      Artists and writers are communicators. We may present a point of view – or some ideas – or create a world – but in the engagement with the other person we don’t retain control instead we enter into a shared conversation or a discourse and the work ‘belongs’ to all and each participant.

  2. Jan

    I don’t think the question is just about skin colour but also about culture. What culture you are born into denotes how you see the world as much, if not more, than skin colour. A black person living in a wealthy area of London and who has attended a “good ” school and has a good job is worlds apart from a black person not born in the UK and living in a black community of Brixton for example. There is so much more separating these people than there is separating whites and blacks generally. There is probably more separating me from the culture of a small Irish village than there is from a black person born in the UK. This is not to say I don’t think whites shouldn’t write about blacks but they should be fully aware of the culture they are writing about whether white or black. I think when you write you are writing about people foremost but people from different cultures and different skin colours do not have the same world view. How do you get into the head os somebody who sees the world differently? How do you know what it does to your self esteem to have suffered prejudice all of your life? I know what it feels like to be a woman and all the prejudice that comes with my sex, so what would it be like to be a black woman? We may have black friends and think we know them well but do we? How can we? These are the challenges and if we don’t get it right we are doing blacks a grave dis-service.

    I see the painting as a political painting of blacks and whites. Blacks working while whites sits around. I’m sorry but In this day and age I find it almost offensive.

    1. Ruth Hartley

      I do agree with you that culture is as important as skin colour. The problem is that all these elements are intertwined and enmeshed and can’t be easily disentangled. Generations have different cultures and so do genders and then there are all those people who are on the boundaries or in various stages and states of transition as immigrants, refugees or travellers or children of cross-cultural relationships. It is a richness but also can seem dangerous. I am interested that you find my painting “almost offensive”. I meant to make white people look at their relationship with their African workers. I thought it might offend but not liberals, only racists. At that time I got no feedback that I can remember. Perhaps some people thought that was how it was and how it should stay but I certainly meant to make people ask questions. The painting was made in post-colonial Africa where things had not changed much at that time. Today the painting might show workers and an elite but they would all be black so there would be another question about the difference between rich and poor, workers and bosses. In the context of my painting however, are the white women “bosses” or are they also in a kind of purdah?

      1. Christine Stacey

        I concur, while it must still be remembered that you painted this in the 1980s I think it does make people look at their relationship with their workers. Zambia was my first foray into having people work for me in the house, and I was initially uncomfortable doing so, but you helped me realise that my employing people I helped the local economy, I and my children were exposed to another way of life, and it was about how we treated those who worked for us that was crucial. There is nothing in the painting that is offensive, it portrayed a way of life as it was then. Fed up with bleeding heart liberalists who want to sanitise our past. We did it, it is done, most of us don’t do it anymore because we learnt from it. Sanitise the past and it is erased and nothing can be learnt.

  3. Christine Stacey

    I disagree totally with Jan with regard to your painting for two reasons. Firstly it was painted in 1980 and the world is a different place now, so this becomes a historical artefact, and secondly I really abhor the current trend to annihilate anything bad from our past. If we eradicate people such as Rhodes from our history we are not learning from them. The past is done and cannot be undone, but we can learn from it, taking the good forward and acknowledging the bad and being determined not to repeat the lessons.
    As for providing characters that are not from the same/identical/similar background to us – what a load of nonsense, of course you can and must do so. What about the books about Botswana and Mma Makutsi written by Alexander McCall Smith, they immeditately transported me back to Zambia in the 1980s. You can hear the voice of the people in your head, write on

    1. Ruth Hartley

      I have really enjoyed the fact that my painting is seen so differently by two different people. I have found that though readers can agree in general terms about a book we all seem to have very different opinions and pleasures that we take from reading the same book. It does seem to be the same with paintings. I hope that my painting hasn’t become irrelevant with the passing of time but it does seem to suggest that it may be necessary to have an idea about the artist’s intention as well as the context in which the work was made in order to understand it. I suppose it is also necessary to have an idea of the artist’s development, the way their work has changed and why.

  4. Jan

    Christine I think you have misunderstood some of the comments I have written. I appreciate the painting comes from the 1980 and what I said was that this subject matter in this day and age depicted in the way it is makes me feel uncomfortable. In fact I think it would have made me feel uncomfortable in 1980. I never said anything about eradicating the past which we cannot do.

    I also did not say we should only write about people from similar backgrounds to ourselves. What I was trying to point out was that it was not just whether whites should write about blacks, which is the question Ruth posed, but it is also a cultural issue and that can sometimes be more difficult to overcome than the colour of the skin. Blacks not only have a different skin colour but often, although not always, come from a different culture. Ruth says writers should write about what they know and I agree. My final sentence was to say these are the challenges that we have to face when writing outside our culture and also perhaps our skin colour.

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