View Full Version : Where would I start research on accurately portraying POC?

02-27-2013, 11:30 PM
Hello, everyone.

For a story I'm wanting to write, (based in a world setting I've been writing), I've been planning on having one of the main characters be Native American (not sure which tribe, yet, I'd need to do my research), and his best friend/possible girlfriend be black.

Previously I haven't worried too much about the cultural backgrounds in the story, due to it being based on an alternative future where the cultures characters came from were reasonably different from our own. In it, a large portion of the world had been taken over by supervillains, with certain cultural tendencies enforced. Once leaving those cultures (going into the non-controlled regions of the world), I've been trying to do research on the different locations to consider how people might react and what the characters would see, especially since I've been borrowing from different mythologies and religions for the "time stones" the MCs are searching for.

But this particularly story would be after the characters go back in time, and take place largely in modern day Missouri/Oklahoma (in this case, I grew up in Missouri, so that should help some). It is still set with the alternative timeline (super powers have existed since the 1950s, creating its own set of problems), but it's world much closer resembles our own.

The problem is, I know almost nothing about the modern day cultures outside my own. I'm white, and I haven't had much experience in racially diverse areas. I don't want the story to be issue based, but at the same time, I don't want to play down a character's race, how they might act and react, and what problems they run into.

What I'm wondering is, where do I start? Do you have any suggested reading that follows People of Color accurately? I don't want to create unfaithful or stereotypical portrayals, and I'm worried that a lot of what I read might steer me in the wrong direction, or that what I think might be good could actually be negative.

I'm wondering about this especially having read some of the threads on this forum. There are connotations I'd never heard of or didn't know was derogatory. And I want to avoid the "unfortunate implications" that might arise, especially after a beta reader pointed out a couple in one of my other manuscripts.

Any suggestions?

02-28-2013, 01:49 AM
Blogs! Blogs are awesome for this kind of research!

Lots of POC write great "slice of life" blogs and often tag the entries that have to do with race accordingly. (I'm one of them ::points to sig:: though I don't often write about personal experiences, just race in general and my reactions to media.) I find reading blogs fantastic for furthering my understanding of race and culture. You can do lots of reading of people's unfiltered responses, and educate yourself, without ever being that person who butts in with "EDUCATE ME!" (this is very much frowned upon, in case you didn't know (except in a space like this of course, where it's encouraged!)).

Some recommendations:

Try lurking at places like Racialicious (http://www.racialicious.com/) (race and culture), Racebending (http://www.racebending.com/v4/) (race in media with an emphasis on whitewashing), and Ars Marginal (https://arsmarginal.wordpress.com/) (race/other marginalized groups and popular media).

For some other specific starting points for helping with your MC's -- my favorite Native American-centric blog is Native Appropriations (http://nativeappropriations.com/), and I'm a big fan of The Angry Black Woman (http://theangryblackwoman.com/).

Requires Only That You Hate (https://requireshate.wordpress.com/) is a good place to see what kinds of tropes will get you kneecapped by reviewers (her opinions aren't the opinions of all POC, of course, but she doesn't cushion her reviews AT ALL and you'll get an idea of the most problematic tropes). Her performance rage-esque rhetoric takes some getting used to, and I don't always agree with her (she's a very controversial reviewer in general), but she's definitely made me a more thoughtful reader (and writer) with regard to race and *-isms. The comment threads are often very informative, too.

If you're not in SFF fandom and didn't see it already, I'd also recommend checking out the posts from the massive Internet madness known as Racefail 2009. Start here: http://fanlore.org/wiki/RaceFail_%2709 and follow the links. It can be a lot to wade through for the uninitiated, but it also spawned some incredibly touching and informative stories and had in extremely positive effect on me in re: my understanding of race in society. In fact, I go back and reread some of the entries from it every few years.

From more recent days, take a look at this post by Jim Hines (http://www.jimchines.com/2012/11/inclusion-linkfest/) with blog entries by marginalized people about fandom (and not just 'cause he links to me!), and the comments on both (http://jimhines.livejournal.com/658740.html) mirrors (http://www.jimchines.com/2012/11/inclusion-links/) of his original post asking for entries have a lot more.

Once you start reading, you'll start hitting links that will lead you all sorts of places. I recommend you read and lurk and read and lurk a LOT, and put some of these sites on your feed and continue reading and lurking as you write your book, and eventually you'll start seeing all sorts of fun institutional bias in society that you never saw before! It's like a superpower! (No, seriously--there's a lot of stuff you'll just *miss* if you're white; that's a lot of what people mean when they talk about "white privilege." But you can learn to start seeing some of it.)

Glad you're taking the time to do your research. I hope this helps!

02-28-2013, 01:53 AM
Oh! And I was concentrating so much on Internet resources I didn't think to mention -- seek out and read authors of color in your genre. See how they portray POC. It sounds like you might be SFF also--just to give you a starting point, three of my favorite SFF authors are Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson, and Ken Liu, who are all people of color who write about characters of color.

Kitty Pryde
02-28-2013, 02:44 AM
I think a perfect illustration of Doing It Right is Lauren Beukes' Zoo City. She is a white South African creating a great portrayal of a black protagonist. A good example of Doing It Rong is Wind-Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. It somehow won a ton of awards, but it's straight up dreadful racist all the way through.

Anyway, when researching, you should go to first hand and nonfictional sources, but those are good examples of to be sensitive when writing another culture (or fail).

Rachel Udin
02-28-2013, 03:57 AM

I'd look into the history of relationships as well. It looks like, though due to removal and stealing of land, etc, you're dealing with one tribe, principally. Often such tribes have websites you can read through.

And I'll say this about asking someone from the group: Do your research first. Show that *you* care enough to put in the effort to learn until you can't learn anymore and hit a wall. As was said before, it's not PoC's job to teach... which means, you should put in the effort to find out and research before defaulting. Have specific questions ready.

Also it removes the question of, "Is this person asking because they feel insecure and want to be told they can do whatever they want?" <--which can happen.

See if you can target the questions in relation to your story. Research can help with that.

Kim Fierce
02-28-2013, 04:06 AM
I'm going to look up some of this stuff too!

I just wrote a story with a Native American MC, it is an alternate past, but I'm going to be doing more research while waiting to get edits back from my publisher so that I can fine-tune a couple of things. It is a sequel, and part one is told with a white MC, but I still did Native American research for that story, because the Native American is her best friend. I've also just always been a reader of Native American historical fiction, but know I could learn more. My character, Two-Spirit, is a member of the Lenni Lenape (Delaware) tribe. It's a steampunk story, and in my version of history the natives and those of European and African descent in America banded together in the American Revolution against the British, and everyone really was free after that war. But questions do still arise in this story whether these people can all really trust each other and live together in harmony. There are white spies who are still loyal to the crown and are trying to make a new kingdom for Queen Victoria in the US where she will rule over a larger land, and would re-inforce slavery and would consider the natives heathens. Two-Spirit (who is both a warrior and a healer) and his warrior boyfriend Strong Arrow, best friend Amelia, and her girlfriend, the newly freed slave Nadine, are all the heroes of this series. There will be a third story told from the POV of Nadine. She was a slave in Britain who came over on an enemy ship and helped fight for her freedom in the first story, but now that she is free there is the unresolved issue of family still enslaved overseas to be addressed. Plus more enemies to be defeated who are trying to take over US.

I also want to read more about all the other links here, since I have multiple races represented in many of my other stories, too.

ETA: I guess I should post my own research sources. Lately I have done web searches on the particular tribe I'm writing about. Not wikipedia, but actual web sites about the tribe, or sometimes multiple tribes. There are books I've read in the past, but I can't really cite them accurately right now. The main thing I looked for is style of dress, names for certain things, and I also learned about different clans in the tribes and the animal they were typically represented by, as well as common tattoos and hairstyles.

03-01-2013, 05:29 AM
Thanks for all the suggestions, everyone. I'll start looking at the suggested links and go from there. :-D

03-01-2013, 05:40 AM
At some point, I really think you need to talk to someone from that culture, and, if possible, read part of what you write.

Kim Fierce
03-01-2013, 06:34 AM
That's a good idea, as well. As for me, I don't know anyone of Native American culture around here anymore (I did when I was younger), so I was going to try to find a beta reader for mine.

03-01-2013, 12:22 PM
That's a good idea, as well. As for me, I don't know anyone of Native American culture around here anymore (I did when I was younger), so I was going to try to find a beta reader for mine.

*cough* "Native American culture" (and I'm assuming that you probably know this and are using it as shorthand but it's something I see a lot and not everyone knows) is misleading... there is a vast difference between tribes. For instance, the bits of culture passed down from my Cherokee great-granda are very different from what the Nisqually tribal (Pacific Northwest) kids I grew up with were used to. So depending on what you're looking for a beta to focus on, you'll want to take that into consideration.

For Native focused blogs:

Native Appropriations is excellent and has been mentioned :)

http://newspaperrock.bluecorncomics.com/ and his website are also awesome; lots of news pieces and commentary. The "Forum" part of the website has lots of past essays and articles, although some links are broken. (But I believe most of them are dated and can be matched on the blog.)

http://beyondbuckskin.blogspot.com/ is imo a good partner to Native Appropriations

http://lastrealindians.com/ is also good for news and info.

Kim Fierce
03-02-2013, 01:57 AM
You're right Nonny, I was using shorthand, and will try to make sure I don't cause misunderstanding! I should have at least said cultures plural? :-)

My character is from the nearly wiped out Lenni Lenape tribe, which in my version of the past did NOT get run off their lands in Delaware and surrounding areas. Any native American people who I have met around here from Indiana generally have Cherokee background.

And yes, I have read there is quite a big difference in many tribes, and actually I am still trying to find out just what exactly Lenni Lenape's opinion was on homosexuality or "two spirits" (from what I understand the term two spirit is a more modern term, but my character's known name is Two-Spirit--his real name is not known by those outside his immediate family) as some tribes considered this would make people great spiritual leaders, healers, counselors, etc. and other tribes did not think this way at all. If I find out that his tribe is one that originally was not accepting, I might just have to write in an explanation that perhaps some tribes attempted a more united way of thinking during problems with the British, and that now it is acceptable.

Thanks for the links!

03-02-2013, 01:05 PM
Any native American people who I have met around here from Indiana generally have Cherokee background.

I'm from Indiana. I'm Zuni. Yeah, a bit displaced from NM.

Where in Indiana? I go to Purdue and one of our geology professors is Lenape.

(from what I understand the term two spirit is a more modern term, but my character's known name is Two-Spirit--his real name is not known by those outside his immediate family)

I finally have to admit, whenever I see this, it always reads to me like having a gay character named Gaylord or a lesbian character Sapphos.

Kim Fierce
03-04-2013, 09:08 AM
Wow kuwisdelu! I am from Anderson. If your professor would be interested in reading and advising pm me and I will give you my email.

From my understanding of Lenni Lenape, the person's true name is only known by close family and a name-giver, and they refer to family as Brother, Sister etc. They are known publicly by a nickname, which can change throughout their life. So that is why Two-Spirit has that name, and maybe I haven't read enough to see it anywhere else as a name in fiction. And, spoiler alert, he does get a new public name later. His true name is never revealed. I do see how with common usage it could become cliche, though!

ETA: if the professor doesn't have time to actually read the story (25 pages) I would like to at least ask a few questions for clarity. Publication is scheduled for June 23, and I have a couple more rounds of editing to do later on, so there is still time to make changes if needed. My main thing is, since it is alternate history, there are some cultural things that I say is a combination of European and Native American cultures coming together (I don't get too much into the African-American yet, but that will be explored further in the third and final story, which will be told from the POV of a freed slave.) Different tribal traditions and beliefs have also been united in an attempt at harmony, and I want to make sure I can differentiate between what is true Lenape culture, and things that may not have originally been their beliefs but that have evolved along with other cultures for the sake of unity.

For example, I talk about the Medicine Wheel, very briefly. So far I have read that evidence of these are mostly found in artifacts from people from the plains, and want to know if Lenape ever used this, or if I would need to explain that this came from another tribe's tradition and is being used by Lenape now.

03-05-2013, 02:35 PM
I finally have to admit, whenever I see this, it always reads to me like having a gay character named Gaylord or a lesbian character Sapphos.

Yes, I have to agree here. It's one of the things that makes me sigh and think "the author has done a bare minimum of research", because I have seen it SO often, and almost all of them are... not good. I can't give any published fiction examples, but I've seen it a lot doing critiques. (Sorry Kim! It sounds like you've really put an effort in, but... I would seriously, seriously reconsider this. JMO.)

Kim Fierce
03-07-2013, 03:33 AM
Well, I do already have a short story published with this name, part one of this series. (Amelia's Revolution). And so part two his public name is still Two-Spirit. But like I said, his name does get changed at the end. In Amelia's Revolution, a battle took place and ruined the upcoming ceremony which was going to announce him as an official healer. He is also a trained warrior. So his new name will be (tentatively) Warrior Healer, and I found what I believe are the accurate Algonquin words to depict this name as well. (That's the name for now, at least. I'm thinking of making it something else if I come across anything that could depict this in a different, less generic way.) And since in this Lenape culture, a person's true name is not revealed to anyone outside the family, his real name is not actually Two-Spirit, and the real name is not revealed in this story. I do wish I had known not to pick a nickname that would have been considered cliche, though! But in the third installment of this series, he will no longer be called Two-Spirit, so I hope that helps! I really think I need to find a better new name, because he is going to be considered really heroic because he has helped organize these battles in a major way, his father is a high-ranking sachem (chief) who runs the state of Delaware in a co-governor position with Amelia's father, and also Two-Spirit will end up being recommended by his grandmother as a candidate for sachem in the future as well. (From what I have learned this was traditionally passed down matrilineally, but in my alternate history there is an attempt at voting for the sachem, but generally those who are recommended by members of the original matrilineal line do run for election. There are also lower-ranking sachems in various other cities and towns in the state, but Two-Spirit's father is the highest ranking.)

I can send e-versions of Amelia's Revolution if you'd like. Amelia is the MC in that one, though, but I did still do Lenape research. Apparently not enough, but actually it's hard for me to find information at all about homosexuality in native cultures, of any grouping of people. And maybe I just don't know where to look. But the basis of my stories are that native Americans, and those of European, African, (and any other descent, but those are the races of the group of friends I feature) are all trying to get along in harmony as opposed to what really happened, and the cultures are trying to mesh without completely obliterating each other. I have read about other native groups, but I have to admit Lenape was one that up until I wrote Amelia's Revolution I knew very little about. But because of the area I wanted to be in, and the history of this group being one who had early contact with Europeans with horrible results, I was intrigued to write about positive results where they joined forces and lived together.

Or I could even send my version of Two-Spirit's Red Road that still needs edited, where I am even more focused on Lenape culture, since it is his POV. I would like advice before that one gets published in June, since it will be more important for me to get it right.

03-07-2013, 03:40 AM
I finally have to admit, whenever I see this, it always reads to me like having a gay character named Gaylord or a lesbian character Sapphos.

I just finished reading Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. He has a Native American character named "Cheroke." o..O

Kim Fierce
03-07-2013, 04:00 AM
When I was 20 years old I worked at a restaurant, and there were two native American women who also worked there who other people accused of being a lesbian couple. (I don't recall their tribal affiliations anymore, I was not exactly sober back then.) They did not admit to this, but of course being a lesbian myself I was not going to judge them if they were, and I was nice to both of them. But they were both what I felt considerably older than me at the time, and I was in too much of my own troublemaking escapades to be more introspective about it. (I would say one woman was 40 and the other could have been 50 or even 60.)

I only learned about the phrase Two-Spirit in the past few years. So it did not cross my mind back then to think anything about it, until much later, the implications of the fact that one of these women was named Two Heart. She said we could also call her Buffalo Heart and that her name simply meant she had a big heart . . . but . . . I like to hope that if those two really were together that they were and are still happy!

Kim Fierce
03-07-2013, 07:32 AM
Yes, I have to agree here. It's one of the things that makes me sigh and think "the author has done a bare minimum of research", because I have seen it SO often, and almost all of them are... not good. I can't give any published fiction examples, but I've seen it a lot doing critiques. (Sorry Kim! It sounds like you've really put an effort in, but... I would seriously, seriously reconsider this. JMO.)

I had actually never seen it as a person's name anywhere published so yeah, definitely didn't know a bunch of people were doing it.

03-07-2013, 08:08 AM
Wow kuwisdelu! I am from Anderson. If your professor would be interested in reading and advising pm me and I will give you my email.

I've PMed you. I suggest you go through Purdue's Native American Educational and Cultural Center (http://www.purdue.edu/naecc/).

Kim Fierce
03-08-2013, 01:23 AM
kuwisdelu, thanks very much, I will do that. :-)

Kim Fierce
04-24-2013, 05:10 AM
I have had a problem with chronic pain, and had laprascopy a couple weeks ago and am surprisingly still in pain. I do hope I can get a tour scheduled, and have been trying to contact other groups online just in case, just to make sure I don't have anything offensive in my upcoming short story.

There will also be at least two more that I want to do, so I can continue to learn. Part three is going to be from the POV of Nadine, a former slave who fought alongside the others and helped organize a rebellion with her fellow former slaves, and in that story it will focus on another battle, as well as her searching for some family that is still across the ocean. When it comes to history, I have done much more research on this kind of topic, but still need to learn about slavery in Great Britain as opposed to US.

I want part four to be from the POV of Lenape warrior Strong Arrow, the boyfriend of Two Spirit (whose name is going to be changed, and I still haven't finalized his name change yet. I want it to be non-cliche, yet easily recognizable in sequels that he is the same person throughout. I will probably still have either "two" or "spirit" in his new name just to keep it clear?)

So I definitely need to have more research and will at least make the tour a priority before part four.

Betty Geist
04-25-2013, 02:42 AM
Iím not Native American (though my mother claims it but whoís mother doesnít these days?), but Iíve written a several stories featuring NA characters and featured their culture and tribal history as central parts of the story, which is something (I feel) is really important to do when writing a Native American or an aboriginal character.

See, colonialism has striped away a lot of knowledge, and history from many aboriginal people. Iím not just talking about America either. Across the world and through out history, every time that one group of people settled into the area where other people were already present, the invading culture dominated and often erased the indigenous groupís culture.

Because of that itís not going to be easy for you to find a lot of detailed, first hand accounts of Native American people. Though it gets easier with certain tribes who have people actively preserving their language and heritage.

I have some suggestions that might be helpful. At least I hope they will be.

First you need to pick a tribe. It makes all the difference and will help inform the character and will make them a more distinctive individual. When you speak to actual Native Americans, they rarely refer to themselves as just Native American (or First Nation (in Canada) unless theyíre in a public forum. Usually they identify by their tribe.

Here are some tips for picking a tribe:

Do some digging to find out what tribes were in or around Missouri and Oklahoma in the 1950s. According to the list of Federally Recognized Tribes (http://www.ncsl.org/issues-research/tribal/list-of-federal-and-state-recognized-tribes.aspx) there are no officially recognized tribes in Missouri, but remember the US government moved a lot of tribes around through out history. Here is a map that shows a timeline of how NA were pushed off their lands and shows there reservations (http://thomaslegion.net/sitebuildercontent/sitebuilderpictures/americanindianterritorylosses.jpg). This site lists North American tribes by states also (http://www.worldstatesmen.org/US_NativeAM.html).

Check the census data for the 1950s. Now, this may not be that helpful because Iím not sure if they were even counting reservations at that time, but itís worth a try.

Google search is your friend. Specifically search for tribes in the Oklahoma/Missouri area. Though If you know Missouri, Iíd stick with that region. Itíll make doing regionally specific research a lot easier on you. I found the Peoria (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peoria_tribe) tribe during a quick search.

When studying the tribe, books are going to be your best bet. Try to look for stuff written by actual Native American authors, from the tribe youíve chosen for your character. Youíll find some great first-hand accounts or family stories about life, the culture and it will give you insight into their perspective of the world.

Also look for independent films and documentaries made by Native American film makers. This will help you find the voice of the character. A great documentary to help you dispel any latent or subconscious stereotypes you might have about Native Americans is Reel Injun (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=htyEJSEZYNU). Itís on Netflix instant streaming. It gives insight to what itís like to be the minority culture in a country where the dominant culture makes most of the films and media about or featuring your culture.

Iím going to make a suggestion because youíre setting it in 1950 and how you spoke about the characters in your first book are a bit disassociated from their origin cultures. I suggest you make your character either part or full Native American who was adopted by a white family. Or even a NA kid who taken from his family and put into the social system. He could meet his girlfriend in the social system, since there were black children taken into the system at that time as well.

The idea being that his separation from his culture and people can mirror the disassociation of the people who have escaped from the supervillianís regimented culture. You could play a lot with these parallels and themes.

Culture is a huge part of a persons identity. Iím not just talking about ethnicity. You have a culture, though because it is a dominant one in this country it may be harder to recognize it as such. All the subtle aspect of your daily life, from the books you read, to the food you eat are a part of your culture.

So if the people in your first book had that stripped from them and are now having to reclaim it, they would have a great deal in common with this young Native American man who was taken from his culture. Forced to live in an alien culture where his name, appearance and even how he speaks would set him apart from others.

Here are some links to sites that talk about Native American and African American adoptions:

Assimilation, Relocation, Genocide (http://www.pbs.org/indiancountry/history/relocate.html).

Coming Home: The Lingering Effects of the Indian Adoption Project (http://www.cwla.org/articles/cv0203indianadopt.htm)

Generation after generation, we are coming home (http://indiancountrynews.info/fullstory.cfm-ID=357.htm)

Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) (http://pages.uoregon.edu/adoption/topics/ICWA.html)

African-American Adoptions (http://pages.uoregon.edu/adoption/topics/AfricanAmerican.htm)

I also suggest that you think about adding in a few more secondary or even peripheral characters of color to the story to flesh out the diversity of your cast. Creating a larger and more varied representations of people of color in the world of your story will only enhance your leadís story. He is not just one NA boy taken from his people, he is one of thousands of children living in a culture that doesn't understand or recognize their cultures, much like the people from the first story. Beefing up your cast with characters of color also creates more realism, provide a variety of perspectives on the issues and helps avoid tokenism.

Good luck with your research and your book. Let me know if you need any help with research or resources.

04-25-2013, 06:22 AM
Thanks, Betty Geist, for all the information. Once I start fleshing out his character, I'll definitly take a look through those things. Looks like it'll be a good place to start. :-)

Technically the story takes place in 2012, but the change in history occurs in 1950s...

Which means that knowing a rough form of what actually happened will help me to make adjustments and see what would have likely changed.

Thanks! :-D