Some advice for white people in fandom
You're puzzled about how to do it, and you're scared that there will be consequences, right? Well, I, an actual Fan of Color, am going to give you some advice on how to grab your CoCs, and what to do if the FoCing Cabal* accuses you of abusing your CoCs.
Before we get down to the nitty gritty, I'm going to let you in on several secrets to de-scarify the whole issue before you even get started on the how.
1) The FoCing Cabal is not out to get you. If they point out that something you have written is offensive, they are probably doing their very best to say it in a non-confrontational way so you will a) continue to grab CoCs, b) not piss people off by grabbing them in a sore spot, and c) you will actually hear the words they are saying, instead of the words, "Die, honky bitch, die."
2) When the CoC in question is black and the white fan in question is American, I am very often tempted to read, "I do not understand the African American experience," as really saying, "I don't know anything about poor urban dwellers (i.e. hoodrats.)" Luckily for you, most CoCs, even if they come from the hood, have left the hood far behind by the time they get to your television screen. Foreman may have grown up in the ghetto, but by now he's done four years of college, four years of medical school, and six years of neurology residency. That's ten to fourteen years of working in environments that are predominantly white. Lawyers, scientists, and middle class professionals living anywhere in the country outside of the South, and upper class and rich professioanls living anywhere in the country at all will be working and, possiblity socializing, in predominantly white environments. Military characters are in environments that are highly racially integrated. Your CoC knows about the dominant American, English, or Canadian culture, and will mostly interact with the white characters on that basis. If you're a fan of shows with criminal characters, you might have to deal with poor urban people, but that brings us to point number three.
3) Ninety-nine percent of shows that catch fannish attention are written by white guys who don't know any more people of color (of any social class or profession) than you do. The exceptions that come to mind would be Homicide, The Wire, and Grey's Anatomy. (If I'm missing any, do let me know.) Hollywood (as are most American corridors of power) is disproportionately controlled by white well-to-do men. These white well to do men are drawing the characters on which your fiction is based. You only have to get the characters as ethnically authentic as the writer/producers do, which means you mostly don't have to get them ethnically 'authentic' at all.
4) When you can tell me the essentials of white culture, I can tell you the essentials of black culture or Asian culture or Middle Eastern culture. By which I mean, the part where I and Preston Burke are both black doesn't mean we have much in common at all. Black people have different concerns, habits, slang, patterns of dress depending on class, geography, religion, age, etc. Same goes for CoCs of different ethnicities.
5) Most of the fans who are going to be reading your fanfiction are going to be white. Most fans are white. The FoCing Cabal is sadly small. A sizable portion of those white fans are going to be just as clueless as you feel reading this. This isn't always going to be true (there are a growing number of clued in white people everyday. You are becoming one of them, by reading this post) but for the moment, the number of people who are going to realize you've been racially insensitive is probably not as high as you think it is.
Part the First In which we explore some things to do when grabbing a CoC for your fanactivity
N.B. I talk directly about writing fanfic, but I think a fair amount of this is translatable to more visual fan arts.
The first thing you should understand when you are writing fanfiction about a CoC is that you are writing fanfiction, i.e. you are writing about a character who has already been characterized for you. You should use your fannish decoder ring to make a reasonable guess about how the CoC relates to the other characters on the show, how the CoC talks on a daily basis, whether the CoC buys into the show's job/mission, if the CoC generally walks around with a happy mien, etc. This will be most easily gleaned if you are writing about a regular character, of course, but even with a recurring character, you can make some reasonable inferences. You can assume that there is some aspect of their job they enjoy, which speaks to their character, and you can assume that they have as much money as other people in their profession, and, unless the main characters say otherwise, that they are reasonably competent in their profession and pleasant enough to be around. You are not writing about every Asian woman to ever exist, you are writing about the Cylon agent known as Sharon Valerii. Write the CoC, not her ethnicity.
The second thing you should understand is that your CoC has many other things to think about besides not being a rich white straight guy. Paradoxically, not being a rich white straight guy colors your CoC's whole life. Think about it this way; most of you are women but you don't go around humming female power anthems under your breath all day. At the same time, many of you worry about getting pregnant when you have sex, you are wary when walking alone after dark in a city or across campus, and it is a minor but every day annoyance that while your office is equipped with someplace to hang a coat, there is no specific purse locking up furniture. So, yes, you should write more CoCs, but no, you don't need to write about racism or slavery or the Japanese internment camps or whatever. Most of the time your CoC is thinking about when they can leave work to go home, what chores they have to do when they get there, and what will they be having for dinner tonight. Seriously.
The next thing you should remember is that writing about a CoC doesn't necessarily mean writing about their difference. Probably you are writing about them falling in love with some other person on your show. Maybe you are writing about them solving a murder or plotting a caper or saving the world one more time. But if your story isn't about family and it isn't about politics, chances are good it's not about race and ethnicity. It may touch on cultural issues at the intersections of food, music, and religion, but remember, your CoC is probably interacting with a white character, and will be making allowance for your white character's cultural ignorance. You don't have to be an expert on rap music to have Gunn play a CD of rap music that Wesley doesn't recognize in your story. (Oh, and while we are on the subject of difference, you should probably avoid contrasting a white character's skin with a CoC's skin during sex. I know it seems like an easy visual descriptor, but that's a place where it's supereasy to cross the line from sexy to othering with two casual words. Imagine being in bed with a guy who specializes in boobs, and he can't shut up about how yours are perfect, the exact right size for X, his total ideal…but when you ask him what color your eyes are he can't tell you. It's icky like that, reducing the CoC's attractiveness to the way in which he is obviously not white.)
You should also consider having someone look over your work for these issues. Britpicking is common for Americans writing British shows, and British fans get the reverse done. If you know someone who either has special knowledge of the cultural group you are concerned about or is really familiar with the CoC in question, send them an e-mail. Say, "I'm afraid that what I'm writing is going to offend someone, can you give this a look? Blackwhack (™bibliotech) this for me?" They may say, "No, I'm busy." That's fine; it's not their job to teach you about Turkish oppresion. But they may say, "Sure," and look at it and tell you you're fine. Or they may read it and roll their eyes and say, "OMG, why are you so white and dumb? People are going to give you shit about this totally obvious thing. Change it right away before I get fandomwanked just for knowing this exists." The point is, you are reading this post because you think you don't know enough to know if you're being offensive and you're scared that you might do so by accident. Ask someone who does know enought to give you a heads up before you post publically.
The fifth thing you should remember is that, just like elves and vampires, there are books about black people, Asian people, Jewish people, etc. in your local public library. (Well, I hope there are in your local public library.) Even if you have a really bad library that doesn't have such books, the internet has websites on the same. If you want to know how the Americans, the British, or the Canadians do primary education, you aren't afraid to see if wikipedia can give you some info. Don't be afraid to try to find out about food or religion or slang for subcultural groups of which you are not a part. Wikipedia is often a good place to get a broad idea and some search terms for an effective google search. Say, I wanted to write about a *Filipina who was cooking a meal for her family for a big Filipino holiday. Well, I would go to wikipedia to look up the Philippines and holidays. And then I would use google to find out if Filipino immigrants celebrate the holiday. And then I would go to some cooking websites to figure out how some traditional dishes are prepared and what they might taste like. And in twenty minutes to an hour, I would have added some authenticity to my story. Just like most fans are not cops or lawyers or biochemists, so if they need to know about law enforcement or law or biochemistry for a story they'll look it up, you can research cultures you don't know.
This next bit of advice I totally stole from plainsong_x's comment in Te's journal. Don't psych yourself out trying to write about a CoC. Find a hook. Find the part that you relate to or understand or care about, and write about that. Don't write about Aiden Ford, black guy. Write about Aiden Ford, the guy who thinks up dumb names for Ancient stuff. Don't write about Sun, Korean woman, write about Sun, pregnant woman trapped on an island with the husband she is pretty sure is not the father of her future child. Don't write about Gabrielle Solis, Latina. Write about Gabrielle Solis, fashionista. Remember, the FoCing Cabal doesn't want you to write about characters just because they are of color, they want you to write about all of the characters who do things that hit your fannish kinks, including the CoCs.
Last but not least, it's perfectly true that some fanfiction characters might as well be original characters. Either they are minor characters (á la Lorne or Grodin) or they are real people who don't do many interviews, or the relationships we see on screen are highly stylized or restricted in some way. The best way to avoid offending people when building up these characters to use them in your fanfiction is to make them three dimensional. If they're good guys, don't turn them into Mary Sues. If they're villains, show us why they think their own self-interest should trump the good of other people, don't turn them into Snidely Whiplash, who is evil so he can twirl his mustache. And if you've got a character with a more complicated moral stance, show it to us and explain why they live in a grey landscape. Seriously, shallow characterization is what leaves you widest open to accusations of stereotyping, because stereotypes are shallow characterizations. If you explain to the audience why Luther Mahoney is his own special unique brand of evil drug dealer and why Christina Yang is her own special unique brand of medical school valedictorian, the FoCing Cabal is much less likely to accuse you of saying, "All black people are criminals," and, "All Asian people are nerds."
If you want the perspective of a white fan on how to write CoC, rydra_wong did a lovely post for IBARW.
Part the Second In which we discuss how to react if someone calls you on CoC abuse.
When somebody says to you, "Wow, white person, that thing you did in that story you wrote was incredibly racist," do not panic! Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, no one is accusing you of being a racist or a bad person or the source of all evil in fandom. They may not even be accusing you of being a bad writer.
What they are saying is, "A) You made a mistake, B) Your mistake offended me and C) your mistake will offend many other people."
Resist the urge to say, "No! I'm not racist." If this is the first time you've been accused of something like this, probably no one thinks you are a racist. They think you did something that was racist. If I have a coffee and beignet for breakfast, that's pretty French, but it's not going to make me French, you know? On the other hand, your strenuous self-defense will be read as the lady protesting too much and make people think you are racist. Being accused of racism is a little like being asked, "So, when did you stop beating your wife?" There is no good way to protest your innocence. So, don't try. Even if you are one hundred per cent innocent, even if you are the adopted child of people of the same ethnic group as you are being accused of maligning, even if your thesis was on the function of racism in American pop culture, even if you are an alien being who is playing around on the internet before preparing to invade planet Earth, don't say that you aren't a racist, and don't say that what you did wasn't racist. Being unable to defend against charges of racism is one of the burdens of being white, and while you are being accused of racism is not a time when you can try to change that.
What you should do is three fold. First of all, you should apologize. And it should be a real apology, not a fake apology. Say, "I am sorry I offended you." Do not say, "I am sorry you feel bad." The first apology is acknowledging that something you did hurt someone. The second one says, "It is not my problem that you are an oversensitive whack job, but because I don't want the FoCing Cabal to come after me, I will magnaminously acknowledge that you have worked yourself into a frenzy." Your fake apology will annoy the FoCing Cabal even more.
Second, if you had a reason for doing the offensive thing, you can explain why you did it.
When I say a reason, I don't mean, "I thought it was cool at the time." When you say something like that, what you are saying is, "I didn't intend to offend you, so you shouldn't be offended." That's not the way it works. Even if Shonda Rhimes keeps telling the viewers of Grey's Anatomy that McDreamy is a prince but showing him as a weasel, the character is a weasel. In the exact same way, if you meant to make people laugh, but you offended all of the Korean fans with a joke about comfort women, you were offensive.
You should also not offer an explanation which repeats the accusation made against you. If you are being accused of writing a racist story because you made the only canonical black character into a magical negro, you can't explain, "Well, I needed a Yoda for my hero, and Character X wasn't doing anything else in my story." You are just recapping the behavior which got you accused of acting racist, and admitting you have no alternate explanation of your own actions. If you can't come up with a non-racist reading of your behavior, then you should say, "That thing that I did was racist." If you can't say 'racist', 'fucked up' or 'wrong' go a long way, too.
ETA: norah offers even more explicit advise on how to apologize in the general case, not specifically in situations of racial tension. </ETA>
Also, realize that your explanation does not fix things. It does not mean you should go on to repeat the thing you did, because now people will understand you were telling a joke. It does not mean that all of the people you offended will be magically unoffended. What it means is that people can have a story in their head to compete with the story they formed from reading what you originally wrote, which is, "Insensitive honky." Your explanation of why you did what you did may just move you into the category of, "Clueless white person." Trust me, this is an improvement. Clueless white people are educable. Insensitive honkies get killfiled. <ETA>annavtree on becoming a clueless white person.</ETA>
Third, read White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. Re-read the accusation of racist behavior until you understand what you are being accused of. If you don't understand what you are being accused of, say, "I don't understand why what I did offended you. Will you please explain?" If you understood enough to get keywords for the problem, go research it. The goal here is for you to sufficiently understand how you offended people so you don't offend them again. It is not to turn you into the hero of this interaction. You can't win, you can only repair the damage already caused.
You are probably wondering, "Good grief, this is a lot of work, and if I screw up, all I can do is lie down and get kicked in the head. Why on Earth should I write CoCs? I can just avoid the mess by only writing about white people!"
That thing where you are considering only writing about people of the same race as you is an exercise of white privilege. It is something that you are able to do because you are white. If I want to do it, I have to restrict my fannish activity to The Wire, Homicide, and Oz. (Since my fannish preference is for indifferently written genre shows with marvelously underwritten premises, that doesn't actually do me any good.) If an Asian or Latino fan wants to write only about Asian or Latino characters, they would have to create a massive and improbable crossover of one character from this fannish property and two characters from that fannish property if they want to build a cast of fifteen or twenty different CoCs of the correct cultural group.
Deliberately exercising white privilege is racist. The reason you read this whole thing is so you can not be racist. Just grab your CoC and stop angsting already.
* Fandom of Color Cabal (pronounced fucking cabal). The -ing stands for nothing. I just want to be part of the 'fucking' cabal, and since we don't actually have a cabal, I am taking this opportunity to name our hypothetical gang. If other members of the FoCing Cabal want to be called something else, they can write their own LJ entries.
* Before you send your CoC off to do some colorful ethnic thing, try to make sure you a) have the right ethnicity and b) your CoC is the sort of person who buys into their cultural heritage. Remember the part where I said your CoC was probably a middle-class professional or a criminal, given the nature of fandom? Unsurprisingly, both middle-class professionals and criminals often largely abandon their cultural heritage, particularly if they are two or more generations off the boat. This is not inevitable by any means, but more money means the ability to explore other ways of living, and if you try another way of living, you may find you like it.
N.B. This is my own personal advice to white fans. I have not consulted the FoCing cabal in the writing of this post. Because every Fan of Color is an individual human being, we have different opinions about different things and how they should be done. Just so you know.