This was a hard post to write.
I'm an Italian-American. My family ate pasta dinners every Sunday with our salad after. After dinner, we played Italian card games like scopola and briscola. Our holiday traditions have Italian roots. I grew up happy and never suspected this was anything to be ashamed about until I met my future husband's family.
My husband's family is not Italian. The Blount name can be traced all the way back to three-digit years and a Blount ancestor signed the U.S. Constitution. This name has roots in England, Ireland, Scotland, even some Native American. There had been little digs toward my Italian heritage like jokes about plastic-covered furniture and a preference for marble and granite and feigned fear of my mob connections, but I overlooked them with uncomfortable half-laughs. But when my son was born, and I proudly held him up to his grandparents and said, "This is the first Italian Blount" -- their faces fell, the smiles evaporated. If you'd seen it, you would have sworn I'd just told them the truth about Santa Claus. This is the closest I've come to experiencing racism.
I used this experience to build a character named Davis in a story called THE SKY WAS SCARLET. Davis is the hero's best friend and is struggling with not one but two identity crises. He's black living in an upscale town, where people follow him through store aisles as he shops, or cross the street because they assume he'll rob them. He's also gay and hasn't come out to anyone about that yet, because he assumes he'll lose his family and his friends when they find out. I'm not a guy. I'm not black. I'm not gay. How do I write this story? How do I write HIS story?
I think that whole 'write what you know' mantra has become a paralytic for a lot of authors. I may not know what it's like to grow up black or gay but I can imagine, using experiences in my own life as the foundation on which to build and supplement by research. As writers, that's our super-power -- our imaginations.
We have to start somewhere. We may not get it perfect. But the point is, we're getting it.