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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Race and Fiction

Day 632: Today, I'm talking about race. Sorry if that makes you uncomfortable, but that's just what I do around here.

Here is my disclaimer: I am about to address the INCLUSION of People of Color. NOT, I REPEAT, NOT the exclusion of white people. INCLUSION!

So you might be wondering why I'm talking about race. This isn't about Trayvon Martin, though I'll get back to him. I've been wanting to talk about this for a while now, but yesterday I was pushed to it. I was in a chat on twitter and there was talk about writing characters of color/non-white characters. I did not start this discussion. And the general response was "I, as an author, do not write characters of color because I am afraid of presenting a racial stereotypes that people will find offensive." This is not the first time I have heard this response.

Okay. Valid argument. No one wants to offend people, most of the time. And yes there are portrayal of people of color out there, but I am terrified to think that Tyler Perry speaks for me and it makes me sick to my stomach to think that Kathryn Stockett speaks for my grandmothers. So what are we left with if not the stereotypes? Omission. Here's the problem with complete omission, when you leave characters of color out (the same can be said of gay and lesbian characters, characters of varying gender identities, etc.), they no longer exist in your world. When they don't exist in your world, they don't exist in the reader's world. This is dangerous, especially for people who are only exposed to diversity through books, film and television. Just as dangerous as the stereotypes and in cases, more harmful.

Now when the reader sees themselves on the page, there is an instant connection to that character. Other people see me. Other people acknowledge that I exist, that I have thoughts and feelings and value. I loved She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb because he wrote about an overweight girl in an honest, real way. BTW Wally Lamb has never been an overweight girl. He took the time to write how difficult it is to be overweight and how one may find themselves overweight in the first place. He nailed it.

The current standard is the brunette, doe eyed, young white female between the ages of 15 and 26 who seems to be the focus of EVERY book, movie and television show. I have nothing against this, but I am against every other girl being left out. I am against the only portrayal of African American youth in the last five years being the drug dealing kids of The Wire, the kind of portrayal that leads to deaths like Trayvon's. I'm against Amber Riley having to play the teenage version of the fat, sassy black woman.

I was raised in a very warm, two parent home in Southern New Hampshire. Both of my parents are well educated, community minded people. My father, in particular raised me, not to be color blind, but to be kind and respectful of all people. As a kid I watched as he spoke with strangers and neighbors, and you know what, my father treated everyone the same. Teenagers, children, the elderly, his peers, even people who annoyed the hell out of him (I know his "I'm pissed off" face though others don't) with the same respect. A lot, and I mean A LOT, of people love my father. The things I've heard said about him would bring most people to movie of the week tears. As a father to four black children in a white town he NEVER made race an issue. He taught us to behave as any parent should. He taught us the importance of studying hard and in a timely fashion, even though this message didn't really sink in for me until I hit college. He took us to James Taylor concerts.

Here's the thing, my father could have made race an issue. He grew up during the 50's and 60's. He lived through segregation. His parents and his grandmother who had a hand in raising him, lived through worse. But not once did I ever see any sort of angry black man chip on my father's shoulder. He's the same way to this day and I think, even better because age has just made him wiser and even more understanding of the world around him and yes, people continue to love him.

This was my spring board. When I hit elementary school, I went out into the world with this mentality: treat people the same. And I did. I bounced between different social groups right up to college and in that time, I dealt with racism from another kid exactly once. He dropped the N bomb and I let him know about himself, but that's another story. I had a friend ask me some silly things about my hair, but it was innocent ignorance and I love her dearly.

I did, however, face racism from adults. I've had adults and, yes they were white, pull my hair as they asked me what it felt like. And yes this is racist. Treating little black girl the way you would treat dog is racist. I have had a girl tell me her mother didn't think she should use our toilet because she would get AIDS. I'll let you marinate on that for a moment. There were countless other instances that don't need to be rehashed, but it was the adults in my life who exhibited the most ignorant, racist behavior. As I've gotten older, I've seen that racism is taught. It trickles down. I have seen it with my own eyes. How do we change this? We work from the bottom up. Now I'm not stupid enough to think that racism will ever disappear completely. It's a global issue. People thrive of superiority and separation. But things can be made better and we start with the images we show our children.

When I was a kid I was most often compared to Missy Elliot. She was big and black. I was big and black. Beyond that, I have no clue if I have anything in common with Missy Elliot. I don't know her, but at the time she was the only woman of color my friends could identify with and that's a shame, but the entertainment community wasn't thinking about me. They didn't think I needed to see my image reflected in the media. I'm sure Missy Elliot wasn't thinking about me either. These days the defaults are Oprah and Beyonce, again two woman that I'm not sure I share all that much in common with. I would kill to be compared to Octavia Butler. Oh man. But let me get back to my main point.

I gave up expecting to see myself anywhere after The Cosby Show went off the air and that sucks. It sucks that I'm a little shocked to see an Asian/White couple in a VW commercial. It sucks that I know that commercial is not being played in parts of the country.

The main praise I have received for Better Off Red is that I have included a diverse cast of characters. As it stands, I have women who are Japanese, African-American, Puerto Rican, Bajan, Native American, Russian, British, and Scots-Mexican. I touch on their history, but I'm writing about vampires. I need to focus on them being vampires and what issues that presents. Moving forward, that I see, all of my romances will feature interracial couples. I had another author ask, with some shock (and a little disgust maybe, she seemed to be against this idea, like I was trying too hard) why I would do this. I think she was wondering why I wouldn't just write black couple or white couples. Why? Because people ask me all the time to recommend romances with people of color or for romances with mixed couples. All the time. Because I don't live in an all white world. I live in Koreatown. If anything I should be writing about Korean couples. I'm not in an all black relationship. Because my best friends here in LA are Latina and Korean. When we walk into a room, INSTANT DIVERSITY! Why? Because I am afraid to leave it up to other authors to do it for me.When people take to screen and page the default is white. Tell me I'm wrong and I will laugh in your face.

see, bestie and i being diverse.
When you say, and by you I mean the fifty or so writers I have heard say this since I've entered the game, when you say you are afraid to write stereotypes, you are saying that stereotypes would be your approach. I have stopped reading authors who latch on to the stereotypes. Native Americans being the most recent and horrifying portrayal. Here's the thing about stereotypes in fiction, no matter how true you feel they are in real life, they actually don't translate well to the page or the screen at all. If your main characters is a dumb blonde with no personality, your reader will not be interested. That's a stereotype right? But why the hell would you write it? Exactly. Here's a tip: don't write them. If you want to write about an Asian character, give them an interesting journey. If you base the journey around a math competition, well... If you are writing about Día de los Muertos, a holiday GROSSLY misunderstood and appropriated by hispsters everywhere, do the research, get the details right, but the person involved should experience human feelings that they share in common with you, the writer whether you are Latin or not.

I am not white, of course, but I have white characters all over my stories and I write them as people. I don't go on at length about how they can't dance, how they have flat butts and bad taste in music (I don't believe any of these things so I swear to god if someone quotes this as my opinion I will be very upset). I write about some wacky situation they found themselves in. I write about them falling in love or hating their boss or having some really good sex. I don't break down how white they are and what defines their whiteness according to blacks. See what I'm getting at here?

My dad and my boyfriend had an interesting conversation last night about growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950's and 60's and growing up in the 1990's in North Carolina. My dad reminded my boyfriend of something that stuck with me: though he was dealing with segregation and racism, when he got together with his friends they talked about the same things teenage boys talk about now: girls, sports, school and so on. The same applies in this situation. People of color do not act like less of people when they get together. I think of big Italian family get togethers I've attended and they have the same thing in common with big black family get togethers. There's food, there's laughter, there's cracks at some wacky uncle's expense. People are people. The traditions my be different, but the emotions, the heart is the same.

 So when people say they afraid to write stereotypes it tells me that they believe in the those stereotypes. And what freaks me out is that authors I know, people I have met have made this claim. So do they see me as stereotype? In some cases, yes. In some cases, maybe not. I also think about our president and our first lady who are people of color. Do people see them as stereotypes? Well from the way people treat them, clearly they do.

Here's what I am: A human being. I'm a woman.
Here are some things about me: I love cartoons. I love to draw. I can dance. I love the beach. I am a great swimmer. I suck at it, but Russian is my second language. I love folk music and pop and rap and jazz and some country and metal. I'm pretty freaking polite, especially to strangers. I'm a little obsessed with PBS. And I have three black siblings who can claim the same things. My sister's Russian is excellent. I am not abnormal. Plenty of black kids come from great homes and have perfectly regular interests.

Here's what I am not: A joke. A piece of entertainment. I don't now and never want to be a nanny. I'm not that great of a cook. I'm not quick to anger. It would take you a while to realize you've even pissed me off. I'm a quiet storm, baby. I'm not promiscuous to other people's detriment. I don't dance or sing on cue. I don't do stand up, nor do I have plans to be on a sketch comedy show. I have no idea how to break and/or enter. I have no interest in any sort of violence, at all. My diet doesn't consist of watermelon and fried chicken. No one in my family would be a suitable spokesperson for Popeyes. With my blackness, I cannot help you win a golf tournament, get a publishing deal, out wit plotting angels, reunite you with your estranged family member, cure you of your awkwardness in dating situations (though this is something I like to play at when I'm bored) and any other magical thing Hollywood would have you believe.

Here's what I'm tired of seeing: Authors who turn to the stereotype. Authors who claim they are not in control of their characters. Authors who set characters in diverse urban areas and omit every bit of diversity. Token minority characters. We were not put on this Earth to play supporting roles. Please believe me.

I think you see what I'm getting at. If you want to write people of color, write people of color. We are people. We have assholes among us just like you, but we're actually pretty chill. Radclyffe and Colette Moody are two authors I can name immediately who include characters of color and do it well. If you don't want to, and believe me it's a choice, then don't. But call a spade a spade. It's a choice.

If you're wondering, here's what I have on deck "race wise".

The Fling, out April 16
Biracial Russian and West African/ White
Latina/White (secondary couple)

The vampire sorority series in  no particular order, all lesbian or bisexual couples.

Black/White
White/Biracial White and Hawaiian-Polynesian
Biracial Black and White/Japanese
Native American/ Biracial White and Thai
Egyptian/Korean

lesbian romance shorts
YA - Black/Black
Adult (60+) Black/Black with historical context

LGBT YA Novels
Chinese/ and Fae that would appear to be African-American
Biracial Black and White/ ? (I have vague picture of the love interest, but nothing concrete yet)

Hetero Werewolf Romance Novels
Black/Mexican
Native American/ ? (I have vague picture of the love interest, but nothing concrete yet)

End note. I am a victim of the American educational system in that I do not know nearly enough about First Nations and Native American people. I am working on this.

If you want to know more about racism, media white washing, cultural appropriation and erasure, Google is a mighty fine tool. Don't be afraid. Here's further reading if you're too lazy to Google.

Readers Against White Washing
Racialicious
Racecbending

Here I recommend some interracial romances. http://rebekahloves.tumblr.com/post/11894203053/do-you-have-any-recs-for-good-interracial-romance

Here Director Steve McQueen is left to answer the question as to why there are not more people of color in films. http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/video/video-award-season-roundtable-series-directors-part-2

You can also send Skittles to the Sanford Police Department.
Sanford Police Department
815 W. 13th Street
Sanford , Florida 32771

32 comments:

  1. I really like this post too. I have heard "I'm afraid to write characters of color because I'll get it wrong" said a lot too, at events that were about encouraging writers to write diverse casts. I think you're right that these people are admitting they have stereotyped ideas. But I think they are taking step 1, admitting the problem. At these events, everyone else generally pooh-poohs these worried writers and says, "Don't worry about it, just go ahead and do it." I don't think that's such a great idea, because these people are really saying that they have a lot to learn. (Not like they have to memorize hundreds of facts about other cultures, but that they have to unlearn stereotyped beliefs.)

    I was at one event where a white woman said, "I'm afraid to write about colored people because I might get it wrong." Despite saying this word, she seemed like a very sincere and well-meaning person who wanted to throw off the bigotry she had acquired in the Southern town where she had grown up. I thought her assessment was totally right, she would "get it wrong." She was not ready to write characters of color like the organizers of the event were recommending. She was ready to educate herself (maybe starting by reading your blog post!) I am a (white) writer who pretty much always has racial diversity in my characters, BUT I also feel like avoiding stereotypes especially in my writing is a lifelong job for me and I don't want to get complacent. I also write transgender and genderqueer characters, while I am cisgender and I have never had that life experience, so I am always filled with anxiety that my characters will be inauthentic. But I guess I'd rather be anxious than exclude transgender characters.

    I've noticed, also, that when a white writer writes a character of color it's often treated like this big accomplishment. While writers of color write white characters all the time (I'm thinking James Baldwin, Octavia E. Butler, Gabrielle Goldsby) and yet no one ever stops to give them a gold star. It's like, "Oh sure, white is the default, we can all do that." Sorry for the extra-long comment.

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    1. Hi Ivano, Thanks for your comment. I'm interested to see how this woman acts and writes when she's done unbigoting herself. And when someone uses the word colored I am far more concerned about how they are acting then how and who they are writing. Kathryn Stockett is a prime example. She is very proud of herself for writing The Help and openly admits that she herself and her friends still treat the working/serving class of Manhattan like invisible crap. And people think she got black people right on the money...

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  3. Just so you guys know, I just moved that comment reply. I didn't remove it.

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  4. Terrific comments. I hope many authors will take note and try harder to reflect the multicultural society we live in and not whitewash their fiction.

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  5. BLECH! Sorry, Ivanova. I missed spelled your name. My bad.

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    1. No problem, I kind of like Ivano.

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    2. and then i misspelled misspelled. im a mess. ;)

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  6. Spot on.
    It's also why I try to convince my kids not to watch Disney channel - it's discriminatory in so many ways (not to mention just appalling in lack of quality..).
    The world would be unbelievably boring if everyone was the same..
    - Thank you for pointing this out in such an excellent way!

    Kath, Norway

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  7. Powerful.
    You spoke to me with this post and gave me the boot in my ass which I desperately needed to write what I feel, regardless of colour.
    Thank you
    *hugs*
    Ren

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  8. Right on!

    Writers stretch and take risks all the time. Race and culture should not be different! Do your research and be open to criticism and that's really all you need.

    I think a lot of white writers are genuinely scared, but it's not a useful fear, it's a harmful fear, and it's not the fault of POC.

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  9. I really love this post. You make such good points! I think the most important point you made was that no matter what your character is, if you want to make them authentic, do the research!

    I come from a mixed family, I'm German and Cherokee mostly. My pops is black and Seminole and if you heard him on the heard him on the phone without meeting, you'd never guess his race, because he doesn't speak or act according to race. He is himself and a strong role model and I have the utmost respect for him. Growing up in the lower New England area myself, I've never seen race as an issue, people are just people. But in writing I won't write a character of any race I don't either understand through personal experience or have done research on.

    Great job on this.
    Renee

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  10. I am in love with this post. Ivanova said something above that really resonated with me: fear of being inauthentic in character portrayals, which I think does play a role in why some writers don't write diverse casts. I do think fear of "getting it wrong" is there, as well, and fear of offending someone, too (which seems tied into the fear of "getting it wrong").

    Violetta, too, is right in that writers take risks all the time. Race and culture and however it's defined should not be excluded (that word! Yikes!) from that risk-taking.

    I worry about inauthentic characters in my work, as well, and like Renee has said, I won't write a character that I don't understand. However, I will work to remedy that and I'll ask others to critique the work. I, too, am a work in progress, as well.

    Many thanks for the post, and for the comments.

    --andi

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  11. Great post. It's funny, because I never consider being a 'black' writer writing 'white' or any other race of character. I love writing where the cast is diverse, instead of bubble worlds featuring people who all look the same. In my horror novel The Aberration I don't think I described the race of ANY of the characters. It's left to the reader to interpret race if they so choose. In my YA novel in development the three main characters are Black, White and Asian. It never occurred to me that I shouldn't write the White and Asian characters because I happen to be black. We're all people, and the same in so many ways. If a writer had a problem seeing past stereotypes, that writer needs to educate himself. Writing is too big to allow it to be constricted in prisons of our own psychological limitations. Excellent article!

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  12. This is a great post. I'm the White half of a White/Black lesbian relationship right now, so this stuff is (and really, always has been) relevant to my interests. I wish there were more lesbian-oriented interracial novels in general, but I'd really love to see some in the fantasy/science fiction genres. My girlfriend and I are huge geeks and we're into that sort of thing.

    When I write I do have the same fears that others have discussed about writing inauthentic characters, but what you said about stereotypes is true, in my opinion. If you are not willing to put the energy into the character, regardless of what race/gender/orientation they are, they run the risk of becoming uninteresting.

    Thanks again for this. It speaks to me as a writer and as a human being.

    ~Robin

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  13. Thank you guys so much for your comments. Inclusion only helps us as writers, readers and as a society. I'm doing my part, as have others before me, but we can do better. :)

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  14. This is a timely post for me. I write historic lesbian fiction and the book I'm writing now features a bi-racial couple who meet in 1902. It's set in an unusual, but historically correct setting, and I've loved doing the research for this story. The characters are definitely fiction; I've uncovered no evidence of anything like the romance that I'm writing. It's a challenge to write historically accurate fiction that is true to the language and culture of the times, but is appealing to modern sensibilities. The story, as always, is the most important piece, but it has to have that feeling of authenticity as well.

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  15. Rebekah!

    I am so loving this! As a blogger and author I share some of the same sensibilities that you do. I once had a potential literary agent admit to me that she loved my writing style, but had no idea how to sell my book because she couldn't relate to the black characters I had created. There were some cultural phrases and ways of being that were expressed that she had never heard of and she thought just because she had not, no one else had either. Or perhaps she thought I had created an alternative universe where black folks lived.

    I so agree with you that those who say, "Oh I don't want to stereotype," are the ones who do, and they just aren't comfortable with putting their true feelings into print. As observers of human nature across the board, writers who are true to the craft should be able to create characters across hues and make them real. All they have to do is step outside of their comfort zones, do some research as you suggest and present people as people.

    This post should be required reading for writers of all backgrounds and especially literary agents and editors! :-)

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  16. Love this post, Rebekah.

    In January I had a blogfest for MLK day and invited various bloggers to contribute their thoughts on racism, sexism, and discrimination. Planning to make it an annual "thing," and hope you'll jump in next year. My piece is here: http://bit.ly/GTu6Zi if you're interested.

    I found The Help disturbing on a number of levels, most of which were unintended by the author. When I write, I try to include people of all colors, sizes, and sexual orientation, if the story calls for it. Have to say though, there have been times when Black readers of small pieces I've blogged have slammed me as being "yet another white writer trying to make a buck off the bodies of Black men and women" because I included an interracial couple in one love scene. Well, I know interracial couples, I've been PART of interracial couples from time to time, so it's natural for me to include them in my writing. I entered into a deeper dialogue with that particular critic, and she admitted there was nothing wrong with what I actually wrote; her offense at it was that I (a white woman) was writing it. As a writer, I now feel a bit hesitant. I want to continue writing for inclusion of all kinds of people, and yet, will the fact that I am doing it with my white face stir up hurt and pain for peoples who've been hurt plenty already?

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  17. Beautifully said babe. I will definitely think about this as I approach my writing. One thing that popped in my head after reading, was something that happened quite a few years ago. I was back home in IN visiting and two friends had come over to see my at my aunt's house. They were telling me about their boyfriends. One's was Jewish, the other black (AA?? I don't really know what term I should use). And they seemed afraid to tell me. I've never been prejudiced and it really bothered me that they were hesitant to tell me. Our school growing up was pretty white bread. We had a number of Asians, but only a couple of AA kids. But I had never given any indication that I would have problems with it, I guess it's just being trained by society?

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  18. I'm really glad this has got you guys talking. Really. :)

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  19. Lordy lordy, Rebekah. I grew up a mostly-white girl in Colorado, in a town mostly dominated by Mexican immigrants and their chicano kids. It was awesome, I've been bilingual since kindergarten, and I've always had a sympathy for immigrant children growing up in the States under extreme racial and political pressure.

    Most people don't understand why I wanted to write a fantasy novel starring a Mexican-American character. They just don't get why Maria could tell the story better than any white girl, because she has a complicated background, a unique outlook on life, and an attitude that allows her to survive in the fantasy world. I've always worried about using stereotypes to write characters who are unlike myself (in age, race, or whatever). Maria's a high school drop-out who struggled with drug addictions. I don't think this is race-specific, I think it's teenager-specific, but I'm sure I'll be seeing flak down the line for that choice.

    Then I started another one after that about a teenage black male who falls in love with a runaway faerie. Jake struggles with being a black kid in a totally white place like Portland, OR, and with being a black kid who really wants to do well in school and do something with his life. The other black kids give him a hard time for "acting white." I had a friend in high school who suffered from teasing and taunting exactly like that, but I hope it doesn't come across as "you don't understand what black kids go through in school." I picked Jake to be my main character because I am BORED of stories that are always told by white kids. I mean, a white kid can tell just as interesting a story as anyone, but I WANT, SPECIFICALLY, to write stories told by diverse racial and ethnic perspectives. Because if I don't do it, who will? Who will tackle issues like Jake's, or show the world what Mexican immigrants face, or show how racial profiling can destroy lives and families.

    A great post, Rebekah, I'm definitely en route to check out your books. I think it's too bad that only non-white writers really feel like they can tackle non-white narrators in books, because as you point out, it's not ABOUT writing non-white characters. It's about writing PEOPLE. Who are real people. And a good percentage of real people aren't white! Hahaha who'd have guessed.

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