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Monday, August 27, 2012

CULTURE WITHOUT THE COLOR



I make it no secret that I am an advocate for diversity in fiction, whether it’s fantasy or contemporary. It’s an uphill climb for proper representation and good storytelling within the same bounded pages. My philosophy is based on the real world, where gay, handicap and people of color EXIST. I came across a few books that inspired this latest rant and set my teeth on edge, but it served as a perfect example of what NOT to do as a writer. I won’t name names, but those who follow my tweets know what book series I’m talking about. But I wanted to share my displeasure with you and let out some steam, because I’m feeling pretty class-A felony right about now.

So here’s the thing, if you’re writing a character who takes on interests/ mannerisms/ colloquialisms commonly seen in another ethnic group, then you better have a legit reason for it! 

For example, if you have a white guy who does martial arts, speaks Japanese, eats food with chop sticks, and watches nothing but Kung Fu and anime, then it would probably be a good idea to have him associated with someone Asian. Not just some minor character with about two lines in the entire book, but a key contributor to the plot. Having an all-white cast is not only unrealistic, it insults the culture you’re trying to hijack.

I’ve seen this many times in several stories, but I’ve never seen such blatant exploitation of a culture put to print. In real life, if a white girl uses urban slang and dresses a certain way, odds are she has black or Hispanic friends that influence her style. She’s probably dated someone out of her race and likely has a specific preference of men she’s attracted to. Whether this is socially acceptable or not is irrelevant, but that is how it usually works out. People are influence by their environment and the company they keep.

Here’s a tip: Don’t let the media be your character research. Do your homework and talk to real people.

For the sake of ratings, the media takes a small margin, usually the loudest and most unsavory elements of a social group, and magnifies it to the extreme. Those unfamiliar with the difference take their cues from what they see and go from there. This is ignorance at its laziest.

Example: I’ve seen preppy boys with baggy pants (which is ridiculous no matter who’s wearing it) and blasting hip hop and throwing gang signs, yet they don’t have a single ethnic friend to tell them to cut that shit out. I’m not just talking about white people. African Americans have always had a soft spot for Japanese culture, rooting back to the Kung Fu, Bruce Lee movies in the 70’s. The rap group Wu Tang Clan was a big thing in the 90’s, but how many Asians had they befriended or had in their entourage?

In writing, this “culture theft” strikes a particular nerve for me, because the playing field is already racially one-sided, and taking one’s identity without the color is insulting and offensive. It’s worse than stereotyping a character; it’s putting on “blackface” for the reader. The sad part is that some authors don’t even realize they’re doing this, or try to brush it off as a non-issue because their characters aren’t using derogatory slurs. This is ignorance at its worst. 

Writing a character of a different race or sexual orientation is not as hard as it seems. A simple description or a passing mention of that attribute is good enough and then keep it moving with a universal character arch. Slang and idioms are not necessary and should be used sparingly in any case. The only challenge is writing a character from another country where the speech and traditions may be different, so research is a must.

I know some authors who don’t determine the race of their characters until the end of the book, which is the best way to go about it, because race is not what makes a person, whether real or fiction. But integration without representation is disrespectful, a clear sign of a careless writer, and a surefire way to piss people off.

6 comments:

  1. It drives me nuts when authors write characters based on ridiculous stereotypes. Seems like they think, 'oh, people/agents/publishers like to see diversity. I'll make this character X, this one Y, and this one Z, but I don't have time to research.' It's frustrating and insulting to readers and the writers who actually take time to do their homework.

    And while I completely agree with the heart of your post, the example about preps/non-blacks throwing gang signs actually kind of irked me. There are tons of gangs that have little to nothing to do with blacks (tango blast, ms-13, etc). So there's a lot of diversity in that area too.

    Great post though.




    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Leeona,

      Thank for pointing that out to me. Oh, yeah, I am well aware of diversity in gangs. (long story) I was just giving a general example somewhat based on the college kids in my area. But I think you get the gist.

      Delete
  2. A lot of authors won't write characters that don't reflect their own heritage for fear of getting it wrong. In my opinion, the only way to do it incorrectly is by burdening the characters with ridiculous stereotypical language and/or mannerisms.

    I've written characters where their racial heritage is barely mentioned, and it's irksome to have someone tell you that you have to describe what your character looks like, especially when it doesn't play a major role in the story. For some reason, if you have characters of color, that racial heritage has to become the key issue rather than universal themes such as love, loss, redemption, etc.

    So you have two options: go overboard with physical descriptions to counteract the white default that characters are given, or give it a passing mention at some point in the story. But even if that happens, some readers still miss it, like those poor folks who skimmed through The Hunger Games and didn't see the details about Rue's ethnicity.

    ReplyDelete
  3. One thing I don't like is when people write some vague description about a character & then expect everyone to get it right as some various ethnic group. I feel like that's a cop-out because if it's not clear then they don't really have to worry about the selling point about using non-white characters but if someone calls them out on it then they can always say well right here on page 163 I did say "dark skin"! I feel like it should be clear either way. If you're gonna write about other races, own up to it or don't.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree 100%. That's what really pissed me off about the Hunger Games "Rue" casting situation. Little hints and clues is not a composite sketch. Some authors claim that race shouldn't matter, but there are several ethnicities with "dark skin" and in varying degrees, so be specific or don't bring it up at all. I never understood what the big deal was. Just say someone is a certain race then move on. If the story is good enough, no one will care.

      Delete
  4. "integration without representation is disrespectful" This is well said Jaime. I can't stand it when someone takes a subset of traits attributed to a certain group (generally a stereotype) and then exploits it. It's disheartening to see in YA where diversity can be hard to come by.

    ReplyDelete

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