I was busy all morning doing IAF stuff and missed out on the beginning of this “debate” going on in the comments to Lisa’s story on Fantasy. It’s kind of ironic that this came up today because yesterday I had a long conversation about a similar issue surrounding one of my stories. I wonder, actually, if I would see the thing that happened today in the same way had it happened last week, before my conversation yesterday. Hmm.
So to clue you in on what I’m talking about, my other writing group, the Black Beans, met yesterday to discuss a story that I’m rewriting for a market. Without going into too much detail, my story has terrorists and those terrorists are from a specific ethnic group. (And in my story, it’s not ambiguous, nor did I mean for it to be.) Now, being a not-racist person, I thought that I was not engaging in negative stereotypes with my story. But due to the way I wrote things and the length of the story, it totally came off that way. After much discussion I realized that, in order to have these terrorists remain the ethnic group I’d chosen, I would have to do a LOT of explaining to show that I wasn’t just trading on stereotypes. And that even if I did that, many readers would probably focus on that aspect of the story, which would be bad as it’s not the point of the story at all.
Now, I’m extremely lucky that I belong to two writing groups with many talented people of many different backgrounds who are not afraid to speak their minds. Thank goodness I had the sense to show the rewrite to them else I might have found myself in a similar situation as Lisa today: not meaning to have dealt in stereotypes, but perhaps doing so nonetheless.
This does not mean that writers have to censor themselves, or not include any disadvantaged groups they don’t belong to in a story. What it does mean is that the author needs to know exactly what they’re about, and needs to get the opinion of people they trust so as not to fall prey to their own unconscious biases. Or, you know, it’s not an unconscious bias per se, but an ignorance to how certain images, characterizations, and depictions of this or another group sink into our unconscious and don’t get pegged as “wrong” or “prejudiced”. They may not affect us, therefore we don’t immediately recoil from them. And they may come out in our writing, or our speech, or whatever. Innocently, perhaps, but it’s still painful, damaging, wrong.
During the conversation/critique this weekend I found myself feeling very uncomfortable and even defensive on that particular point. However, what I tried to do, and hope I succeeded in doing, is to keep my damn mouth shut until I could absorb the things I was being told, take into account the people who were saying them to me, and check myself mightily. It’s only because I have so often been on the other end of conversations of this nature that I was able to do this, but it was hard. As I said, very uncomfortable. Most people don’t want to think that they have it in them to even appear racist, etc. But achieving that takes work, and working through discomfort, and listening, and understanding.
One thing I do know: the proper reaction to an accusation or even hint that one is engaging in negative stereotypes about a group is not to do or say anything contained within this most excellent post. Instead, as I have said very recently, you should find someone who is knowledgeable about such things whom you are comfortable with and know will tell you the truth, even if that truth makes you uncomfortable, and ask their opinion.