If you’re looking for snarky, self-deprecating Sally, she’ll more than likely be back in June. Today you have contemplative and serious Sally. She doesn’t come out to play very often.
A week or so ago I came across a couple of articles on Twitter that really made me think about racism, particularly how it relates to my own writing. The first article is more generally about ‘hipster racism’—I’m not sure I have a working definition of ‘hipster’ yet, so you’re going to have to read that one yourself. The second article points out the dearth of minority main characters, particularly in shows set in New York. Both of those articles gave me pause. Why don’t I have more minority characters? Is it because I suffer from this ‘hipster racism’?
Maybe I write too much of what I know? But, Sally, you say, you have all sorts of different friends. And this is true. Some of my favorite people on this planet just happen to be black or Hispanic or gay, but my high school had a minority population of less than ten percent. I didn’t meet my first openly gay person until I was in college as he nonchalantly told me his boyfriend had tossed him out. Naïve and sheltered by geography, I spent a good deal of my life being uncomfortable about people who were “other” simply because almost everyone I knew was white.
Maybe I’m afraid I won’t get it right? I’ve been criticized for my portrayal of teachers (I was a teacher), of southerners (yep, one of those two), and even of bean-pickers (did my share of that, too). I could dismiss those comments, though, because I knew my interpretation was, at the very least, true to my own experience. One of the first criticisms to really hurt me, though, was that of my gay florist. He was a former football player long before Cameron on Modern Family or Karofsky on Glee made such characters cool. He was probably a touch too effeminate, but to me he had depth and courage to live so openly in such a small town. What did the judges say? Stereotypical. Then I had an African American woman lawyer. In my mind she was as tough as nails because she’d had to be. In my mind, her struggle to get out of the projects mirrored my protagonist’s struggle with her rural roots. What did the students who critiqued it say? Stereotypical. I’d love to defend myself on that one, but that critique scarred me to the point I took her out of the novel and didn’t write another black character until my current WIP. Honestly, it’s hard for me to say if the problem came from the characters I created or my inability to convey who they were on paper. I can assure you I’ve never intentionally written a stereotypical caricature, but both of those stories came from early on in my career when I couldn’t even write educated-country-girl-with-a-love-of-cows properly.
Maybe—and I think we have a winner here—maybe I’m afraid of what my friends would say. Maybe I’m afraid I won’t have any friends after I finish writing this blog post, but sometimes we need to speak the truth. My truth is that I don’t know what’s up with the writers on Sex in the City, Friends, Seinfeld, Girls, or How I Met Your Mother, but I think it’s possible that they, too, don’t write minority characters out of fear. And the more I think about that fear, the more I believe the only way we are ever going to get beyond racism is to eradicate fear in all of its forms whether it be the more insidious fear of people who aren’t exactly like you or the less harmless yet still debilitating fear of disappointing or offending those we love and respect.
So, I vow to include more diversity in my books–and by diversity I mean anyone who’s not exactly like me. I’ve been wrestling with a particular story that needs to be told through a male perspective, and I’ve had trouble squaring with that. But good writing, the best writing stretches us in a quest for truth. Keeping my little fictional world lily white, exceedingly female, and straight as an arrow is a) unrealistic and b)cowardly.
P.S. On this Tuesday right after Mother’s Day, I want to say thank you to my mother. She shaped my thoughts. She taught me that all people are God’s children. She taught me to look beyond prejudice and stereotype and to always imagine how the other person feels in any situation. Any mistakes I make are mine, but I’m so lucky to have had such a loving and empathetic person as my mother.