Petit Fours » A group blog of authors writing in different genres

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A Fear of “Other”

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.

Linsey Lanier - May 15, 2012 - 8:28 am

Interesting post. Sally, I don’t know what to tell you. I wonder if when some readers “see” a person of color or a gay person in a piece to be critiqued, the stereotypical, knee-jerk response is “stereotypical.” There are stereotypical elements in heroes (big, dark-haired, corded muscles) and heroines (strong, independent, but likable), too. It’s fiction, after all.

I once wrote a villain in a book who came from Jamaica. I made him big and scary. I got the “stereotypical” comment. Funny, I thought the stereotypical image of someone from Jamaica was smiling and happy. I don’t know if I’d put too much stock in those comments.

Very sweet thoughts about your mother. She sounds like a gem. :)

Marilyn Baron - May 15, 2012 - 8:32 am

Excellent post. Very honest and thought-provoking. I will keep this in mind when examining my own writing. Thank you.

Sia Huff - May 15, 2012 - 8:44 am

Sally, you’re brave to state your fear and try to grow past it. I’d say… Life “should be about stretching oneself in a quest for the truth.” It’s so easy to stay in our comfort zone.
I grew up outside of Washington DC. A black family lived next door. The dad owned a construction company and he & his wife raised 6 children. I had two best friends in high school, one black, one hispanic. We were inseparable. I could base a character off of my friends. That would be my truth. But would others perceive it as accurate? IDK.
Nia Vardalos wrote “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and found great fame and accolades. That was her truth – her life. Since then you don’t see much from her. The only book Harper Lee wrote was “To Kill A Mockingbird”. What I’m trying to say is its difficult to write what’s unfamiliar to you. That’s why they say “Write what you know”.
If your comforable enough, maybe talk to – interview – your minority friends. Have them help you see the world from their perspective. Then have them critique the character you created before you send it out. Just a suggestion.

Susan Carlisle - May 15, 2012 - 9:12 am

You made me think too much so early in the morning. You have some good points. I’ve notice that veiws of people change with each generation. Also, the people we fear depends on what part of the county we live in. Go out west and see if an Indian is well thought of-not. Interesting thoughts in this post.

Sandra Elzie - May 15, 2012 - 9:21 am

Good morning Sally,
Deep & thought-provoking piece today. I was raised from 12 to 55 in CA…one of the biggest “Pots” if you’re looking at the Melting Pot of America. Different segments of my community housed clusters of Russians, Hispanics, Whites, Blacks, Asians, Vietnamese & Cambodian. I can’t tell you how many times we took accident victims to the Sacramento Medical Center because we knew there would be an interpreter available.

Although the majority of my community now is white with blacks being a very close second, I’m blessed to say I have some great friends from all races and countries. My next door neighbor & the one across the street are from India. Sweet, friendly folks.

Now, as to writing, I write what I know best… (not from fear, but from life experiences). Over the years I’ve learned that in all races, there are men & women who have dreams but can’t quite achieve them; want love but are afraid to trust or commit for various reasons, etc. Regardless of color, nationality, etc, the basics of life are the same. Stereotypical characters? That’s a cop-out since there’s good & bad, strong & weak, streetwise & sheltered in all races and nationalities. Stereotypical? How many blond jokes have you heard lately?

Debbie Kaufman - May 15, 2012 - 9:28 am

Oh, I can so relate! Writing white missionaries in 1918 Liberia, Africa really stretched my comfort zone. After all, what do I know about being a native Liberian? Best I could do with my Hannabo, a strong black secondary character in The Doctor’s Mission was to focus on what is universal to the human experience and then attempt to filter his thoughts and feelings through his cultural heritge.

Did the fact that he was black play a role? Certainly, although I tried to tone down some of what I found in my research of missionary accounts that emphasized the racial differences. Time and again these white missionaries reported how much their white skin was admired, and they quoted different native people they met in-country concerning the color difference.

This type of conversation is so universal to the many, many accounts I read, that I can’t put it off to one or two white missionaries feeling superior. In fact, most accounts from the missionaries that I read rarely took a superior tone at all. However, if you read the explorers, game hunters, etc. it is a far different attitude.

But, from everything I can tell, the color difference was such a novelty to the Liberians that they did admire and comment on it positively. (Think how we are with something new and different in society! We all want to have it, right?) Did I put that in my book? Heck, no. Not every historical accuracy is prudent to use. Although the racist charges that would have come my way might have sold a lot of books, LOL!

As it was, since I write category romance that focuses on the hero/heroine and their romance, I have a lot of limits on having characters who are “other” in some way. That said, I was happy with how much play my main secondary character, Hannabo, was allowed by my editor. So many readers have quoted Hannabo’s lines back to me and talked about the impact they made. It’s hard in this genre and most others to have strong “other” characters. It’s hard period to write about gay or black characters if you are a straight, white grandmother in the south because you know that you’re likely to inadvertantly step on someone’s toes and be charged with racism, insensitivity, or worse as an author, writing stereotypes.

One of the things I tried to do with my white missionaries in a black-skinned land was to show the universality of feelings, attitudes, and relationships that we all have no matter our culture or skin color. I’m pretty sure I succeeded as far as was possible with in my genre constraints, but I’m also pretty sure I didn’t please everybody.

katt - May 15, 2012 - 10:19 am

Great topic!
My hometown is Vancouver, Canada, which means I live in one of North America’s largest melting pots.

This elbow to elbow living with MANY different cultures has presented an odd problem for me. I have to be careful with my writing because I tend to slip into my own reality… that is, people making fun of themselves and saying things that are definitely not PC because they are so comfortable in who they are.

Tammy Schubert - May 15, 2012 - 12:38 pm

Sally, this is a great thought provoking post. We definitely need more diversity in books.

Carol Burnside - May 15, 2012 - 12:40 pm

I think a lot of those “stereotypical” comments are made because that person’s experience isn’t broad enough. If I know I’ve run across someone who acts exactly like the person in my manuscript does, then I figure the commenter (Bless their heart!) needs to broaden their life experiences. There is a reason stereotypes exist – usually because a preponderance of that behavior existed at one point – though I try not to write any character as a cliché.

As writers, all we can do is write a character who resonates with us. All people, regardless of their skin color or sexual persuasion have the same basic physical and emotional needs. Give that character a GMC and a background (even if it’s only in your notes or head) and that character’s true self will shine through. At least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. ;)

Larissa Hoffman - May 15, 2012 - 1:14 pm

Great post, Sally. I’m glad you wrote this. I face the same problem. I also grew up in a small farming town, but was in the minority. Not because I wasn’t white, but because I wasn’t Swedish. My friends and relatives have expanded beyond Swedes, but I’m still hesitant to explain my characters’ race.
In my upcoming release, my heroine’s good friend is African-American, but I don’t know if anyone will realize that fact. I describe her body, hair & eye color but didn’t define her skin color. ( I actually didn’t think of it, but I don’t use a lot of description anyway). I didn’t define anyone’s skin color. But I’m feeling pretty lame & cowardly about it now. The girl lives in a small, Georgian town, for heaven sake’s. Of course she’s going to know African-Americans! Certainly not any Swedes.
Thank you for writing about this.

Sally Kilpatrick - May 15, 2012 - 6:27 pm

Thanks, everyone for stopping by. I’ve not really answered a lot of comments today for a lot of reasons. One, I’ve been working on my office, and I’m so happy to report it’s almost done. That may be my June blog post. Also, I don’t know what else to add. That said, I’ll give it the old college try.

Linsey, I think “stereotypical” is the knee jerk reaction. I also think it’s difficult to judge any character in only 10-30 pages. I even feel bad for saying “other” because who’s to say I’m not the other. Often, I am.

Sia, good ideas all. In retrospect, I’m not sure I did a good job with this post because I think what I really need to do is not worry about what others will think. Kinda like what Carol said about creating the characters and letting them speak for themselves.

Susan, good points on regions and generations. Mom and I had many discussions about the portrayal of Native Americans long before the history books caught up to the idea that the Europeans weren’t necessarily in the right.

Sally Kilpatrick - May 15, 2012 - 6:35 pm

Sandy, how many blonds does it take to change a light bulb…oh, I’m so kidding. I see people as people with the same basic motivators, but do you ever worry that what you think and what you get on the page are two completely different things?

Debbie, I LOVED Hannabo. I think you did a great job with your novel, and I especially liked how the hero was originally prone to superiority but overcame it while the heroine jumped in there and got things done. You nailed it best I can tell.

Katt, this is a problem for me, too. I’m always afraid of crossing the line with some of the things friends say. Of course, if you take a look at the article on “hipster racism” you’ll see what you were referring to also.

Carol, good point about how we all need to broaden our horizons. And I mentioned what you said earlier about how we tend to look for something that’s wrong with the portrayal of minority characters. And as I said above, I’m not even content with the title because who’s to say I’m not the other. It would depend on where I am, now wouldn’t it? How easy is it to default to “white, middle class American”? At least they stopped making “flesh” crayons.

Larissa, funny you should mention this. One of my professors did a study on African Americans in Sweden. Now add that to your story and see where it takes you…

Pam Asberry - May 16, 2012 - 7:55 am

Sally, I will admit that, as far as my writing is concerned, I have never given this a thought. But I will now. Great post. Thank you.

Tami Brothers - May 16, 2012 - 12:02 pm

Hey Sally! Like Pam, I had not thought about it before. I definitely will now.

I think I may be a tad bit like you. A little gun shy or leery of doing or saying something wrong. Like your teacher story, I was criticized on my small town cop knowledge (worked for one), car accident knowledge (been in one), my portrayal of a family living on the edge of poverty and eating from a dumpster (great up in exactly that situation). Every single time people didn’t get it. Like you said, my portrayal of those were all early in my career. Maybe I just need to word them differently. I may have to check into that.

Thanks for making me think a bit deeper into the world of my characters.


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