Monday, January 16, 2012

Post-Racial America

Regardless of our race, we've been affected by Martin Luther King, Jr. just by living in the world he helped create. Almost 45 years since his death, America remains far from perfect. Since 2008, we've tried to convince ourselves we're "post-racial" because our president's father was African and we write books like The Help so that we can pat ourselves on the back for not being so overtly racist anymore. (Whether you loved The Help or hated it, you should read this piece by my client, Roxane Gay.)

Race is still an issue in this country, and those who are not white and (at least) middle class are still struggling to be equal. I understand the comfort denial might bring, but anyone who's watched the news or had to witness the public shaming of Barack Obama over claims he was anything other than American, cannot deny that racism still can cloud our nation's judgment.

I believe we've come a long way, but we have even farther to go. Politicians and leaders are responsible for ensuring legal equality and the rest of us are responsible for practicing tolerance and passing it on to our children.

I also believe there are those of us who make up a third group of people - artists. We are responsible for perception. As long as we create characters who personify a stereotype, then we are guilty of perpetuating that image. The same way "female characters" should be viewed as simply "characters," non-white characters should be written with an identity outside of their race. Which is also to say, they should be written. Can you change the race of your main character without altering his or her personality and circumstances? Is your non-white character defying or challenging stereotypes while remaining necessary to the plot?

Like any good writer, I believe in showing rather than telling. Art shouldn't only reflect society; it should help improve it. As writers, we have the power to do that.

If you have a holiday from work or school today, I hope you can use it to write.


  1. I changed the race of my white protagonist last month, to half Japanese. She stands out a lot more to me now, although I recognize race is arbitrary in the story I'm writing. But the point is in my story "anyone can have magical abilities" and I want to show that, not just tell it, as you said.

  2. I agree. France has tried for a long time to ignore race at all levels from personal to legal. We saw how well that's working out a couple years ago.

  3. Where I grew up, being white meant I was often in the minority. When I write, I don't think a lot about race, but then again, I don't focus much on appearance/descriptions, even if I do have a particular colour of skin/cultural background set in my mind.

    Most of the time, I'd be equally happy if people imagined my characters as whatever race they wanted.

    Personally, I find it awkward and dishonest when it feels like a cast of characters has intentionally been put together to be *multi-cultural*. It's almost like books/movies/tv where they're shoving a moral at the audience. The characters are pawns, not *people*, simply there to make a statement. Then I just think of Ayn Rand...

    But I suppose the question is, whether it's better to have a multi-cultureal/diverse cast who are essentially stereotypes or an entirely white (or implied all white) cast?

    I've heard the same complaint about gay/lesbian characters or disabled characters.

    And I don't think that's something that can easily be answered.

    In the end, I can only give my own answer as a writer. Race/sexual orientation/etc, those kinds of things are only mentioned if they are directly relevant to the story.

  4. I don't think it would be possible to change the race/gender/sexual orientation/religion of a main character without changing the entire story. Even if the personality remained the same, each variable would indefinitely weigh on conflicts, internal and external. The stereotypes set before us are something that the characters must overcome. In fact, it's this identity that makes them all the more appealing to the audience.

    An African American who acts white will have the criticisms of his peers to answer to, the Asian American dunce will still have people cheat off his tests - then accuse him of purposeful failure later, the computer technician Mexican might be asked why he doesn't own a truck or if he has higher aspirations of yard work or construction. And of course... white boys have no rhythm... which might actually be true.

    While we're more accepting of who we let in to our social circles, America remains narrow-minded on these prejudices and it would almost take a clean slate of ignorance to wash it away.

  5. "Art shouldn't only reflect society; it should help improve it. As writers, we have the power to do that."
    Well said Sarah and a great topic to blog about.
    As writers we bring in our own life experiences whether we plan to or not. As a writer of color, minority, whatever our experiences still have universal themes that apply to everyone but especially resonate with readers who share our experiences. This is a good thing except when race, gender or disability is brought in to manipulate a story. Good readers can catch this kind of facade.

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  7. I think you have put this perfectly. Watching the Golden Globes yesterday, I was struck by a strange thought (that really shouldn't have been so strange to me). Morgan Freeman won the Cecil B. Demille Award and as they played a recap of all his roles it became very apparent - I'm sure even to the people in the room - that even the roles that gained him the most esteem were all secondary characters. I could probably count on one hand the number of mains he's played. It's not just the writers that are getting it wrong.

    That said, a lot of perspective we have on other races comes directly from either our governing bodies or the environments we have grown up in. I can't speak for America, but as an Australian I see the way people react around Aborigines and it's a lot of the same. However, it's not that every Aboriginal is treated with contempt it's mostly those that continue to live off governments benefits and this mentality is something that has been given to them by their parents. I used to live in a poorer area and there were a lot of Aboriginals in our same street - the things I saw them get up to! I couldn't understand it and still on some levels don't.

    I completely agree that there needs to be a change in people's perspectives but it can't be all from one side. Our previous Prime Minister apologised to the Aboriginals for the hardships they have faced which was apparently all they wanted. Now they want lower interest rates, free education for private schools and there are even jobs advertised 'for applicants of Aboriginal descent only'. Now, I can't stress enough that this is only a very small minority of them but as the media shows this as complete and utter fact, the generalisation is applied and the tension between races grows.

    There is still an 'us and them' mentality here and it seems as though that is the same in America. Instead of accepting that we are all human, people on a whole seem to be accepting of others only so long as it makes them look good.

  8. @Bryan

    "I don't think it would be possible to change the race/gender/sexual orientation/religion of a main character without changing the entire story."

    I think changing the race/gender/sexuality/religion of the protagonist would definitely change the set-up (at the very least requiring some tweaks), but would hardly necessitate changing the entire story. For example, in my story which involves a lot of life and death situations race is not a factor. Sure it could be, but it doesn't need to be. And if someone's story is a thriller sans romance, I can imagine instances where nothing needs to change.

  9. Agree totally! I'm a female thriller writer, and there's not many of us..I also wish there will come a day when I will not be viewed as an anomaly..just a writer.

    Race was never an issue with me. Not something I really thought much about. Respect is earned, and if you want it from someone else, treat ALL others respectfully.

    In my manuscript, there are all types of characters, with different races and even orientation. It's full, real, and even has a touch of romance (ah the thriller purists say this is a no-no, but meh..I beg to differ!).

    Thank you Dr. King for giving us that hope, that all of us will view one another as simply "people". I'm from Memphis originally, and always hurt on this day and think of the line from the U2 song, "In the Name of Love". I wish those shots never rang out in the Memphis sky.

  10. I am curious to know if having a foreign name is detrimental to book sales? I picked up a random edition of Publisher's Weekly and saw Stieg Larsson on the best-seller list. But we might infer that Larsson is a white, European name. If Ezwenze M'wala wrote those Larsson books, would they have been as popular?

    Without turning this into a racial debate, I believe, consciously or not, many people gravitate to biases when they pick novels at the local bookstore.

    And prejudice definitely exists: I experienced it first-hand on many occasions. You'd think a guy with a foreign name like mine comes from a random country whose name ends with -ania or -stan. Being caucasian with such a foreign name, and a foreign passport, has its disadvantages. For example, I once had an immigration official at JFK throw my passport in my face and accuse me of being a spy (lol). On the flip-side, it can save a life: a gun-point robber looked at my ID and said, "Your name's really Rashad?" (being white as I was), laughed, and made off with my wallet.

    The point is: "post-racial" is just a label. The fire has been quelled but the embers underneath still glow red and hot. And those are the embers which influence.



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