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Tag: racial stereotypes

Representation Matters

Representation and social transformation

The Artdog Quotes of the Week

How does representation play a role in social transformation? Last week’s Monday post explored stereotypes and the power of portrayal. Now let’s tackle social transformation.

Make no mistake. Society is always transforming. Social change happens, whether we want it to or not. And individually we can’t control how it changes. 

This quote from Ellen DeGeneres says, "Whenever people act like gay image in the media will influence kids to be gay, I want to remind them that gay children grew up with only straight people on television."
No, the creators of content can’t change basic facts of human existence. But we can affect how people think about those facts, for well or ill. (This quote-image featuring Ellen DeGeneres is courtesy of FCKH8 on Twitter).

One person’s efforts rarely provide a huge pivot point, unless that one person speaks for thousands, and society was ripe for the change. Case in point: #MeTooThat one was way overdue!

What kind of future do you want?

We can’t control the changes. But we can affect how things change. 

What kind of future do you want? As creative people, we make art that comments on how things are and how things could be. If you think a more broadly representative world would be more fair and interesting, reflect that in your art.

Subverting the stereotypes

If you think harmful stereotypes should be questioned, treat them like the clichés they are. Turn them inside out. Subvert them. Transform them into something fresh and unexpected and better

This quote from Rosie Perez reads, "I started calling people on their stuff. I'd say, 'listen, things have to change. How come I keep getting 50 million offers to play the crack ho?' And I challenged them on it, and initially, oh my God, the negative response was horrific."
It can take guts to “call people on their stuff” and challenge stereotypes. But artistic integrity demands it. (This quote-image from Rosie Perez is courtesy of The Huffington Post).

That’s just basic sound practice–but you’re also making a statement by the way you make the transformation. 

Please note that this approach requires awareness. Creative people fall into tropesclichés and stereotyped thinking when they don’t recognize them for what they are. We all have unconscious biases. But we owe it to ourselves, our work, and our fans to learn about them and challenge them.

Representation and social transformation

Wider and more diverse representation is essential to the social transformations that I would love to see come about. I have my own ways to portray that, particularly in the stories I write. 

This quote from Gina Rodriguez says, "I became an actor to change the way I grew up. The way I grew up, I never saw myself on the screen. I have two older sisters. One's an investment banker. The other one is a doctor, and I never saw us being played as investment bankers. And I realized how limiting that was for me. I would look at the screen and think, 'Well, there's no way I can do it, because I'm not there.'"
Artists need to seize the power of portrayal. (This quote-image from Gina Rodriguez is courtesy of The Huffington Post).

There are as many possible approaches as there are artists. Some, such as those in the Solarpunk movement, seek to portray the benefits of positive future change. 

Writers, artists, filmmakers and others with a more dystopic bent often dramatize how badly things can go wrong. Perhaps as a cautionary tale. Or because they’re pessimists. Or because conflict is inherent in a dystopic plotline.

Everyone takes an individual path, because each of us has our own unique voice. We must let the world hear our visions, presented from our own perspectives, in our own voices.

What values do you seek to embrace? What negative outcomes do you hope we avoid? 


Many thanks to  FCKH8 on Twitter and The Huffington Post for the quote-images in this post.

Is a realistic level of diversity too much to ask?

I’ve recently had an opportunity to read and enjoy two mysteries and an urban fantasy mystery, all within the span of about two weeks. But an odd thing struck me as I was reading them.

In two of the three, there was a stunning lack of diversity.

Not a single, discernible person of color. The only ethnicities identified were second-or-later-generation Irish-American, or longtime small-town residents of Appalachian Scots-Irish ancestry. Everyone else in those two books seemed to be thoroughly-assimilated European-Americans, although that wasn’t spelled out. 

Not just white, but heterosexual–or at least, from the way relationships between characters were handled, everyone was assumed to be not only white, but straight

Here’s a gorgeous spring morning in North Carolina’s part of Great Smoky Mountain National Park, photographed by Dave Allen. It’s certainly not impossible that a small town in the mountains could be an ethnic monoculture.

Now, I’ll grant that the population of a small town in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina might not have too many outsiders living there. I grew up in a small, semi-rural town in Southwest Missouri that had (at the time) only white folk living there, so I know it’s possible, although even my formerly-“lily-white” home town now has in the last 30 years become significantly more integrated

But we sure did have gay people (oppressed, closeted gay people, I’m sorry to say. But they lived among us, a naturally-occurring segment of the population).

Yes, maybe there are pockets of white monoculture in isolated towns, where “polite society” still doesn’t recognize “the gays.” But in New York City? In Queens? I’m sorry, but for a group of NYPD cops not to encounter a single ethnic face or meet a single LGBTQIA person or person of color in the entire book just strikes me as weird. Worse, it threatens my suspension of disbelief.

Detail of a street scene in Flushing, New York by Ben ParkerHere’s a colorblindness test: do you see an ethnic mix?

“But that’s not part of my concept,” the author might say. “It’s my art, and I’ll write it as I please.”

Okay. It certainly is true that the First Amendment says they have a perfect right to write a book with only white or “default-race” heterosexual characters in it if they want to. I will stop to note that one classic hallmark of white privilege is a lack of consciousness that pink skin and European ancestry isn’t really a “default” setting

For a writer, however, there’s also another, very practical problem with that “it’s not my concept” conceit, and it hasn’t got the slightest thing to do with “political correctness.”

Not everybody out there in the reading population is whiteNot everybody is straight or cisgender. And the everybody-else-from-everywhere readers also enjoy seeing people like them showing up in a book every once in a while, as an ordinary person (not a stereotype). 

Depending on how you define “white,” there are a range of possible futures for the “white majority.”  The Census Bureau’s prediction that the US population will become “majority-minority” in 2044 has been disputed. But the likelihood is that, depending on immigration patterns and birth rates, at some point in the mid-21st Century there won’t be a “white majority” in the US anymore

But we already live in a world where LGBTQIA individuals exist–as they always have existed–in our midst. If at least a small percentage of your characters aren’t LGBTQIA, you’re misrepresenting reality (or you’re clueless)

Documented evidence that there ARE gay people in New York City: a recent Pride March, photographed by Filip Wolak.

Recent estimates that seek to control for bias indicate that up to 20% of the population “may be attracted to their own sex.” Others dispute both polls and perceptions. Numbers on transgender individuals are even more fuzzy. 

My experience suggests that the 1-in-5 or 6 guesstimate is probably not too far off, and that transgender folk also are seriously under-reported. I don’t get out that much, and I know at least three of the latter. All of them are much happier, now that they can look and act like their real selves. And they’d probably like to see characters like them, fairly represented, from time to time in their fiction options.

Authors who’d rather not look like some kind of strange, historical relic within another decade or so might want to keep all of this in mind, when they begin concept work on their next stories.

IMAGES: Many, many thanks to Dave Allen and Pixels, via Pinterest, for the gorgeous view from Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If you like the photo, you can get it printed on lots of things at Pixels. I also deeply appreciate the New York Sun and photographer Ben Parker, for the street scene from Flushing, Queens, New York. I also greatly appreciate Standing Up for Racial Justice, for its self-demonstrating example of white privilege in action, and I also very much thank Time Out New York for its article on the 2018 Gay Pride March in NYC, as well as Filip Wolak, who captured an evocative photograph of the event. This post just wouldn’t be the same without these images and their creators. Many thanks!

Political correctness

Let’s talk about “Political Correctness,” since it’s been thrown in my face recently. It came up at my writers’ group Saturday, when a fellow group member whom I normally respect brought a story that was riddled with ugly, offensive racial stereotypes directed toward a particular minority group. During the critique session I called him on this (I wasn’t the only one), and his defense was that he didn’t want to have his story “limited” by political correctness.

This quote cuts both ways in the “political correctness” debate.

I asked him what he meant by “political correctness” in this context, and he said he didn’t want to limit his range of expression. As if “artificial” rules of “correctness” constituted an intellectually narrow approach that fettered his freedom of expression. A story-critique session wasn’t the forum for a full-blown debate. The group’s leader very firmly changed the subject.

I probably wouldn’t ever convince that particular fellow through direct confrontation, in any case. In my experience, when someone who already feels his privilege is under attack and whose area of greatest pride is his intellectual ability, is accused of intellectual malfeasance, his invariable reaction is to dig in his heels and prepare to die rather than yield to a different point of view.

I do, however, continue to challenge the validity of any “expressive freedom” that depends on not restraining oneself from employing demeaning stereotypes. My associate seemed to think that what he called “political correctness” was a kind of intellectual laziness, an unwillingness to “push the envelope” in certain directions, or to challenge social norms. Perhaps ironically, I see it as just the opposite. In my opinion, folks who decry too much “political correctness” generally don’t seem willing to exert themselves intellectually to stretch beyond their own comfort zones or seriously engage a different experience.

Which of those two approaches should one more accurately call an “intellectually lazy” attitude?

It’s a hallmark of privilege when a person sees the need to adapt to others’ viewpoints as an unwarranted inhibition. That’s a “take” on life and social discourse that  ignores or dismisses the fact that anyone from a non-dominant cultural group has to accommodate and adapt near-continually, just to survive and get along in the world. Yet the most blindly privileged folk are the ones who seem to complain the most aggrievedly about political correctness.

This is not to say that all members of minorities or persons of color are perfect. It isn’t even to say that sometimes the “sensitivity line” can’t be too narrowly drawn—although I’d say the most vulnerable among us probably have a better gauge of where to draw that line, and what’s offensive, than the most privileged among us. But it is to say that our art shouldn’t rely on the cruel crutch of cheap shocks at the expense of innocent bystanders. 

It is to say that vicious racial stereotyping is both a morally and intellectually bankrupt way to approach storytelling . . . or to anything else. For God’s sake, can’t we writers dig deeper? If we can’t be merciful, then at least let’s be original.

There’s a truism that if a phrase or expression comes too easily to mind, it’s almost certainly a cliché. Using clichés is an obvious hallmark of weak writing, precisely because it betrays the author’s unwillingness to push past the easy or obvious, and explore new ideas.

What the apologists for ignoring so-called “political correctness” seem to overlook is that every offensive stereotype ever created is both mean-spirited and a cliché of the worst order. The only valid and original thing to do with any cliché is turn it on its head or expose its vacuity it in a fresh new way. That’s not easy, but then—isn’t that a given, if you’re trying to produce real, lasting, meaningful art?

IMAGES: Many (ironic) thanks to The Federalist Papers, for the Voltaire quote, and to Sizzle for the “Freedom to offend” meme. I am indebted to A-Z Quotes for both the Ian Banks quote, and the one from Toni Morrison. Many thanks to all!

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