A to Z Challenge 2013

Friday, June 19, 2009

Race In Writing

I stumbled on a post by Michelle (a.k.a. The Surly Writer) about her experiences with race growing up. This led to reading through her friend Jim's (a.k.a. Suldog) post along the same topic. They both got me to thinking about race in writing. Let me put forth a disclaimer first however. If you have strong feelings about race, racial tension, etc, you may want to stop here. I will be using the blanket terms like white, black, hispanic, etc. Its less typing for one thing, and I don't want to get into worrying about who will be offended if I choose caucasian instead of white or african-american instead of black (or visa versa). This will not be a soapbox discussion. No, this will be something slightly different than their particular posts, though I do advise you to read through Michelle and Jim's blogs anyway - it's good stuff.

What I thought about after reading their stories is how race affects my writing, how my perceptions of race (or maybe my experiences) affect what goes into my writing. For example, although I don't purposely write about just white people, I am man enough to admit that most of my characters end up being white. Is this because its easier for me? Or am I being close-minded in my process? My WiP ironically has a MC that is hispanic, so I guess that's a step in the right direction. But what I'm trying to get at is that my writing is definitely affected by my own experience and background, regardless of how much I appreciate the diverse cultures in humanity. Should I be doing more to involve a multitude of races? That's a soapbox question better left unanswered.

A mantra that has been stated over and over again in this industry is "write what you know". If that's true, how can I possibly be successful writing a book about a homeless hispanic woman? This mantra has good and bad implications, and sometimes I think it limits us as much as it benefits us. In the context of race, writing what I know means describing a middle-class white man who rarely had to deal with racism. I can't possibly comprehend what its like to be a poor black male living in the southern US amongst white neighbors. Or can I? As if writing well weren't difficult enough, putting myself in the shoes of someone whose experience is completely foreign is really a challenge. I don't think it's an impossibility however, and this is where the mantra should be tossed to the curb. I might not know what a particular person of a certain race might do in a given situation, but walking through his footsteps could be a really interesting and rewarding experience. And if I work at it, the writing can be something to admire.

So what tools can we use when we're outside of our comfort zone, outside of our "known area"? Language is the first obvious answer. Dialog speaks volumes about the person and they're background. While it may not necessarily dictate their race, there are sometimes indicators or language that can be used to help fill in the details. We can also provide our character with clothes, an accent, a certain type of car, etc. Of course we want to avoid stereotypes, but whether we like it or not, there are certain perceptions that everyone has about a given culture. We should use the ones that advance the story, not an agenda - unless the agenda is the story, of course.

At some point in our writing, there will be racial tension. Even if we're writing a sci-fi epic about the Borlians and the Pugnats, somewhere along the line race should enter into the equation. There hasn't been a society yet that is free from racial tension (not even Star Trek's utopia), so we need to include it in our writing as well. Despite the negativity of racism, including it's facets in our writing makes things more believable. Perhaps someday we'll be able to look back on our history and laugh about how ignorant we were, being worried about everyone's race, but for now it's an integral part of humanity - whether we like it or not.

How do you deal with race in your writing? Do you even think about it? And how often do you push yourself out of your "coccoon of personal experience" to describe a different perspective?


Michelle H. said...

I never thought of it in such lines. With my first manuscript, I wrote from a black person's point of view. The second ms has an entire cast of white characters from the country (since I grew up hillbilly). I never once researched it, because I wrote from "what I knew." It will be interesting to see how other people respond to this question.

Michelle H. said...

Oh! And thanks for the blog mention and the link!

Suldog said...

Eric - Thanks so much for the kind words over at my place, and for directing me here.

I don't write much fiction, so my answers to your questions wouldn't be very enlightening. I'll just say that I think any experience one person has can somehow be transmuted into a believable bit of writing concerning the experiences of another.

TereLiz said...

Great links, Eric.
I guess I try to be aware when writing that my characters don't see life the same way I do. I can't project my own perpective on them because they have their own and it is what makes them uniquely them. No matter what their background. I did learn one thing from anthro in college, and that is cultural relativism; or
"suspending one's ethnocentric judgments in order to understand and appreciate another culture. Anthropologists try to learn about and interpret the various aspects of the culture they are studying in reference to that culture rather than to their own."

So I guess I try to think that way, hoping it'll keep me honest, and mindful of what I am writing. And that way I never stop learning. ;)

Davin Malasarn said...

I really appreciate your honesty in this post. I write from the point of view of a few different ethnicities, and from both sexes. More often than not, I'm scared to offend people who are different from me. At the same time, because I try to make all of my characters sympathetic (not necessarily likable, but understandable) I hope I'm not doing anyone an injustice. For me, in the end, you have to write what you want to write. Even though racial tension exists, it doesn't mean that you have to address it in a particular story. I feel bad about a lot of things happening in the world, but I don't feel the need to address them all. I think regarding race, the important thing is that we have a place where strong writing from different cultures can be published. So, I see it more from the business side of things rather from a point of view of how I should shape my own work.

Although Western Literature is strongly influenced by white males, there are celebrated writers from many different backgrounds: Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Maxine Hong Kingston, Ha Jin, just to name a few.

Danyelle said...

Great topic!

For me, the write what you know (since I write SpecFic) neve made sense until I equated it with Research. I've never sailed a boat, but with enough research, I can be convincing. The same way my characters are all different from me, even though the only person I've ever been is me.

I've never thought about race much in my stories. At least, not until now. Thanks!