Racism and Sexism
August 31st, 2021 7:21 PM
Below are some helpful links to get us started. I particularly like Jeminsin's notions about using context to allude to skin color or ethnicity, as well as Rhiannon's notions about using realistic diversity in place of a quota for diversity. Rhiannon also challenges a few of the notions I disagreed with from Hobb, and, while I think both authors make great points, I think the former author's challenges elucidate truths that I wholly agree with (as you'll see if you read on past these links).
N. K. Jeminsin on describing characters of color, part 2.
N. K. Jeminsin on describing characters of color, part 3.
I will preface this article by saying that I don’t pretend to be an expert on these issues. Most of this is meant to be taken within the context of writing, but writing invariably reflects the kind of person you are, and so these concepts will hopefully have ramifications throughout other facets of your life. What follows is my current understanding of these issues, and, while I like to think I’m on the right track, I also believe that being on the right track means keeping my mind open and admitting that there’s always more to learn. Indeed, not too long ago, I thought I was on the right track, but, after some serious reflection, I realized that maybe I could stand to shift my thoughts in a different direction. I’m always open and willing to change my viewpoint if the person or source challenging me provides a sufficient reason for warranting that change of view. Further, I want to preface this discussion by saying outright that I am a white, cisgender man, and so I’ll be speaking pretty directly to other white, cisgender men, though I think a few of the ideas presented below are beneficial for all groups; I just don’t want anybody to feel excluded because the examples I’ll use throughout the article will probably skew towards examples involving depictions of people who do not happen to be white, cisgender man (women and/or people of color).
Okay, onto the discussion.
If you’ve visited any sort of online writing community lately, you’ve likely seen the overwhelming frequency of posts from authors asking how to write characters of differing races or sexes. You’ve probably seen similar posts asking about whether a certain concept or plot point or character arc might be considered sexist or racist or whether such a thing might offend any potential readers. It seems that writers everywhere are becoming more and more concerned with the idea of offending their readers. Sometimes, this is really a vapid question because it’s apparent that the author’s concern is only with public appearance and not with being a better person/writer. Other times, these posts seem genuine enough.
Responses to these posts vary greatly.
Generally, there are a few camps. You have writers who give advice, saying, “Write what you like. It’s your work. Don’t let other people influence your voice. Critics who try to police your work are all interested in phony activism, anyway. If they don’t like what’s in your book, they can put the book down!” On the other side, you have writers who caution their peers to be very careful about how they depict certain races and sexes, lest they (the peers) suffer the wrath of cancel culture or, worse, continue to perpetuate harmful prejudices. In between, you have authors who invariably get these concepts very, very wrong. These are the well-meaning people who give such impractical advice like, “Just write them like any other person!”
Their advice, on some level, is to basically ignore the color of a character’s skin (or that character’s sex), but this advice is rarely the correct answer if one wants to respectfully write a character who may be of a different sex or race. An author shouldn’t seek to ignore sex or race. No, authors should strive to be conscientious of how they portray any sex or race that is not their own (and, indeed, they should strive to be equally thoughtful about how they portray the sex or race that is their own). Speaking to white authors who are cisgender men, consider the following: a person's sex and skin color both affect and influence that person, and, usually, these things affect people who aren't white or men a lot more. Also consider this: is sex or skin color the only facet of a person? No. There's much more to a person.
But, nevertheless, those facets do matter, and so they can’t simply be ignored. While a person of color shouldn’t be reduced to her skin color (and so it’s true that you don’t “write a black character”) because it is only one facet of who that person is, a person of color also should not be completely devoid of any interaction with that facet of her character and how it shows up in who they are. Don’t ignore skin color or sex in an attempt to skirt the issues related to them. Characters should have agency; they shouldn't be casualties of any stereotypes or prejudices. Authors must successfully wield and intertwine a great many traits. You don’t “write a female character” or “write a person of color;” you write a character who is a woman or who is black or brown, and how much that character’s sex or skin color affects her life (and your story) depends on a variety of things, like the society in which the character exists, the themes of the story in which she exists, her own views on sex and race, her family’s views on sex and race, and the like. The author should be intentional and deliberate and consider each of these factors.
A while back, I posted a long blog post about achieving and defining success in writing. I opened the post by rattling off a long list of highly successful (or at least famous) white authors who were also all men. This was one of the only posts I didn't solely place on my website. I also shared this one on Reddit, as I thought the discussion would benefit other writers. While most commenters on that post didn’t even notice the mention of all the white, male authors, a few did, and these last (rightfully so) pointed out the privilege I was highlighting as well as the light I was shining on my own reading preferences and lack of exposure to a truly diverse range of literature and perspectives.
It opened my eyes to a number of things.
I realized then that my reading choices directly impact my understanding of other people who have experiences and histories that significantly differ from my own, and, further, my reading choices will directly affect my ability, as a writer, to create writing that resonates with those same people. I already know that I, as a privileged, white man, will never fully understand the plight of less privileged people, but I feel it’s my duty to attempt to understand as much as I can. Additionally, I know I’ll never be able to write the truth of such struggles as well as a person who’s lived through them (and I think it’s important that all privileged people admit, know, and believe that they’ll never know quite what it’s like to start ten paces behind the starting line), but I do believe that understanding, celebrating, and learning more about diverse perspectives is crucial to my writing (and, even more so, my development as a person).
Perhaps the most important thing I considered after that blog post was that I might be sitting comfortably in a bubble so clear and smooth that I don’t even realize it’s there. I, society, and the writing community, like every other place, have some seriously harmful thought processes so deeply ingrained in them that many of us rarely realize we’re perpetuating hurtful prejudices. It floored me that I offended anybody because that wasn’t at all my intention, but it illuminated to me the truth that I didn’t even think twice about mentioning a bunch of white men and labeling them all successful, and it also showed me the possibility that I've done a similar kind of thing many, many times before. I mean, how dense of me, and how shameful of society to have ingrained that foolish, incorrect narrative—that white men are the only ones who might possibly be successful—into my head, even on a subconscious level.
In that blog post, I went on to mention authors who are women, but still, I mentioned far less of them than of their male counterparts, and I mentioned much less of authors of color (as in, none, if memory serves). I had no intention whatsoever of highlighting more white privilege and bringing even more attention to authors who've already had plenty of assistance in life due to their skin color and sex alone, yet, subconsciously, I perpetuated these inequalities. The post was no giant, popular thing, so it’s not as though I influenced or shifted the fabric of culture, but, I, as an author, must understand that I have the potential to one day wield great power and influence, and that even the most seemingly innocuous of choices may scar others or instill (or yet preserve) in others damaging ideas. Authors must rise above even these subconscious omissions and purposefully and intentionally choose to celebrate not only the authors whose names have been shoved to the top of the lists but also engage with and share the marvelous work of authors from all cultures, races, sexes, and backgrounds.
Part of that begins with actually engaging with authors you might not typically read.
Fast forward to the release of my first novel. I spent a year and a half on this thing, and, honestly, I must have read it four or five times. Beta readers had generally positive things to say. I published it—and a few people showed interest. Others read it and gave it good ratings and otherwise positive reviews. I was happy—thinking that all I needed to do was keep climbing. Keep networking and talking with folks. Keep reaching out to people and sharing the story with them.
Well, one of the reviewers I shared the book with gave me a nudge in a different direction. I received a scathing review of the book because, according to the reviewer, it contained “sexism, the infantilization of women, and toxic masculinity.” I was hurt. I was floored. I was in absolute shock. Notice a pattern here? It hearkens back to my blog post that opened with all those white men, and do you recall how I reacted then when I received a challenge to my thinking? Honestly, my first thought about the negative review was, “How could she possibly think those things? I’m not sexist! I don’t infantilize women. I don’t think it’s wrong for men to show their feelings or like the color pink or to walk away from a fist fight after another man has called them a hurtful name!” But upon reflection, I weighed my choices: ignore the review and pretend that the reviewer had no idea what she was talking about; or analyze the review and try to understand what I’d really done wrong (if anything). And when I chose the latter, I started to see a few things. Painful though they were, I’m sure they’ve helped me grow as a person and writer. I started seeing this troubling—but ultimately beneficial—shift in my perspective and in the kind of books I was going to write (and read) in the future.
These issues—sexism and racism—have long affected people, and so, understandably, victims of these issues don't want to hold a privileged person's hand and explain things anymore; victims just want privileged people to understand that the, the privileged people, are privileged, that they, the privileged people, will never understand what it's like to not be privileged, and to treat these subjects with the utmost respect so that they can combat and not contribute to these societal issues.
As a writer, never expect any instance of sexism or racism to get by without some form of scrutiny, because it's likely that you'll be called out for it unless you've done the topics justice, and it's further likely that you won't be given the opportunity to explain or defend yourself or walk back what you've already published or written. Any reader you've managed to offend likely won't bother giving you the time of day at all, let alone take the time to give you any constructive advice with which to grow (and, hint: it's not anybody else's responsibility that you become a better person; it's yours). However, I find it's beneficial to try to open up a dialogue in the most respectful way you can (despite the loads of writing advice that says you should simply ignore negative reviews). You may find (as I have) that certain readers are, in fact, willing and able to give you grace and guidance.
But should they have to? And should you ever expect it? No and no. The expectation today (as it should have always been) is that people pushing creations into the media will be cognizant of the sensitivity of these issues. Don't fail, like me, to do your due diligence. Be conscientious and respectful. Be deliberate.
So, let’s talk a bit more about the responsibility on the side of authors and creators. Today, there are plenty of people who are overt sexists and racists, and of course these people need to reevaluate their dogmatic beliefs and ideologies and see the inherent logical and moral flaws in them, but there’s also a lot of people who employ subtle racism and sexism while simultaneously believing they don’t contribute at all to these problems. These last are perhaps more dangerous, as they do a much better job of avoiding public scrutiny, and, perhaps worse, they don't believe they have any reason to change or grow.
How do you approach these concepts? If you’re a white man, how do you know what it's like to live as a black woman? If you’re a black woman, how do you write a character who happens to be a white man?
Empathy alone will get you 25% of the way there, and intentional conversation about specific experiences (with a person of the race or sex you're trying to portray) should easily get you another 25%, but even then, you’re only standing just outside the moat, staring at the castle. You have to acknowledge, admit, and be comfortable with the notion that that’s practically as close as you're going to get to true understanding. See, that other 50% is made up of the millions of little experiences the other person has had that you haven’t (and never could have); and just how much closer you can get depends on who you are and who your character is. If you’re a white, cisgender man, have you ever really been judged or hindered because of your sex, gender, or race? I know I haven’t. That’s not to say I haven’t faced struggles (I have), but I’ve never faced them because I was a cisgender man or because I was white. Have you been placed onto a path because of who others perceive you to be? Have you faced persecution for things you didn't choose about yourself? Whether you have or haven't, can you tap into your empathy and have a conversation with somebody else to attempt to understand what those things might be like? When you do, you'll certainly understand why ignoring sex and race is not the answer. You'll see why and how those things inform the type of a person a person becomes. So, too, should these facets inform who your character is.
We’re severely afraid of getting racism and sexism wrong. It’s probably good that we’re all so conscientious these days. Of course, the sad thing is that, as I said earlier, the desire to be better often comes out of an egregious urge to merely avoid public humiliation or "getting cancelled." But the true impetus for change should be for the betterment of others. So, that’s the first shift you need to make, in my opinion. Stop worrying about what the public thinks (“Will my writing get me in trouble?”) and start thinking about how the people who belong to the races or sexes you’re depicting will feel when they read your work. Will they feel empowered and emboldened and represented well? Or will they feel belittled, minimized, boxed-in, hated, discriminated against, or needlessly excluded? This is that empathy piece—the concern for people besides yourself.
Of course, I urge you not to think of public backlash, and I stand by that, but this is obviously a case of “easier said than done.” The consequences for getting these topics wrong seem to be tremendous; you’re villainized, made to feel as though you’re unaware or out-of-touch or antagonistic, or you’re met with a deluge of vitriol and outrage. As scary as it may be to voice your doubt and admit that you might be wrong, the truth is, the consequences for not doing so are far greater—you’re actively setting an example for future generations and for those around you, and those people who interact with your writing will continue to understand and employ subtly racist and sexist notions because of your example or reinforcement of their own skewed ideals.
I’ve already gotten it wrong. I’ll probably continue to get it wrong in some ways. The key difference is that I’m trying to get as little wrong as possible. With my last book, and despite my revisions to remove some problematic depictions, I probably still left in some harmful representations and rhetoric (because it's a huge book and because I don't claim to have a full understanding of these issues). With my next book, and despite my attempts to be more thoughtful and careful with how I depict sex and race, I’ll probably still unintentionally include a few hurtful or negative representations/instances/phrasings. The goal—for me, and hopefully for you, too—is to do better, but striving for perfection will probably do little save for deter us from our pursuit of knowledge. Eradicating the skewed views that have been so drilled into us since we were young won’t happen overnight, but it’s an endeavor worth pursuing, as we’ll only become better allies to those people out there who, for so long, have needed them.
Speaking again to white, cisgender men, people who've suffered from racism and sexism don’t want to laud you for making an effort in this endeavor. If you think about it, why should they? They’ve known that racism and sexism are wrong since day one. They’ve been fighting and facing these beasts while you were enjoying the fruits of your history and privilege. This issue isn’t about vilifying little white boys, because they’re not doing anything wrong, either. But boys grow to have agency. And when they do, they have to make decisions about who they want to be. When they take up the pen, they must make decisions about the messages they want others to read.
So, if you really want to be an ally, how do you approach it? Do you ignore history? Are you aware of microaggressions in your words?
Imagine that the victims of racism and sexism have been out there fighting beasts while you’ve been hiding out in a shelter. You go outside one day, and you say, “Okay, I see that this is a problem. I’m ready to fight.”
Can you imagine the palatable frustration when you ask, “How do I fight?”
“Look at the damn thing and kill it!” the veterans of this war shout. Upon reflection, they add, "Look at the damage these monsters done already. Even if we kill them all, how do we clean up the mess they've left behind?"
What about when you can’t even see the beasts they’re fighting? Your eyes work, and you’re looking, but you still can’t see the slithering monsters before you.
“Just look!” the veterans shout. “Use your eyes!”
So, when you start asking questions, and especially if you’re getting it wrong, it’s no wonder you’re often met with less than pity. This is a war, and it matters significantly to those who've been fighting. These beasts—racism and sexism—affect many aspects of our society, but it’s easy to ignore them if you’re inside a shelter of privilege.
Finally, consider the differences between overt offenses and subtle offenses. It’s one ghastly thing to openly opine that women should stay within the confines of traditional roles, but it’s another to subtly suggest it. You’d be surprised how subtle people (or you) can be, in fact. I know I was (I’ll give an embarrassing example below). Likening this difference back to the beast/war analogy, you might notice the large, lumbering monsters in the battlefield, but what about the little, slithering creatures on the ground? They’re innocuous, quiet—almost cute. But they’re every bit as venomous.
“They’re right there!” your comrades say.
But you only look and look and look, ignoring the creatures almost willfully. And, if you do finally see them, you’re apt to say, “Oh, come on! They look harmless.”
I’ll note that, after speaking with a friend (who is a woman) and sharing my beast analogy with her, she challenged me with another analogy that I feel compelled to include here. This is not my analogy; it’s hers. She suggested that sexism and racism are less like beasts and more like viruses—they can infect anybody and everybody around you (including victims of racism and sexism); they’re inescapable; and they’re rampant and contagious and invisible. I thought that analogy was even more heartbreaking. I think both analogies have merit, and the key similarity they share is the ability of these issues to go unnoticed and therefore untreated. It’s impressive—and terrible—just how invisible and invulnerable these issues can be.
So, for most of this article, I’ve mentioned subtle racism and sexism and a quiet class of people who believe they’re allies while actually perpetuating issues. This is the class I believe I fell into, and it's the class from which I want to swiftly secede. When I talk about subtle sexism, what does that look like? Here’s an example from my first novel. I’ll show you the first edition and the revised edition. See if you can spot the difference, and, if you can, see if you can articulate why I made this change:
Inside, a variety of watercolor paintings hung on the walls. A seascape with roaring waves; an artist’s rendering of the Altar; a painting of one of the three great ceirens. On another wall, Mairn—or probably Mairn’s wife—had hung some painted portraits. These showed a much younger Mairn, a youthful girl Veras supposed was Mairn’s daughter, and a beautiful woman—Mairn’s wife. The same burn scars Veras had seen at the healing house lay across Mairn’s face in the painting. He studied the picture for a while. Mairn’s wife—her eyes were white in the painting. Had she been blind or had the painter been rushed? Small plants sat atop equally small end tables, the latter of which flanked some inviting cocilea furnishings.
Inside, a variety of watercolor paintings hung on the walls. A seascape with roaring waves; an artist’s rendering of the Altar; a painting of one of the three great ceirens. On another wall, Mairn—or possibly Mairn’s wife—had hung some painted portraits. These showed a much younger Mairn, a youthful girl Veras supposed was Mairn’s daughter, and a beautiful woman—Mairn’s wife. The same burn scars Veras had seen at the healing house lay across Mairn’s face in the painting. He studied the picture for a while. Mairn’s wife—her eyes were white in the painting. Had she been blind or had the painter been rushed? Small plants sat atop equally small end tables, the latter of which flanked some inviting cocilea furnishings.
Did you see it? It was just one word. The word “probably.” In the original, unrevised version, I suggested that Mairn’s wife had probably hung the home’s decorations. Why is that probable? Why is it any more likely that Mairn’s wife would have decorated the home than Mairn? Can a man not enjoy paintings? Is it a wife’s job to decorate a home?
Now, this is the sort of subtle thing I’m talking about. I didn't have a male character shouting at his wife to make dinner while making that same male character out to be a hero; my offense was much more subtle. It’s one word—one word that many, many people would read without a second thought. My own daughters would hear this and probably not think anything of it, but on some level, aren’t I suggesting to them (and other readers) that the role of a wife is to hang decorations? Aren’t I suggesting that a husband wouldn’t likely be the one to have decorated the home? Indeed, when writing this, didn’t I spill out my subconscious (and sexist) belief that a husband’s expertise can’t extend into the realm of home décor?
It’s so innocuous that I didn’t catch it on several re-reads of this book. However, when I re-read it with the intention of eradicating as many of the sexist and harmful representations within the novel as possible, it was easy to see. And so, I charge fellow writers to revise and edit and write with intent. It’s not enough to assume you’re enlightened or that you don’t have any sexist or racist wiring within you. More than likely—whether you’re a man or woman (or any other gender) or white or black or brown—you probably do have some form of harmful ideology embedded within you. Truthfully, as authors and as people, we have a responsibility to address these matters. We don’t do it because we want praise or because we want social currency or because we want to avoid public scorn. We do it because it directly affects other people. It affects our readers. It either signals to them something about themselves or it reinforces harmful viewpoints within the readers who would never otherwise see anything wrong. If you read that original paragraph from my book and couldn’t find the subtle sexism, please don’t think I'm saying you’re a bad person—however, I am saying that you may need to reflect and examine your work and behavior to ensure you’re not perpetuating or contributing to systemic sexism and racism. It's not an easy thing, and it's not an overnight thing. Trust me, I've been reflecting seriously on it for a few weeks now, and I anticipate a lifetime of continuing to do so. I only wish I'd treated the topics with the respect they deserve much earlier.
And so, even though it’s tempting to stay quiet and pretend to know better (these are the people who are “colorblind” or who go around saying, “We’re all human underneath our skin!”) you’re not actually out there fighting alongside your peers. You’re not acknowledging their struggles. Yes, the ideal is that people aren’t to be judged for their gender or skin color, but the reality is that people have been judged and are still being judged. So, while these things are arbitrary in one sense (in the sense that a person of color cannot choose his or her race and a woman cannot choose her sex at birth), these traits very much affect people in other ways. Ignoring it doesn’t help. Not seeing race or gender is like saying, “There is no issue.”
Empathy and open-mindedness are the biggest assets here, and the virtues I hope to instill into every writer’s head. Stop and imagine what a reader might feel when he or she reads your depiction of a character who is of a different gender or ethnicity than you. Be open to the idea that maybe you’re not right about your depiction.
Finally, remember: this isn’t about getting it right so you can look good in public; it’s about getting it right so you can influence and better the generations ahead of you and help to create a better, more equal world for people who have a different gender or skin color than your own.