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Thoughtful Thursday - Writing About Race


Today on the blog I'm continuing my discussion on research. It seems there are some writers who are clueless on how to do this today at even a basic level or they're lazy. Especially when it comes to talking about race in their books or scripts. Their default method seems to be to ask a question in a Facebook group which is predominantly full of white people. This always devolves into some attack on someone for their response as some white male feels the need to mansplain why it's OK for him to confidently state, "Black, white, Asian. If you use yellow, you're an asshole," but you can't say, "Most I have spoken to have told me they prefer black." Apparently you are speaking on behalf of a whole race when you do this, but he is not. Also, you must provide sources. He doesn't need to though. He is an obvious authority on the subject matter being a white male.

Having been in dozens of different writing groups on Facebook, I've seen this particular discussion and its evolution several times a month for several years now. In these discussions, the few blacks in the groups often suggest not including any race. This is a great idea, especially in a script as directors love being able to cast whoever they want. But sometimes we are writing a piece where diversity is part of the message and we need to. So what do we do?

Well, aside from talking to real, live humans, you can look to the Internet and use it better. If you are wondering if black is okay to use, consider that many of the following organizations will change their name should the majority decide the term doesn't work for them:

- Black Entertainment Television
- Black Hollywood - Awards
- Black Lives Matter

And there's a whole lot more here.

Yes, some, such as the United Negro College Fund, will cling to their name anyway even if a new term takes its place. For some, history and legacy is more important than political correctness.

If you are going to use Facebook to answer your question, instead of posting in a group filled with white people, see if you can ask the question in a group filled with whatever race you are wondering about. If you search black and click on groups, there are thousands of groups filled with black people who would be much better at answering the question. A group such as Black Studies and Critical Thinking, which has over 77,000 members, has probably discussed this very topic. Since the group is predominantly composed of members of the race you are looking for, you're far more likely to come away with good information. Most likely, you'll have learned something valuable using this primary research method of talking to real people.

Now, it's important to check primary research against what other information exists on a topic. While 77,000 is a good number, that group does have more than black people in it and 77,000 is still only one chunk of the whole demographic.

There may have been surveys conducted by someone and you can see the results. There's always the potential for researcher bias, but the more secondary research you find, the more well-rounded your view will be. I also search Google for "What to black people want to be called," and it comes up with sites like this one, which give another layer to your research.

One method can be to look at how people define themselves in census, but the problem there is that it varies depending on what country you are talking about. In some countries, East Indians are considered Asian. Most East Indians I know call themselves brown or Indian and don't consider themselves Asian. Like all groups, there will be generational differences as well. A boss of mine couldn't believe this young Indian girl couldn't cook because she was female and Indian. He was near retirement age and she had never even been away from her mother before.

Now, all this came up because the writer was worried about offending someone. They wanted to ensure they didn't accidentally say something racist in their movie script and have it rejected. So aside from what I've already said above, google derogatory ethnic terms and you'll find lists like the one here. Don't use those to describe your characters, but sometimes you might need to use those slurs in your writing. You might have a character who is a racist in your story. Most racists are anything but politically correct in their terminology as they spew hatred.

There are thousands of reasons to reject manuscripts and screenplays. I'm of the mind that you need to write whatever is in you to write. There are people who provide the service of sensitivity reading to fix anything that is offensive if you are clueless about what is offensive. Now, some will say to avoid writing anything that is a stereotype. An actual negative racial stereotype is definitely bad. This site discusses it and research good methods. Some stereotypes come into existence because some groups of people seem like that upon first impression. The problem, to me, is that people write these characters that don't have depth beyond that surface stereotype whether it is a positive or negative stereotype. I may be Canadian and love hunting moose and Tim Horton's, but I may also be a martial artist, a writer, and a seamstress who loves geek culture. I could be an American who loves guns, freedom of speech, and wants to save the whales while also enjoying horror movies and eating beef. I could be black and not support Black Lives Matter, hate rap/hip-hop, Obama, and Bob Marley. I could be gay and hate Pride and rainbows and think some members of my community are too flamboyant.

So I don't think you shouldn't have an Asian character who is a martial artist. I know a ton of Asians who are into martial arts. Sometimes we can over-analyse what is and isn't OK to write about. I don't think that's good either. Maybe you have a black character who is the next Michael Jordan. Cool. But that doesn't mean he can't also be an excellent math student. His journey then could be deciding between becoming like Mike or an astronaut.

There are many ways to write a character. If you spend all your energy worrying about offense, you'll never put anything out into the world. The truth is that at least one person will be offended by what you create. You'll always have that critic that says you are garbage at whatever you do. There will always be that white male who thinks he has all the answers. That one that will tell an accountant with every financial designation that he knows more than the accountant about finances because he invests in mutual funds.

It's not simple, but it's also not brain surgery. Write the thing. Fix it before you submit it. If anything major happens, it'll be in the news and industry professionals will be blogging about it all over the place. I know many creatives can get immersed in our work and are skilled at forgetting the world exists, but try and pay attention to news once in awhile and seek out information from many sources beyond Facebook. And I know I have linked several Wikipedia sites in this post, but don't just read what is on Wikipedia. Check their sources and dig deeper. Try to find sources that are neither left nor right biased. Read books. Watch documentaries too. We are living in the information age.

If you have a project that goes deeply into a culture you aren't part of, try and take on a partner from that culture who can help you tell the story more authentically. That is my plan for one of my stories.

Sounds like a lot of work? Yes. Writing IS work. It's not all parties and book signings. Actually, those things are very little of what you do. It's butt in chair and searching for correct information. It's constantly working at your writing skills. It's learning to do research. It's learning to use writing software.

I hope it was clear I was not speaking on behalf of any of these communities but encouraging others to find better ways of answering their questions. Here are some guidelines:

  1. Don't ask a bunch of white people how to write a person of colour.

  2. Don't ask a bunch of straight people how to write a gay character.

  3. Don't ask a bunch of able-bodied people how to write disability.

  4. Don't ask a bunch of non-athletic people how to write sports.

  5. Don't ask a bunch of sexually inexperienced people about BDSM.

  6. Don't ask a bunch of criminals what it's like to be a police officer.

  7. Write the thing and fix it later.



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