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View Full Version : Treading the line between "stereotypical" and "whitewashing"



Siren of Triton
06-02-2012, 10:52 AM
So I am a writer who is white, and I'm working on a novel/short story/not quite sure what it's going to be yet that has a number of POC characters, and I'm a bit worried about whether I'm doing things right. I've spent a lot of time on various social justice and anti-racism blogs, and it seems like when people write characters from other cultures/ethnic groups than their own, it tends to be one of two problems: either the cultural differences are so exaggerated that they seem stereotypical, or there's not enough difference and they seem "whitewashed" or "erased." So I'm wondering: how do I draw the line, as a white person - how do I portray cultural differences without making them seem like stereotypes?

For example, one of my characters is a Chinese-American college freshman, who is double-majoring in engineering and visual arts. He really just wants to study art, but his parents insist on him getting a degree in something "practical," and a double-major just seemed like a compromise that would make his parents okay with the art. However, his engineering classes are taking time away from his art that is holding him back, and he's trying to figure out how he can drop the second major without risking his parents' anger. I know that the "strict Asian parents" thing is a stereotype, but one I saw hold true a lot with my East Asian friends in high school and college, who told me that that was a common cultural attitude among East Asian immigrants to the U.S. He is not the only Asian-American character in my work (he has a twin brother and there is also an Indian-American and a Korean-American character - I grew up in an area with a lot of Asian-Americans, which is where it takes place, so it's accurate to the setting), and it just feels like it's erasing those cultural differences to not address that issue, or to hand it off to a character of a different race to avoid the unfortunate implications. (And it is important to my story that I have that conflict happen with someone. It's a reflection largely of the issues that faced my classmates and I coming out of high school and starting college, and that was a major one.)

So, basically: how does one draw that line between "too stereotyped" and "not different enough" when describing a culture/ethnic group that isn't their own, and not seeming insensitive? Am I making sense here?

LJD
06-02-2012, 06:48 PM
(I'm of mixed race. white/Asian. Mom was Chinese-Canadian, born in Canada.)

1) People can find fault with anything, you can't please everyone, etc... honestly, I think people tend to be particularly critical of how POC characters are portrayed, and this discourages people from writing such characters.

2) I know an awful lot of people with strict Asian parents. And I've seen this in books, and I can't remember a time it bothered me. My dad is an engineering prof, and he's had students tell him they can't do aerospace engineering because their parents are forcing them to do electrical....and the number of people I know who were under intense pressure to be doctors was huge. Even when I had graduated with an engineering degree and had a full time job, my Asian grandfather told me to look into med school.

Just remember to think of the parents as individual people first. I think that's the key. But people can find fault with anything.

3) There is obviously a lot of variation in POC. I once told my mom she was the "whitest Asian person I know." She had the strict Asian parents, but that was about it. Such a character would probably be seen as being "white-washed". But she grew up in a very white area at a time when assimilation was strongly encouraged, and then her parents practically disowned her when she married my dad. So, it's not surprising. It can help to think of why people are one way or the other.

Like, my grandfather is really big on education because 1) He did not have the opportunity for any higher education. 2) He worked at a crappy job in the restaurant industry for 30+ years.

And despite having parents who put a very high value on education, my mom would never tell me I should go to university, or what I should study. She ended up in a career she didn't particularly like, and she didn't want me to be like that.

(Very simplified explanations, but you get the idea.)


Really, I thnk the key is seeing the characters as individuals first. But I think some people will just find fault with anything.

Rachel Udin
06-02-2012, 09:39 PM
I say, research the stereotypes, and then have the character navigate with or against them. Don't ignore them, but it should be something your character is aware about. Also research the individual cultures within Asia (there is a HUGE continent there which includes West Asia.) Don't assume East Asia==Asia proper. (Geography)

For example, I was told the line: [East] Asians are smarter than (Americans).
Meaning that you can't have a "dumb" [East] Asian.
But that's not true. There are lazy and dumb [East] Asians.

(I really like Mad TV for this... so funny!) Bobby Lee did a series on Asian Stereotypes. (Average Asian)

Also, have the characters navigate the cultures given to them and how much they like or identify with them. Make them choose as INDIVIDUALS.

That should clear things up before you send it off to be read.

Siren of Triton
06-03-2012, 05:39 AM
I say, research the stereotypes, and then have the character navigate with or against them. Don't ignore them, but it should be something your character is aware about. Also research the individual cultures within Asia (there is a HUGE continent there which includes West Asia.) Don't assume East Asia==Asia proper. (Geography)

Yeah, I'm aware that there is a lot of cultural difference between Asian cultures; I'm a huge geography and world history geek and also, my high school had a number of South Asian and Middle-Eastern students as well as East-Asian students. And I know that even within East Asian countries, there are differences and tensions (for example, between China and Japan).

The "strict Asian parents" thing seemed to hold true for a lot of the Asian-American kids in my school, though, regardless of where in the continent they came from, though I assume that this was largely the high school I attended (academics-focused magnet school) and the fact that they were immigrants who were largely able to come to the U.S. by excelling in their career fields and having a great deal of higher education, and therefore expected the same from their kids. But it does seem like some East Asian cultures place a lot of value on hard work and toil anyway, because a similar principle was true for the Chinese and Korean students I knew at the music conservatory I attended for college - just that it was focused on them practicing really hard at their instruments, rather than becoming doctors or engineers.

For the record, with my Indian-American character, she is a music major (a singer) and her parents are supportive of her choice, so I'm trying to show some contrast.


1) People can find fault with anything, you can't please everyone, etc... honestly, I think people tend to be particularly critical of how POC characters are portrayed, and this discourages people from writing such characters.

Yeah, I know, that's part of the problem; some people will find everything offensive. I just feel that, as a white person, it's not really my place to distinguish between who is being reasonable and who is just looking for stuff to get mad about (though, sometimes that's hard not to do with certain people in the second category, like a lot of people on Tumblr "social justice" blogs). But I've seen some people get so angry at certain portrayals that they suggest that it would be better if white writers just didn't write POC characters at all. Somehow, I don't really think that's the solution. At least, it's certainly not the kind of writer I want to be.

I mean, speaking as an LGBT person, I would rather see somewhat-flawed portrayals of LGBT characters by non-LGBT writers, than only see straight, cisgender characters.

Rachel Udin
06-04-2012, 12:38 AM
Yeah, I'm aware that there is a lot of cultural difference between Asian cultures; I'm a huge geography and world history geek and also, my high school had a number of South Asian and Middle-Eastern students as well as East-Asian students. And I know that even within East Asian countries, there are differences and tensions (for example, between China and Japan).

The "strict Asian parents" thing seemed to hold true for a lot of the Asian-American kids in my school, though, regardless of where in the continent they came from, though I assume that this was largely the high school I attended (academics-focused magnet school) and the fact that they were immigrants who were largely able to come to the U.S. by excelling in their career fields and having a great deal of higher education, and therefore expected the same from their kids. But it does seem like some East Asian cultures place a lot of value on hard work and toil anyway, because a similar principle was true for the Chinese and Korean students I knew at the music conservatory I attended for college - just that it was focused on them practicing really hard at their instruments, rather than becoming doctors or engineers.

For the record, with my Indian-American character, she is a music major (a singer) and her parents are supportive of her choice, so I'm trying to show some contrast.

You might want to read the Ronald Takaki book From Different Shores which might help with the immigrant perspective--though old, it explicitly discusses race. (He also started the movement towards teaching ethnic studies).

In general, I think it's more *immigrant* groups rather than Asian, where people realize that the odds are stacked very, very high against them. Since there is already an ethic of hard work, and trying to make it, this can go to extremes from an Asian perspective, particularly East Asian where there is a lot of pressure on exams, etc already, but unlike the Japanese-Chinese-Korean systems, you can't do one push and make it... so it looks harder.

From what I know immigrants, in general, have a whole lot of pressure to succeed, especially when they enter knowing they will be put down for it. And since East Asians are often viewed as auto-immigrants as part of the stereotype I think that often puts a lot of external pressure to succeed that much more.

However, I've also found that people exaggerate the reports of suicides too...

I've also found Nisei and second-generation Koreans/Chinese who also slack in academics anyway.

Oh and if you need a type of prejudicial comment, I have a good one:
"You speak English good." (Said after I say I've been LIVING in this country for 20+ years)
And I say, "No, I don't. I speak it well." (Yes, cheeky)

(I'm adopted, so I say that I'm adopted and they still come out with that comment. *sighs*) Jewish name, BTW, to the left. (Adoptive family)