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View Full Version : If in doubt, leave it out.



usuallycountingbats
09-14-2013, 06:03 PM
So on Yorkist's thread, someone mentioned that if you are in any doubt about how to use something, you should leave well alone.

This raised a question for me, and I don't want to derail that thread, so I'm going to be brave and ask it here.

I come from a very white, very middle class background. I went to a very white university, and whilst I have friends from many different nationalities, they are all predominantly white.

I want the book I am writing to portray a more accurate representation of the world than the small bit of it I inhabit. In the rewriting I've been doing since finding AW, I've made the MC black and one of the main supporting characters Asian. Mainly because their race is entirely incidental to the story, so why shouldn't they be.

But this raises some issues for me - I obviously don't want to do anything offensive, but I have literally no frame of reference for knowing what could inadvertantly be considered offensive. Clearly there's some stuff which is obvious, and I'm not an idiot, so that's fine. But what about all the stuff I either think I know about but don't, or haven't even come across?

This leads me to think along the lines of the first sentence of this post - you have doubts, so leave well alone. Which brings me back to an unrealistically white story.

How do you deal with this? I wonder if it is a contributory factor towards te lack of diversity in SFF books? Am I over thinking it?!

RichardGarfinkle
09-14-2013, 06:49 PM
I don't think you're overthinking it. I think you need to find out before you write. The difficult part, as always, are the questions.

In a lot of cases when people are trying to learn about the lives of people who are different from them they ask questions that are based on an assumption of stereotypical similarity. These questions usually have the form, "What do {Members of group X} say/do/think about {object Y}?"

Those questions are uniformly offensive. People are people. They vary greatly in their lives, attitudes, actions etc. There are no uniform answers. And the questions themselves are premises on the wiping away of their humanity.

There are, however, commonalities of cultural experience. People from similar backgrounds and people perceived by a society as being similar will often be treated as similar by that society.

But before you ask any questions, read. Read books on people's experiences and views from the inside. Read threads on this board where people talk about their lives and react to events (and questions).

Make sure you have a good sense of the implications of the questions you are asking before you ask them.

And ask politely, understanding that you're stepping into someone else's life and world and they get to decide whether, what, and how they answer.

usuallycountingbats
09-14-2013, 07:01 PM
I think anyone who's reasonably widely read would know those questions are offensive, so I hope that isn't a trap I'd fall into.

People are people was the point I was starting from, and I was making the assumption that because it really doesn't matter what race any of these people are I terms of the story, I could write them in and wouldn't have an issue. Then I started doubting that because what if there is something I don't even know exists which I am inadvertantly doing?

RichardGarfinkle
09-14-2013, 07:10 PM
I think anyone who's reasonably widely read would know those questions are offensive, so I hope that isn't a trap I'd fall into.

People are people was the point I was starting from, and I was making the assumption that because it really doesn't matter what race any of these people are I terms of the story, I could write them in and wouldn't have an issue. Then I started doubting that because what if there is something I don't even know exists which I am inadvertantly doing?

That's my point about experiences. Two people with different experiences will perceive the world differently and learn to treat situations differently. Some experiences are shared by many people of the same background in the same society.

Lavern08
09-14-2013, 09:55 PM
... I obviously don't want to do anything offensive, but I have literally no frame of reference for knowing what could inadvertantly be considered offensive.

... But what about all the stuff I either think I know about but don't, or haven't even come across?

That's what we're (those of us who post in POC) here for.

Just ask us. ;)

usuallycountingbats
09-14-2013, 11:00 PM
That's what we're (those of us who post in POC) here for.

Just ask us. ;)

Thank you :) It feels oddly awkward having to ask. I have no idea why, since I merrily ask questions about all kinds of other stuff where my knowledge is only peripheral. I have been pondering on this some more, and realised that someone I'd class as one of my best friends is a PoC, and yet it never occurred to me to ask him, though I know he'd be fine with it. I guess it's because he's just him, and I don't identify him by race, any more than I identify any of my white friends by race. He's just my partner in crime and empty calories :D

Little Ming
09-15-2013, 12:56 AM
If in doubt... ask someone. :)

Please don't just "leave it out." We need more diversity in fiction.

usuallycountingbats
09-15-2013, 01:39 AM
If in doubt... ask someone. :)

Please don't just "leave it out." We need more diversity in fiction.

Well, I agree. But then when someone said you should leave things which give you doubts well alone, I wondered if this was one of those 'unknown unknowns*' and if I was inadvertantly going to offend people by asking/trying to include things like this.

*who doesn't love that phrase? It still makes me cackle wildly :D

Yorkist
09-15-2013, 02:19 AM
Ask multiple someones. Have two or three betas from that ethnic background.

To add to what the Garfinkle stated upthread, people aren't going to be bothered by the same shit. They experience similar things but don't respond the same way.

For example, my BIL is Korean. I asked him if it ever bothered him that people just assumed he was good at math and science. He said no, because it may have been a stereotype, but it was a good one. Haitians, say, have it worse. Plus, he says, he is good at math and science, so why should he care?

Contrast with, say, an Asian girl who sucked at math and science and instead was an artsy literary type, who not only had to deal with constant embarrassment because she defied the stereotype outside of her own choices. Add being female and the world of shit we tend to get when doing math and science stuff anyway, and add, just for the turd icing on a shit cake, parents whose most fervent desire is for their darling only child to become a doctor. That girl? Is going to have a seething cauldron of resentment about the issue by adolescence at the oldest.

So, yeah, common experiences - different lives and beliefs and attitudes. The ethnicity of the character will be a part of the identity but not define it, and will be secondary to the inner and outer worlds that you create.

Lavern08
09-16-2013, 01:35 AM
...I guess it's because he's just him, and I don't identify him by race, any more than I identify any of my white friends by race. He's just my partner in crime and empty calories :D

See?

It's that ^ statement that lets me know that you aren't one of those people who ask questions of POC just out of some kind of wacky curiosity, but that you are sincerely seeking some understanding of a different culture or race. ;)

Ken
09-16-2013, 03:35 AM
... "this guy must be in the mafia, like us."

That was what some figured when the godfather movie came out.
But the director wasn't. He was just an average joe, who'd done
lots of research, as he once said on a tv show.

Bottomline: research goes a long way.
Do enough of it and you are good to go.

No need to shoot people with a tommy gun personally ;-)

Kim Fierce
09-17-2013, 12:52 AM
Good luck! Diversity in writing is a good thing! I try to do this as well, and while I am white and grew up in a mostly white town, I now live and work in a much more diverse area, which is great for me, but I would definitely see where you are coming from with these questions. I'm happy and proud to say I live and work in a place which represents Americans of white, black, Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Japanese, and I work at a trucking company, so we also get truck drivers from Canada and Mexico in here, including French-Canadian and Muslims from Canada. But there are still things I need to learn, and I think you are on the right track.

I think it's possible the "leave it out" may have been talking about particular words, descriptions, or stereotypes but either way I still agree with "when in doubt, ask" above all!

Wilde_at_heart
09-27-2013, 07:44 PM
In this case I don't think you're over-thinking it. Without a frame of reference you probably don't realize what's offensive.

I've lived in several different countries and spent most of my adulthood living centrally in large, cosmopolitan cities - friends and romantic partners of every race, etc.

In my case, I'm more concerned with potentially *offending* other white people because in my experience, white, upper-middle-class university-educated people do on the whole seem to get offended more easily - some of it justified, some of it not. (I've also studied critical theory and am familiar with the 'power-relations' argument). As for conversations about 'privilege' - I generally give the subject wide berth. I've known people (invariably white) who get upset when someone uses 'black' as a descriptor much like in this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5dhjwWhlk5Q

But you are correct - if in doubt, leave it out.

I know what I can get away with among friends, relatives (a lot of people in my family 'inter-married') and so on, but I also know what would still really piss nearly all of them off (badly-rendered accents or really dated, lazy stereotypes rather than simply negative ones, for instance) . And of course, no group is ever homogeneous and what upsets one person person won't remotely bother someone else. However, 'research' behind a keyboard imo, will never cut it unless it involves actually knowing people from whatever group or even asking several of them outright. For instance, some people I've known say they'd prefer stereotypes over things they perceive as patronising.

This a good forum to explore though it's not that busy these days: http://www.yforum.com/ Any question, any subject of race, age, education level, religion, etc., answered bluntly.

Bush_moon
12-13-2013, 05:32 PM
I write everything with the pretext that anyone i personally know could read and enjoy it and not be offended. If i am in doubt i may even put a disclaimer to clarify fair play use or coincidental possibilities, all in good faith!

BM

Tazlima
12-16-2013, 04:37 PM
This reminds me of a story I heard a few years back (I don't know if it's true, but it doesn't really matter for the purposes of this post).

Apparently they were interviewing a white football player who was good friends with one of his black teammates. When asked about their friendship, he said something along the lines of "Oh, he's my best friend. We get together every weekend for fried chicken and watermelon." Of course, the guy got reamed by the media despite the fact that:

1) He and his buddy really DID get together for fried chicken and watermelon every weekend.

2) He had no idea that what he had just said was offensive. He grew up in a community that embraced diversity and he had never heard that those particular food items were associated with stereotyping. (I can understand how this is possible. I didn't realize that "that racism stuff" still existed until I went away to college in another part of the country. I honestly believed racism had ended in the fifties.).

I get the impression that the OP is coming from a similar place. It's hard to avoid offending if you truely don't know what's offensive.

I'd second what others have said. Don't be afraid to write about POC. The first word in that acronym is "people" after all, and writers are in the business of writing about people. All people, not just the ones who are your own sex, age, and race. Just have your beta readers keep their eyes open for anything that may potentially be offensive and make corrections accordingly.

Kim Fierce
12-17-2013, 03:24 AM
In my early to mid-20s, when I first started working in a diverse town after coming from a mostly white town, there was one black co-worker in particular who I hung out with quite a bit and he told a multi-racial girl who I dated at the time that I was "like a kid who doesn't know yet" when it comes to race. I had conversations like "What's the big deal about fried chicken and watermelon? Who DOESN'T like fried chicken and watermelon?" lol

Maybe the mind-boggling observation is the similarities we share!

Riz&Roz
01-10-2014, 05:57 AM
I think it is important to remember that people not only their race. If your book doesn't take place in another country (one that isn't westernized) and your characters are not immigrants, most of the time your character could be any other race. It's just a matter of how you describe them. Especially if it isn't contemp.