Engaging in negative stereotypes — the ongoing struggle

I was busy all morning doing IAF stuff and missed out on the beginning of this “debate” going on in the comments to Lisa’s story on Fantasy. It’s kind of ironic that this came up today because yesterday I had a long conversation about a similar issue surrounding one of my stories.  I wonder, actually, if I would see the thing that happened today in the same way had it happened last week, before my conversation yesterday.  Hmm.

So to clue you in on what I’m talking about, my other writing group, the Black Beans, met yesterday to discuss a story that I’m rewriting for a market.  Without going into too much detail, my story has terrorists and those terrorists are from a specific ethnic group.  (And in my story, it’s not ambiguous, nor did I mean for it to be.)  Now, being a not-racist person, I thought that I was not engaging in negative stereotypes with my story.  But due to the way I wrote things and the length of the story, it totally came off that way.  After much discussion I realized that, in order to have these terrorists remain the ethnic group I’d chosen, I would have to do a LOT of explaining to show that I wasn’t just trading on stereotypes.  And that even if I did that, many readers would probably focus on that aspect of the story, which would be bad as it’s not the point of the story at all.

Now, I’m extremely lucky that I belong to two writing groups with many talented people of many different backgrounds who are not afraid to speak their minds.  Thank goodness I had the sense to show the rewrite to them else I might have found myself in a similar situation as Lisa today: not meaning to have dealt in stereotypes, but perhaps doing so nonetheless.

This does not mean that writers have to censor themselves, or not include any disadvantaged groups they don’t belong to in a story.  What it does mean is that the author needs to know exactly what they’re about, and needs to get the opinion of people they trust so as not to fall prey to their own unconscious biases.  Or, you know, it’s not an unconscious bias per se, but an ignorance to how certain images, characterizations, and depictions of this or another group sink into our unconscious and don’t get pegged as “wrong” or “prejudiced”.  They may not affect us, therefore we don’t immediately recoil from them.  And they may come out in our writing, or our speech, or whatever.  Innocently, perhaps, but it’s still painful, damaging, wrong.

During the conversation/critique this weekend I found myself feeling very uncomfortable and even defensive on that particular point.  However, what I tried to do, and hope I succeeded in doing, is to keep my damn mouth shut until I could absorb the things I was being told, take into account the people who were saying them to me, and check myself mightily.  It’s only because I have so often been on the other end of conversations of this nature that I was able to do this, but it was hard.  As I said, very uncomfortable.  Most people don’t want to think that they have it in them to even appear racist, etc.  But achieving that takes work, and working through discomfort, and listening, and understanding.

One thing I do know: the proper reaction to an accusation or even hint that one is engaging in negative stereotypes about a group is not to do or say anything contained within this most excellent post.  Instead, as I have said very recently, you should find someone who is knowledgeable about such things whom you are comfortable with and know will tell you the truth, even if that truth makes you uncomfortable, and ask their opinion.

12 thoughts on “Engaging in negative stereotypes — the ongoing struggle

  1. Thanks for the link towards Lisa Mantchev’s story on Fantasy. Reading the comments thread was fascinating: I found that my initial reaction to the complaints was, indeed, “It’s just a story!”, because I had not spotted the Roma parallels. But then I thought about it some more, and realised how I would react if the (however unintentional) stereotyping therein was something I recognised, touching on some of my hot-button issues… in such cases I would *know* that it isn’t just a story, that assumptions work through fiction, etc etc., so why was I letting this one go?

    I loved the story; but I’ve been educated by the comments, and by your commentary here, and I love that, too!

  2. “even if that truth makes you uncomfortable”

    The one thing I would change in this lovely post is to say “and you should expect that truth to make you uncomfortable,” because I’ve come to understand that discomfort is inevitable in any confrontation of one’s own privilege, rank, or stereotyping behavior.

    It’s hard to welcome the discomfort, but I keep trying.

  3. Okay. It feels to me that even having the thought, brief as it is, would count as racism (even if you combat it with conscious thought). Sounds like just a matter of semantics. Certainly those who consciously confront the thoughts are doing better than those who don’t.

  4. “Now, being a not-racist person…”

    Although I understood what you were saying here, I was surprised to see you phrase it that way. Aren’t we all prone to racist thinking–just some people more so than others?

    1. I don’t fully buy into the idea that we’re all a little bit racist, as Avenue Q would have it. I think that all people have the capacity to distrust the Other, whether that Other be people of a different race or people of a different religion or different whatever else. Distrusting the Other may have saved some of us from being wiped off the face of the planet, according to some study somewhere.

      However, that knee-jerk distrust is a function of the lizard brain and should be regulated by the higher brain functions. In other words, when you’re an intelligent person who thinks for herself, then you shouldn’t be that prone to racist thinking because you should actively engage in combating it in your own head. It’s not enough to mean well, in the end. You have to do well.

      1. Tempest, I’ve seen you say some things about white people that were pretty far out there, to the point where I don’t think you would stand for it if someone said the same things about black people in front of you. I make plenty of allowance for irony, because I have a pretty good sense of where you’re coming from, but sometimes I wonder whether I’m overgenerous there, because it occasionally gets to the point where I feel uncomfortable around you because of it.

        I deeply admire your efforts to fight prejudice of all kinds. I don’t think you’re free from it, any more than anyone else is.

        1. I would never say that I am completely prejudice free. I think people can be, but it takes a lot of work and time. I try to put in the work and time, but I’m not nearly far enough along to say that I don’t have any prejudices. But then prejudice and racism are not the same thing. I am pretty confident in saying I am not racist.

          Not knowing which statements of mind made you uncomfortable, I cannot guess if that discomfort is based in my actually saying something prejudiced or saying something that isn’t prejudiced but makes white people uncomfortable nonetheless. The latter happens quite often and is mistaken for the former, but sometimes it’s the former.

          1. That’s an intriguing distinction. I’m not at all trying to challenge you here, just going off on a tangent because I’m curious: How would you define the difference between racism and prejudice?

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