Imagine if someone claimed they were giving your minority representation in a book or movie, but it was so far from accurate you didn't recognize your people in it? How would you feel if the group you are in was always the one killed off in stories or added to the stigmatization of your group? Unfortunately, it happens all too often.
Cultural appropriation and representation are volatile topics. Someone will always be quick to call you out when they have a different understanding than you do. But, we could hurt people if we don't take care. It’s what I hope to bring to your attention today. It's especially important for those of us who aren't minorities. We need to see where things in our creative work can go in a direction that would reflect badly on another group.
Additionally, I'll also touch on hurtful stereotypes and non-ethnicity minorities. Next month, we’ll talk about what we can do to ensure our work is respectful. One or two articles are only a starting point on these broad issues. I’ll only be able to graze the surface of each to bring them out into the open. If these are new topics for you, let this article be a jumping off point for research. If you’re familiar with them, let it be a reminder to be vigilant.
So why would a white woman be writing about these topics? I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to meet people from every continent, and even one that worked in Antarctica. I’ve always had an interest in other cultures and people groups. But I know not everyone has that chance. We can grow up isolated, in ignorance, or get sucked into negative thoughts around us.
While I was growing up, members of my family spoke badly about others, particularly black people. I don’t think they even thought about how bigoted what they said was and being called racist would have shocked them. But I can’t deny what I heard. If they were alive today, I hope they’d see things a little differently. To my parents' credit, they worked hard to take that out of our family culture—sharing the racist things that disgusted them. Another generation later, my husband and I expanded on trying to eradicate bigotry in our family.
Have I had to face my own ghosts of beliefs about people groups? Yes, multiple times. But I long for the day when we as a world society see everyone as equals. May our writing be a step in that direction.
Now, for the tough topics.
The Oxford Dictionary says it's:
The unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.
Let's take a look from a minority standpoint, specifically. The Florida Seminole Tourism website (for tourism on the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation) says:
Cultural appropriation is commonly used to identify when the imagery, fashion, practices, music, or artifacts of a culture are removed from their original context. The significance is ignored and they are taken and used by someone else.
Basically, I read it as we want to know the culture and see what they feel is ok and what isn't, and ensure we respect those wishes.
If this is a new topic for you, a few examples may be in order.
These are the nasty cousins of cultural appropriation that stuff people into a simplified idea, boxing them in. They turn people into things. My eyes were opened to some of the awful stereotypes of Asian people after reading Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu. If you write about East Asian cultures, please give it a read.
What are some of these stereotypes for various groups? I'm sure you've seen these before: "sexy Asian lady", "noble savage" Native Americans, "Nazi German", and "damsel in distress". Each of these devalues the people group being portrayed. Characters in your work need to fill more than a shallow role.
With the hurtful stereotypes, it’s worth spending time on the fact that minorities are often the ones killed off in a story line. Glancing at TVtropes.org, here are a few particularly ugly ones: “Black Dude Dies First” and “Middle Eastern terrorist”.
Please don’t just put a minority in your storyline to kill them off, even if you have them make a noble sacrifice. Remember, they need a presence with powerful agency, just like every other character.
Negative tropes enforce how society sees a group. A friend of mine has had to raise her half-black kids to be careful when choosing clothes they wear and about what to do if a police officer stops them. She isn’t the only one. Many black parents face having “the talk” with their kids on these topics.
Also, please be careful when putting a minority in as a terrorist. Terrorists come from every group. In the US, one of the first names that comes to mind is Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber—a white guy. After the September 11th attack in 2001 by Al Queda extremists, it wasn’t safe in the US for people perceived to be Arabic. But were you aware that US citizens of Arabic descent helped hunt down remainders of those cells? I didn’t think about it until my friend mentioned his dad was one of the brave guys that helped.
Media often perceives Africans as not having access to and being very behind in technology. Yet, a friend from Ghana has a cell phone and uses WhatsApp all the time for international calls. She taught me how to use the app!
Please, also consider how you write descriptions of people. A few examples: comparing skin color to foods and using the words “almond eyes” in order to describe an East Asian person’s hooded ones. These are considered bad form by the groups being described. Would you want someone to ask if you tasted like, say, chocolate? Yet, I’ve heard of black people being asked that very question.
There are many, many more hurtful stereotypes. These were just a small sample.
What about other groups such as minorities of gender and sexuality, the handicapped, those with mental health issues, people following a particular religion, and disadvantaged groups like the poor?
The entertainment industry is often brutal to minorities—the LGBTQ+ community, especially. I didn’t realize how bad it was until I was skimming through “All 230 Dead Lesbian and Bisexual Characters On TV, And How They Died”. So the trope “Bury your Gays” really hits hard. There are stories where the “Anyone can die'' trope fits and is an equalizer of sorts. But authors and TV writers need to look hard into which characters they are killing off. Seriously.
Also, this group gets stereotyped to be the leak in any operation or the troubled villain. I’m looking at you “The Jackal” and “Tron Legacy” (think, Zuse)!
For physically disabled people, the hurtful stereotypes again include the villain. But there is also the helpless victim and the inspirational hero. Helpless victim is easy to understand. No one wants to be seen as unable to help themselves or needing to be saved, or not being seen as “enough”. Another personal example for you, when I was in elementary school, the dad of one of my friends was blind. He never let it stop him. Being blind was just part of him.
But what about the superhero one? Well, how would you feel about living up to the pressure of having to be superhuman? Of again, not being seen as normal.
For those with mental health issues, the challenges they face include a similar list, stories often overgeneralize, exaggerate, or trivialize them. Not all depressed people are suicidal, though stories will portray the most extreme option for “drama”. Mental illness should not be instantly associated with violence, yet it’s portrayed as that. How many killers in stories have a mental illness? Spreading misinformation does not encourage those who need to seek help.
People’s beliefs are close to the heart. Grouping all of one religion into the same pot is damaging. Portraying every Muslim (or any belief) as an extremist is vastly unfair. I know quite a few Muslims. My son’s best friend from elementary school follows Islam, as does his father. They are both peaceful men. Keep in mind, extremists exist in every belief set. Even Buddhism, which is known for its pacifism, has issues. Look at Myanmar where there is the forced conversion of minorities and in Sri Lanka which has persecution of Muslims.
Also, media mashes faiths together, such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism in movies like Kung-Fu Panda and Avatar. Or it rarely represents those who choose belief sets, such as atheism or agnosticism.
Media often shows those who practice witchcraft as the villains: devil worshipers, curse slingers, craving to control and manipulate, “demonic conjurers of darkness”, “irresistible sirens of corruption”, or “idiotic flakes”. But the faith doesn’t follow the devil, discourages things like cursing, control, and manipulation, and there are many academics among them. (Quoted from a Discord Q&A with Sable Aradia - author of the The Witch's Eight Paths of Power: A Complete Course in Magick and Witchcraft)
Often, the poor are shown as “incompetent, delusional, drunk or foolish”, and in need of rescue (with a focus on the rescuer and “oh don’t they look generous”). Also, the “race” card rears its head again, with media showing more racial minorities as poor or as criminals, when statistically it’s not correct. More white people are poor and crimes are more often committed by whites.
Such a discouraging pattern, isn’t it? Minorities have long been fodder for stereotypes in media, which are shown as the defining aspects of a character. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Writing a minority character gave me a chance to dig into that culture more and learn what his culture feels is acceptable and what is not. Have I done things perfectly? Nope! Had my hand slapped a few times. I’m still learning. Thankfully, they were minor incidents, correctable before print!
In May’s post, I’ll share things we can do to show respect for and do our best to represent minorities and cultures that are not our own. Until next time, peace.
Where have you struggled with writing others respectfully?
* * * * * *
Amy is the author of the Liminal Chronicles series, a mythological/urban fantasy set in small town Japan that focuses on social redemption and found family.
She runs the vssCollab very short story challenge on Twitter, Instagram, and Tumbler and publishes the best of the entries in the online zine--'In Threads'. Additionally, she founded the Anvilite Streamers Corps and streams her writing and crafts on Twitch.
Top Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
Copyright © 2023 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved
It's difficult, isn't it? Societies are multicultural and multiracial in many parts of the world - Europe, US, here in Australia, and other places. If we are writing about the society we live in, we can either exclude characters who are not like ourselves, which misrepresents our world, or include them, which risks hurting and misrepresenting them. Posts like this one, which urge us to think long and hard about how we represent others are very helpful.
I think that to exclude groups such as mentioned in the post for fear of hurting or misrepresenting them is not the way to go. It is a form of cultural exclusion. We need to do our homework before and while we create characters and storylines, and then if possible find someone from the group we write about to vet our work. This may be a commercial arrangement,like paying any other kind of editor. To expect free advice may also be hurtful.
Julia, so true! Not writing about minorities in our multicultural world is exclusionist. And yes you are correct, another kind of editor and yes it should be paid! I’ll talk more about it in the May post. Thank you for the thoughtful comment!
I look forward to next month! I made a terrible mistake at one point. A publisher friend of mine needed a sensitivity reader. She was willing to pay - and pay well - but for some reason her usual readers had turned her down. I didn't see that the topic of the book was offensive, and offered to ask someone who I knew did sensitivity reading. I mean, good money, in her field, seemed obvious like I was helping both of them.
Until the reader asked me the topic of the book and I tried to explain it. Thinking this was a worthy story to be told and told well, respectfully, etc. Wow. Was I wrong!
I had to go back to the publisher and say, "good luck!" I think the book may not have been published.
That was the day that I learned how painful some topics are for sensitivity readers... And that my naive white self could cause so much pain without even recognizing it.
This is so helpful, Amy. I'm learning that many of the ways I would resort to for character descriptions are not good. Despite my having respect and wanting inclusion in my novels, I still struggle. But I'm learning and teachable.
I love this, Lisa.
Thanks, Julia. This writing adventure is beautiful as it changes as the culture changes, and we also have the opportunity to lead the way in beautiful new paths. A challenge, and ... perhaps a calling.
Being humble and willing to lean is so important! I’m learning too! Thank you for your comment and thoughtfulness!
Thank you for addressing this contentious and important subject. Very topical!
One small beef from me: I do not use phrases like "the homeless", instead using "homeless people". Saying "the xxxx" makes it seem like someone is in a category, a pigeonhole, rather than being an individual. Each homeless person (or poor person, etc) has their own characteristics and quirks.
I do appreciate how hard it is to get all the nuances right. And thank you again for such a thorough and thoughtful exploration.
What a thoughtful point! I’ll do my best to say “homeless people” from now on. Thank you for the comment and the gentle correction!
unhoused is preferred over any reference to homeless.
A very timely and touchy post. My thanks, and I'm looking forward to Part 2. Another form of stereotyping is the the elderly. In my current WIP, I decided that my red hat hacker would be in her eighties. I've been careful not to stereotype her, giving her quirks and attitude and a youthful outlook on life. I hope I pull it off.
I love how you’re subverting stereotypes! Elderly people may not be a minority, but the are certainly under represented and often stuffed into a stereotype box. One of the older ladies I’ve looked up to always kept me on my toes! She was so spry! I'm glad your character is too! Thank you for the fun comment!
When referring to those with disabilities or differences, it's important o research the correct terminology and make sure you're using a sensitivity editor. There's a current book on the market which uses an archaic ableist slur to refer to a maxillofacial difference. It's not okay. It's wrong. It's hurtful. It's continues the pattern of stigmatizing those with disabilities and differences.
Very true! Thank you for sharing!
Great article Amy. Two more commonly stereotyped are stepmothers and single parents. The cliched ‘evil stepmother’ and ‘struggling single parent’ often written by people who are neither, and have no lived experience.
It’s time to rewrite Cinderella, let’s represent, I mean what if she had a good stepmother?
Indeed, they are stereotyped! What a difference a good role model could have made for Cinderella. Thank you for sharing!
Fantastic article, Amy. I expected no less from you.
I have to say that I’m torn about this whole subject. There’s another side I don’t hear about, and that’s the never-ending and often relentless complaining when there’s no call for it.
An example is from my own experience when I wrote about an obscure minority from another culture, and I had a couple people directly attack me for what they perceived was an offense.
Now, I have a measure of respect if a member of that group were to contact me and .give their views. However I’ve come to make a stand when it comes to people be offended “on behalf” of others. I’m just not interested in the views of the masses, most importantly because society continues to prove (to me), that there no end to people finding offense where none is meant.
Intent is important and should not be brushed under the rug.
I politely pointed out that this minority were my actual heroes and my intent was to make them shine, stating that I refused to make their suggested changes, and if it was so important to them, they should consider not reading my books, and to write their own.
There is a great deal of wisdom in considering each point you made, Amy. What gets to me, is the great possibility of becoming frozen in our. Inks and hearts. You will have many who fight against you. There will be someone who wants you to compromise and change things that shouldn’t be touched.
There are times where some of these “no-no” phrases are used to bring out the depths of the villains. To clarify who should be watched in a story.
I’m not overall for controlling language, and I may be in the minority here. But wha5 I have a,ways done is love people. It’s not about race, it’s not about culture. It’s about people in my mind and heart.
I don’t have black friends, Asian friends, Hispanic friends,…..I have friends.
This has me taking about many things, all of them positive, so thank you for that. Hope I made sense.
Sorry, I hate auto correct and this was done in my phone. The errors are horrible.
Wish I could edit, but I can’t.
Yes, you made sense. And I remember that time, actually...
There will always be those quick to point their finger. As you said, it's the intent. Talk to those who are in and of that culture, minority, group if at all possible to find their take. That's the side you want to focus on. If a subject is taboo to a group, leave it out. If you're pointing out bigotry through a character as a "bad guy", then make your best call and check on it with that culture. There's a difference between trying to please everyone (which is impossible) and being sensitive and caring about how you represent people.
Thanks for the comment, Jaime! <3
Good counsel. This is a very challenging subject, and I was having a side conversation offline with someone who read this article via text.
The conclusion I came to and suggested was, "Don't be a jerk (didn't say jerk, but...), because people matter. Do the best you can to be thoughtful, the rest you'll need to figure out as yu go and learn."
Like I said before -- this is big, and you are both brave, and I believe the right person to spearhead the conversation =)
Looking forward to part 2!!