Thursday, May 13, 2010

Writing While White

When I taught Prejudice Psych or Women's Psych, one of the exercises/discussions we did in class was to look at who was in power in society by looking at who was in the popular movies of the day. Typically, films "for everyone" featured a heterosexual White male protagonist. If a film had a protagonist who varied from any of those statuses, then the film was considered a niche film.

So if the protagonist was a woman, it was a chick flick. If the protagonist was Black, then it was an African-American film. If the protagonist was Gay, then it was a gay film. I know you're immediately going to think of the exceptions, such as any Snipes flick or...Lara Croft (though "she's" clearly a male fantasy/avatar)...or...some other exception.

But those really are exceptions. If you don't believe me, go right now and look at the films section of your newspaper [note: yes, I'm that old] for this weekend and count the number of heterosexual White male protagonists compared to "others."

And when's the last time you saw a popular, mainstream movie that had, say, an Asian (whatever that means) Queer woman in a wheelchair as the protagonist? And if you did, what are the chances that her being Asian, Queer, or having a disability weren't the focus of the story rather than just part of her profile as she went about the story? Yeah, I thought so.

So the next thing that happens with characters who have a non-dominant status is that they might be included as The Sidekick. Preferably to help out the White hetero guy with some status-stereotypical ability of theirs, like the Gay Sidekick might...I don't know, design something, or the Black Sidekick might kick somebody's ass, or the Female Sidekick might use feminine wiles to sexually lure and then betray some "bad guy" or so forth. So you see how it goes to be relegated to sidekick status. (You get to use your otherwise reviled stereotypical powers in the service of "good" for once.)

This whole phenomenon is pretty standard in literature, too--and by that of course I also mean books that aren't considered "literature" (like really any damn thing you might find me reading these days.)

So what are the possible permutations for fictional situations, then?

1. "Standard": Characters are simply all White, heterosexual, able-bodied...usually there's some gender mixing, if only for background of the male characters. (Because even the most rabid misogynist has a hard time avoiding all contact with women throughout his life, as opposed to the most rabid racial bigot who can likely avoid people of Color nearly all the time, simply because of population statistics.)

2. Also "Standard" but hey now it's "Progressive": Protagonist is as above, but with some peripheral characters being Sidekicks of Subordinate Status.

So given this situation, what do you write, if you're a White hetero able male writer, and don't want to be an ass writing culture-blind material?

Maybe you'd decide to write, for example, a protagonist who does not have all dominant statuses. Someone who would be in Sidekick Land in most "mainstream" fiction. For example, a person of Color for your protagonist.

I'm going to examine this mostly in terms of race, just for the sake of discussion, although psychologically and socially speaking prejudice pretty much works the same across other statuses as well and a lot of the issues would apply cross-status.

When I was thinking about this, I Googled around a bit and found a lot of discussion about this in terms of race. Pieces by the rather adorable Monica Jackson (wonderfully explicit in her criticism), Molara Wood (includes quite a few informative links), Nisi Shawl (I found his piece oddly removed and anthropological about "others"), Neesha Meminger guesting on Racialicious, the Rejectionist, ... and there are more you can probably find yourself.

There are clearly a few pros (demarginalization?) and a number of cons (cultural appropriation?) to writing characters of Color when you're White.

Sometimes it helps me to think in analogies that are relevant to my own life. Though of course there's never any direct parallel, analogy can be very useful. For example, what do I think of men who write women protagonists? (Hmmm...who are those guys, anyway?) Or middle-class/rich writers writing low-SES characters? If you know some good (or bad) examples of these, let me know.

Justine Larbalestier writes on why she, a White woman, writes characters of Color, and her reasoning seems persuasive and positive to me. To me, but that doesn't mean it's right.

So how, and what, should dominant-culture writers write? In terms of race, since I'm White, should I write scenarios 1 or 2 with White protagonists only? Am I not then perpetuating marginalization of people of Color? Or should I write characters of Color, and risk cultural appropriation at best and bigoted ignorance at worst?

There is a lot of information out there about what not to do, but not a lot about what to do in avoiding wielding unearned privilege.

I've focused on race (partly because there is a lot of discussion out there about it) but am always interested in what people have to say about other statuses as well. I'd particularly like to hear from commenters who are not dominant-cultured, writers or not.

Trolling, flaming, and ignorantly prejudiced responses won't be approved or will be removed--whichever way this platform works. I can't be bothered with remedial Prejudice 101 right now when there is so much already out there to inform yourself about it (see included links). That is all.

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