Posts Tagged ‘racism’

If you’ve known me for a while, I’m big on trying to correct injustices and inequalities. Racism is a big one for me, and when I hear people say “Racism’s dead” or “It’s not as big a deal as people make it out to be”, I’m among those pointing out why those folks are so wrong. In my own fiction I try to create casts that are very diverse, using characters with different sexual orientations, religions, genders, gender identities, ages, and races, among others.

Which brings me to why I’m writing this post. The past couple of days I’ve been working on a new short story that will probably turn into a novelette, based on how many words I’ve written so far. In it, four of the main characters are white, while one of them is black (and in a relationship with another male character, but I digress). While writing the first scene in the story, I was trying to point out the that Fred, my black character, is black. Why? Because I worry that unless I point it out, they’re going to assume he’s white.

Realizing that I was thinking this made me stop and think about my other works. Why do I take the time to point out a character’s race? Do I do the same thing for my white characters? And why do I assume that they’ll think I’m white in the first place?

On that last question, my roommate here in Germany, who has a background in psychology, was able to provide the answer to this question of mine one morning while waiting for the bus: “Most people tend to transfer their own qualities to others, including characters in stories.” That makes sense to me, and I’ve got a personal anecdote to back it up (I know anecdotes don’t count as scientific data, but bear with me): when I was 17 I spent five weeks in Israel and at one point we passed by a bookstore with some books in English. Having already read through the two books I’d brought with me (no surprise there), I went in, browsed the titles, and bought I, Alex Cross by James Patterson. This was my first Alex Cross book, but sixteenth in the series overall, and at first I didn’t find any indications to clue me into the fact that the protagonist was black. It wasn’t till midway through the book that I realized from the conversation between Cross and his grandma that they were black! Had to really adjust my image of the guy in my head right there, as well as several other characters.

Funny what reading out of order and a few misconceptions can do.

But in this line of thinking, wouldn’t this mean I assume all my readers are white? Well, I know for a fact that’s not the case: while I still have a relatively small readership (both in terms of books and blogging), they come from a variety of backgrounds. Some I know personally and off the Internet, and can attest is that they’re not white. What I worry about is that they’re going to transfer my race, which is white, to my characters. And it’s not a crazy concept: if you had never read or seen Harry Potter and heard about it and then saw a picture of JK Rowling, what would you assume the protagonist’s race was? I’d say you’d guess white.

And in a strange way, I’m helping my readers come to these assumptions. Unless I’m noting how pale a characters’s skin is, I generally don’t do anything to indicate a character is white. In Snake, where a majority of the characters were white, I did very little in terms of description when it came to skin color, and yet I’m pretty sure everyone who read the book was able to figure out my characters’ races just fine. The same in Reborn City: except for noting that Ilse has very pale skin, my white characters didn’t get any indications to clue the readers into their whiteness, while every character of another race did get indicators.

So why is there this collaboration between my readers and I? And do other authors do this?

For the second question, I’d say yes. I’ve seen plenty of other authors do this, including idols of mine like JK Rowling and Stephen King. And for the first, I think it might have something to do not just with the transference thing my roommate mentioned, but also with the society I live in. Think about it: while America may have a black president now and there are more people-of-color in the media than ever before, it’s still a very white-centric society. Because of this, I think that means, along with transference, I don’t feel the need to give indicators for white characters because in America, whiteness is still considered “the norm”, and my readers won’t imagine my characters a different color unless told otherwise because they’ve been conditioned to feel that whiteness is still “the norm.”

And I’m sure that if I were of a different race in a different country or culture, the same concept would apply. If I were Middle Eastern writing in Israel, probably all my characters would be Israeli Jews or Palestinians and I’d give indicators for tourists or Ethiopian or Russian Jews. If I lived in China and was Chinese, I’d probably only give indicators for non-Chinese Asians or Americans or something along those lines.

So to wrap this whole post up, the way my mind works, plus the way my readers’ minds work and the society we were raised in all collaborate in this strange need I have to mark my characters so as not to give my readers a false impression. Funny how that works. Even weirder that it makes sense to me as I write about it, and that I’m not sure whether or not I feel anything about it other than it being strange. Maybe that’s just how one should feel about something like this. Not liking or disliking it, but accepting it as one of those weird facts of life.

Well, I’ve gone on and on about this subject for a while now. Now I’d like your opinion on it. Do you think what I’m doing with non-white characters here is strange? Why or why not? And do you ever do the same thing in your writing? Why? Let me know, I’d love to hear your thoughts, Followers of Fear.

About a week and a half ago, Variety reported that the Ghost in the Shell live-action film, which had been in development hell for years, was underway and had Scarlett Johanssen in the lead after Margot Robbie turned it down. Not only did this impress upon me to actually read the manga, but it excited and angered GitS fans across the world. The former is understandable, but the latter is a bit more complex. Why? Well, the main character of GitS is named Major Motoko Kusanagi, and she’s Japanese. Johanssen, while a great actress, is white. Why didn’t Touchstone Pictures ask any Japanese actresses?

And this isn’t the only live-action adaptation based on a Japanese franchise where Hollywood has looked at only white actors. The Akira film, which once again is in development after many years in and out of development hell, has been notorious for its producers trying to get white actors in the roles of Japanese characters. Justin Timberlake, Robert Pattinson, and Andrew Garfield are the latest names to come up. George Takei has been vocal about this, warning producers they will upset fans and have a repeat of The Last Airbender (an adaptation of the American anime Avatar: The Last Airbender) if they don’t cast Asian actors. Remember the latter film had a mostly white cast, and, although the film was problematic on a number of levels, the fact that the very diverse characters were all played by white actors upset many fans.

And it’s not just films based on anime that has had this problem. Biblical films such as Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings have received a lot of criticism not just for the liberties taken with their stories, but the fact that while the characters being portrayed would have most likely have been from the Middle East and Africa, the principle actors were all white. And in Pan, an upcoming movie based on Peter Pan, Tiger Lily is played by Rooney Mara, who is white while her character is Native American. Surprisingly, the Peter Pan live musical on NBC last month actually had a Native American actress and tried not to be so stereotypical with their portrayal of Native Americans, which was one of the few good things about that disaster. The 2003 Peter Pan film also cast a Native American actress in the role of Tiger Lily, and that film rocked! Why can’t Pan do the same thing?

And here’s something interesting I’m not sure if other people have noticed: when the Harry Potter films were still being made, the first couple of films had two different actresses, both black, playing Lavender Brown. At that point she was a background character for the films, but once the sixth book came out she had a much bigger role. When we see her in the sixth movie, she’s played by Jessie Cave, who was white. I mean really. The HP universe has already shown that the main basis for discrimination is how pure your blood is. JK Rowling has already stated that gender isn’t a big deal in the Wizarding world, and I don’t think race would be a big deal either. What’s wrong with Ron dating a black girl, even if the relationship doesn’t work out in the end? Heck, Fred went to the Yule Ball with Angelina Johnson, who in the books was black, and after the series she married and had kids with George Weasley.

And why the heck wasn’t Selma in the Oscars this year? I mean, I don’t really care about the Oscars, but apparently this year has only white nominees, and of those most are male. I don’t know why. I saw Selma, and it was powerful and beautiful. Why can’t it get a nomination or two?

I’ve been vocal about how, almost 47 years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, this nation is still full of racial inequality, most illustrated this past year in the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and quite a few others, the trials that seem to have lead to nowhere, and the protests that have followed them. The many roles where white actors have played characters of non-white nationalities may seem like a small thing, but it’s actually pretty big. The media has a great power to influence millions and millions of people. What does it say when the people who go to movies don’t see themselves in the movies that they go to see? Even in roles where they should be seeing themselves?

I’m not sure what Hollywood’s reasoning for doing all this white-washing. Maybe they like to bank on star power or something. But I think that studio execs are making a big mistake by not including more diverse casts in their films.  TV execs are catching on much faster: TV shows like Sleepy Hollow,  Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder, which pride themselves on their diversity, are tearing up the prime time landscape, Black-ish and Jane the Virgin, which feature mostly black or Hispanic casts, are some of the year’s best new comedies, and SNL has made it a point to diversify their cast members.

And while I’m still working on getting that sort of reach with my books, I like to use diverse casts in my stories when I can, and I think that that’s some of the best parts of my books. In my thesis novel Rose, half the main cast, including antagonist Akira, are Japanese. In Laura Horn, many of the characters are black or Hispanic, and I plan to keep that in the rewrite. And in the Reborn City series, most of my characters aren’t white. In fact, Zahara Bakur, my protagonist, is an Arab Muslim. And if in an adaptation of any of my works, the white-washing I’ve described above was used in the casting process, I’d be very, very upset.

Because that’s not how the characters should be. We want to see characters who look like us. I’m lucky that I see a lot of white characters. Occasionally I see a Jewish character, though they’re either secular or ultra-Orthodox Jews. But what about others? There have only been two black superheroes in the movies these past couple of years, and they’ve been sidekicks to the white superhero. And what about Hispanic or Asian heroes? Where are the Native American characters?

I think Hollywood is making a great mistake in not diversifying their casts and insisting on the big actors. I’m not saying that white actors no longer have roles in movies. But I do think that there needs to be more roles for blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, and other groups and ethnicities in Hollywood movies. It’s not a moral thing. It’s because the world is becoming more diverse every day. The media we consume should reflect that. After all, the media reflects the world, doesn’t it? So reflect the world as it is, Hollywood. And that’s a beautifully diverse landscape of many different groups and peoples with a thousand different stories to tell.

It’s expected in the coming weeks that the grand jury will hand down a decision on whether or not to indict Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown. Protesters have threatened to riot if Wilson isn’t indicted, the governor has declared a state of emergency, and police are getting ready for what many see as a second, bigger powder keg after the first one went off back in August. And around the country, in living rooms and coffee shops, in workplaces and on news talk shows, people are asking what caused this and what will happen next.

I’ll keep my own personal views on what should happen to Wilson to myself, lest everything else I try to say in this piece gets forgotten because of one opinion. I will state that I think it’s tragic that a young man who had his whole life ahead of him and was planning to go college and maybe own his own business someday was taken too soon, and that his legacy has to be another awful bullet point in the United States’ long, troubled history with race.

And make no mistake, there is a racial element to this. I know some will say that we shouldn’t be talking about race, that we’re living in a post-racial society, that race is a sociological construct of the mind rather than a biological certainty, and that therefore race should not be brought up. I’ve said it many times before, and I’ll keep saying it: social construct or not, many people treat race as a biological reality, and racism is still a pervasive problem in the United States. In fact, I’ve often compared racism to cancer, and the way you deal with cancer isn’t to avoid it or pretend it doesn’t exist. The way you deal with cancer is to take a multi-pronged approach to cure it, and one of those approaches is to talk about racism.

And for those who continue to insist that race shouldn’t be part of the discussion because we live in a so-called “post-racial” society, here are some facts:

  • In November 2012, students of the University of Mississippi rioted upon learning that Barack Obama was reelected. Several racial slurs were heard shouted out during the riot.
  • In February 2012, a young man in Florida was profiled by a self-appointed neighborhood watchman, who then followed the young man despite being told by police not to pursue, and engaged the young man in a scuffle that ultimately ended with the young man’s life being taken. The young man, Trayvon Martin, was black.
  • There are over 900 documented hate groups in the United States according to a report released by the Southern Poverty Law Center last year. Most of them are primarily focused on race and racial differences.

Still want to argue that racism doesn’t exist? Racism is still very prevalent in the United States, and the fact that so many want to deny its existence or say that discussing race and racism in America makes you racist really disturb me. (The latter claim actually is the most ridiculous, especially since it goes against the very definition of racism, and real racists wouldn’t benefit from discussions on race as a societal problem unless it involved doing horrible things to other races. In fact, when economist Ben Stein went on Fox News the other day and called Obama the “most racist president” ever, I wanted to throw a dictionary and a history book at the guy. If you’re going to call a President racist, it’d be better to refer to possibly Andrew Johnson, Woodrow Wilson, or Franklin Roosevelt for starters.)

I think we owe today’s racism to some of the things that happened during Reconstruction, in part. Slavery itself definitely plays a role, but I want to focus on Reconstruction because during this time, President Andrew Johnson encouraged the return of defeated Confederate states to self-rule and to take part in federal government. The people who ended up seizing control were mostly plantation owners and businessmen, some of whom had been involved in the Confederate government, and had benefited from slavery. They used their power to pass sweeping legislation depriving freed slaves of rights, and used terror in the form of the KKK to prevent push back. There was also some propaganda directed to poorer whites who were told that giving freed slaves power was bad for them. The federal government, including Johnson, didn’t do much to prevent this (Johnson also didn’t support the Civil Rights Bill or the 13th Amendment, which is why I mentioned him above in my examples of racist presidents).

This set a painful pattern in motion that would last for nearly 100 years. The legislatures continued to have people in it who would keep up the status quo, African Americans and whites who sympathized with them were kept in place through lynching, the KKK, and other forms of terror, and efforts on state and federal levels to stop it faced uphill battles. It wasn’t until WWII, when African-Americans were determined to achieve victory at home and abroad after their rough treatment during WWI, that things began to change for the better.

Why do I go into all this, and at the risk of getting a bunch of people shouting at me in the comments about how I know nothing or I’m oversimplifying it or something along those lines? Because there are a lot of painful episodes, going back further than I have covered, that have happened and continue to happen long after MLK and the Civil Rights Acts, and we need to examine the whole picture in order to understand what is happening now. Racism existed then, and although they’re in new forms, racism exists today. So we need to confront the past and examine the present if we’re to better the future.

And now that I’ve led you through this long, somewhat rambling post, I have to ask: how do you think racism can be combated? What approaches should we take to stop racism and make it less prevalent in future generations?

*By the way, I know that some of the arguments here can also be applied to other forms of prejudice and discrimination towards other minorities, women, religions, ethnic groups, socioeconomic levels, and sexual orientations. For simplicity’s sake, I’ve only focused on race here, but I do cover other problems in other posts and in some of my fiction as well.

As of last night, I’m a little more than halfway through editing Video Rage, the sequel to my first novel Reborn City. It’s been a long and slow process, not helped by work, preparing for the new semester, and the general craziness of life itself. Still, I am making progress. And I have become a bit more cognizant of the fact that I like to make issues that are important to me part of the stories that I write.

I’ve mentioned this before, but RC and its sequel VR have a lot of themes in them that reflect societal problems we face today, including Islamophobia, racism, and drug addiction, among a few others. I thought that these were the only book I’ve written where these issues have become so embedded within the story’s narrative, but then I realized that wasn’t the case. Snake, my other novel, explores the trade in human beings and in flesh, albeit slightly less prominent due to the focus on a certain serial killer.  And Laura Horn, the novel I finished last month, stars a main character who suffers from the trauma of sexual assault. Even Rose, the novel I’ll be writing for my thesis, has a lot of themes reflecting issues that I find important, including gender dynamics and women being viewed solely for their biology, domestic abuse in relationships, and even gun violence*.

*Speaking of which, I have a post about that. Remind me to write about it later this week.

I think I write in all these themes into my stories for a number of reasons. One is because a lot of what I write is taken from today’s world. You look around you, and you’ll see the world plagued by many issues that are not easy to solve and nowhere close to being solved. Often I will write a story and the problem can either be inserted into the story or it just evolves its way in, showing up throughout the story. Another reason is that, as an author, I have the potential to influence plenty of people through the words I write and the stories I tell. If I can do some good through that, then why shouldn’t I? Third, sometimes you feel so upset about the problems yourself you can only vent about them through words on paper, which is something I sometimes do. And fourth, because I can.

In any case, I look upon this habit of mine as beneficial. Like I said, inserting issues such as racism, gun violence, LGBT rights or whatever into my stories has the potential to perhaps do some good in the world and allow for discussion that sometimes is stifled out of fear or because of strong emotions (or because being politically correct can make you feel like you’re walking on eggshells). And besides, I think it makes the plots of my stories much better. Rose originally didn’t have the gun violence aspect to it, but when I realized that it could make things in the story more interesting and allow me to flesh out the main character more, I decided to go with it, and with fantastic results too.

And if the reviews I’ve gotten on my books are any indication, people like my books better because I add in these issues.

Do you insert issues important to you in your stories? What issues and how do you put them in? What have the reactions been like?

Some in the American government and in the media have made the proclamation that “racism is dead”, at least here in the United States. If you ask me, the people saying this are either overly idealistic and naïve or they’re willfully ignoring facts. Because the sad fact of the matter is, racism is far from dead. It’s just not as overt as it used to be, it’s become subtler so it can thrive without being reprimanded or outcasted by the majority of Americans who don’t believe in racism or think it’s immoral.

Need proof? The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that there are over 200 known hate groups in the United States, with Ohio having 31, New York 42, and California 77. Other large states have many different hate groups, most having racist beliefs, and the states with fewer hate groups are more likely to have groups that can be categorized as Neo-Nazi, White Nationalist, KKK, Racist Skinhead, Black Separatist, and General Hate. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg! Just imagine how many small or new hate groups out there the SPLC has yet to document! The numbers are scary if you think about it.

And then there are recent episodes where racism has reared its ugly head and broadcast all over the media. Cliven Bundy recently remarked that he believes that blacks (or as he calls them, “negros”) were better off under slavery than they are now, because apparently not learning to pick cotton has lead to them being on government welfare, aborting kids, and sending their young men to jail (I could write an entire post on the meshuggas of this guy if I wanted to, but why bother? He’s obviously nuts and in the end the federal government will force him to pay the money or send him to jail, possibly with his militia friends in tow). And then he acts like the victim when reasonable people are offended by his words and says MLK Jr. didn’t finish his job.

First off, Mr. Bundy seems to forget that slavery was not a walk in the park. It was inhumane, cruel, and caused the deaths of untold millions. He also doesn’t seem to realize that there is much more to why some African Americans are on welfare, mostly because they are not afforded the economic, environmental, and social resources to help them get off welfare. Plus not all blacks are on welfare, aborting babies, or in jail. Our President identifies as black*, and he’s not on welfare (unless you count living in a government building and receiving your paycheck through taxpayer money welfare), has two beautiful daughters, and has never been to jail unless it’s been to talk to prisoners.

*Yes, he identifies as black. It’s not a biological thing, but a social construct. Amazing that we make such a big thing over a construct of our minds, but there you go. (see this post for more)

And is being on welfare necessarily a bad thing? Mr. Bundy’s ancestors were brought from Nevada on a welfare program, if I remember correctly. So don’t preach like you’re better than them, because your life is the result of welfare programs, Mr. Bundy. And by the way, don’t blame a dead man for what’s in your heart. You have only yourself to blame for your racist beliefs, and if people are offended, it’s because there is still reverberations in our own society resulting from the darkness in our past. No covering up will rid our nation of that darkness, and people are right to be offended by your remarks. At the very least, you can be considered callous, if not outright racist.

And then there’s Donald Sterling, who’s been banned from the NBA and forcibly relieved of the LA Clippers because he didn’t want his biracial mistress seen with black people. Some people say he may be senile, others say he’s worried about his performance, and others just say he’s a racist pig. I think that whatever he is, he is a hypocrite because his team is mostly black and he’s seeing a woman who is half-black, and that his hypocrisy, as we have seen, is his downfall.

It is nice to know that the same weekend we all started talking about Sterling, Family Guy had a wonderful episode that dealt with racism, not just from whites but from blacks as well. And it is nice to know that we are having a dialogue about this, that we are not trying to sweep racism under the rug or deny that it exists. That’s like trying to ignore a serious medical condition or disorder in the hopes that it goes away. Just doesn’t work out in the end.

You know, the Supreme Court is right: a lot has changed since the Civil Rights Acts were passed. We are now a more technological, global, connected society. We recycle in the hopes of not accelerating the destruction of the Earth, and the idea of a black man or a woman running for President is no longer ludicrous, but the former has become a successful reality (twice!) and the latter is welcomed by a huge majority of the country.

However racism is still a problem in this country, and it is something we will have to deal with if this country is to continue to grow and prosper. So denying racism and saying it’s dead isn’t the answer. Rather, open dialogue and a lot of love and understanding is. And we need to have more of it.

Oh, and to the KKK guy in that one news clip who says he has black friends but doesn’t believe in “racial mixing”, where are your black friends exactly? Do they know you wear a KKK robe? And could you bring me an article from an accredited medical journal published in the past ten years that says “racial mixing” is a bad thing? I would love to see it!

I may or may not have mentioned it before, but I’m a fan of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (or these days, The Daily Show with John Oliver, seeing as Jon Stewart is in the Middle East directing a drama). The show makes digesting politics a bit easier for me, the way they lampoon everything that’s happening in our broken political system. No subject is safe or free from exploration, and that can sometimes lead to some very interesting epiphanies on our society in general.

Last night I had one of those epiphanies. The show’s two women correspondents (and considering that every correspondent has at least a dozen different correspondent titles, from tax reform to royal family to fishing and wildlife to weird news, they really are the women correspondents for the show), Samantha Bee and Jessica Williams, did a segment on how people are afraid to talk about race and racism in this country, and how far we are from eliminating it. If I am successful, the video should appear below. If not, I apologize and I advise you to follow this link.

Although very funny, this video shows some incredibly thought-provoking things. For one thing, those who don’t experience racism on a day-to-day racism in New York–those with white privilege, in other words–feel that because of President Obama and other factors, racism is on its way to being eliminated. However those who experience racism on a daily basis–the members of the black panel–have a much more cynical view. And why shouldn’t they? They face discrimination, profiling, problems getting good jobs, and utter cluelessness on the parts of certain members of the white panel. I mean talking about race exacerbates the problem? Black people should be interested in your fashion-related job?

First off, does talking about the things in your life that can cause you depression exacerbate the problem? Therapists don’t believe so, and they’d advise you to discuss it rather than not talk about it. And as for black people not being interested in your job despite the job being fashion, does it seem a little stereotypical that you think that they should be? I mean, there’s more to white people than the clothes they wear, so why can’t it be the same for minorities.

And like the one panelist said, this affects more than just black people. Hispanics face the stop-and-frisk policy too, and crooked police will use this policy to intimidate, hurt, and deport Hispanics unfairly and on bulls**t charges. Muslims, particularly Arab Muslims, face a constant PR campaign to let the world know that only a tiny minority of Muslims actually have radical leanings, let alone terrorist ties or inclinations. And in many areas of the country, the LGBT community has to struggle not just for marriage rights, but for the right to housing, jobs, insurance, security, and other rights that their straight neighbors taking for granted.

And finally, to the fashionista in the white panel, even if an issue doesn’t affect you, you should still take part in it! Why? Because it’s the right thing to do. I’m pretty sure that the genocide in Eastern Europe during the 1940s didn’t affect mainstream Americans, but still it became a part of the war effort to stop Germany. And for a more modern example, though the tsunami in Indonesia, the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan, and the ongoing genocide in Darfur (yes, it’s still happening, and rapes over in that area have skyrocketed with it), we still intervene, even though it doesn’t directly affect us. Why? Because we have a moral imperative to do so.

So even if you’re not directly affected by the plight of minorities because of your race, your religion, your nationality, your ethnicity, your gender, your sexual orientation, or any other factor, you should still try to help. Otherwise, when you’re affected by an issue and nobody’s speaking up for you, you’ll feel pretty ashamed that you didn’t do a single thing to help others out in their time of need.

So let’s start that discussion about race. Here’s a start: racism is still a long way from being eliminated in the United States, no matter what race you belong to or where you’re from. What is something you can do in your community to fight against racism and foster equality?