This past weekend, I visited Sociological Images, my go-to blog for when I pretend to my second career as a sociologist. Oh, don't laugh at me - I think most writers are amateur anthropologists and sociologists, not to mention psychologists - we observe the weird human animal, and we report.
Anyway, on SI, I saw a video that really got me blinking. You might have heard of the song, "Random Black Girl." It ...wow. It is funny and snide, and bemoaned the role of "random black girls" in musicals (and also comments on Asian women on Broadway - that the roles are limited to Miss Saigon or pole-dancing), and for me, it set memories reverberating.
If you're an African American tween or teen, in a lot of schools, you're expected to do a couple of things: one, be a high-scoring forward on a basketball team, two, mow down the opposition playing football, or three, go out for track, play baseball, or just be a jock on some sports team. If you're not a jock, you're expected to sing and/or dance. If you're really special, you must be the soloist/lead dancer. Somehow band, debate team, chess club, computers, the Honor Roll - those are expectations are left to ...others.
My faux-suitability for these roles was demonstrated to me tons of times in high school. In junior high, I auditioned with a classical piece for a solo, in competition with my fellow choir members, and though only one piece was on offer, another was created. I was shortly told I had been given a soulful, wailing solo in a spiritual we were going to learn. It was, I was told, "appropriate" for my voice. (Apparently spirituals were more appropriate for me than anything from Handel.)
When I was a teen on a treasure hunt through San Francisco with a group of friends, we were tasked with finding the menu from a jazz supper club. My friend Tim beamed.
"We're in!" he said with a grin. "Tee can get it."
"Um, and she will do this how?" I asked. The club was really exclusive - fancy, and there was a gauntlet of parking valets, and concierges, hostesses and waiters between myself and a menu. I was in cut-off jeans with long johns beneath them, and a sweatshirt - and none of my cohort looked any more club ready.
"It's a jazz club," Tim said, impatiently whisking a hank of strawberry blond hair from his forehead. "Just go in there, do a bit of scat, and you're golden!"
Beyond the fact that this still remains the stupidest plan I have ever heard -- yeah, like nobody would notice or mind a random black girl in cut-offs and long johns, swanning in, singing -- Tim's assumption that a.) she is brown-skinned, thus, b.) she can automatically sing scat like Sarah Vaughn, that was just stunningly, astoundingly, mind-numbingly misguided. I had to unpack this whole set of assumptions for him, and we ended up having a low-voiced discussion on the sidewalk in front of this club while the others looked on with interest. Things ended with me crossing the street and watching my team, my face hot with humiliation, as they made their move. As it turned out, a Caucasian boy was a much better choice to go in and be charming and get what we needed.
And, after all that, we didn't even win.
Yeah, so, what has this to do with you as a writer? Nothing, really. And everything.
We writers are PC enough to know that we aren't supposed to deal in cliché, and we're wise enough not to make all the Asians in our stories super-smart, and all the Italians unruly and thuggish like mobsters. Yet, it gets in. How? We are INUNDATED with media that reinforces stereotypes. I mean, we can ignore the whole Jersey Shore thing as an exercise in large-scale tackiness (as well as every Tyler Perry film that has ever been made), but consider the more insidious truth: slice-of-life movies and TV, talk shows, and reality shows -- even the innocuous ones -- manipulate our perceptions, and in a way alter our view of the world outside of the screen. Reality television producers have been outed long ago as controlling the unscripted storylines of their programs -- by throwing in types. The Instigator, the Nerd, the Brain, the Diva, the Weeper, the Thug. That these "types" often correspond with a socio-economic class or ethnicity is less obvious.
Have you ever felt a flash of nerves around a group of brown-skinned guys in a group? Even if they weren't talking to you or looking at you, have you ever crossed the street, or angled your body away, because your brain identified them as Dangerous Thug Types? Have you ever walked into a room full of fit, good looking woman from the dominant culture, and felt intimidated, or that they felt they were better than you because of their ethnicity, money, or body type and hair color? Did your brain sneer, "Cheerleaders?"
Guilty as charged.
"But, there's truth at the core of every stereotype,or it wouldn't be a stereotype," I've heard people argue.
Only the most error-riddled truth. We create generalizations to explain our experiences, but that's a poll based on a sample polling group of one. Our experiences are too small to be the whole truth. The problem is that we repeat and share our generalizations and they become stereotypes, because they are taken and shared as facts by people with no experience of our observation whatsoever.
These are the sorts of oversimplified, lazy thought-processes, assumptions, and superstitions that creep out in our belief systems, and through them, if we're not careful, our work. Prejudices are, after all, only pre-judgments of things we THINK we know, and insist are correct, without supporting facts or proof. It's easy to substitute "Angry Urban Black Man," and "Ignorant Redneck Southerner" into our text and see what happens next. When we deal in "randoms," the sort stand-in characters from central casting, bad things happen.
I think the biggest loss to our writing when we use those central casting "blanks" is that we lose distinction and specificity. In our "smart Asians" category, are we including Filipinos, and Malaysians? In our "all Scandinavians are blonde, hot, and sexy," label, do we include the Sami? Do we even know who they are? Do our male British characters all have bad teeth, and are all the females breathless, Bridget Jones clones with thickly applied eye makeup or posh accents?
One of the things I've learned living abroad is that there is more that we do NOT know about people than we know. Writing gives me the chance to explore, to learn, and to pass on not more generalization, but tiny bits of truth that can open doors into the experiences of others.
What's been your experience?