July 05, 2011

Writer's Rites: Preaching to the Choir

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?


Colleen said...

I just posted a wee bit today about teaching for a community college on an army base. I learned A LOT about ethnic groups and misconceptions and preconceived ideas and everything else you write about here. One of the many things that has stayed with me is the experiences of a SGT, a very big man (his job was to carry a huge gun and he had the muscles to do it). One three occasions at different military bases while he was out jogging he was stopped by MPs (military police) (always Caucasian guys) and asked for ID. This was on base, he was in army sweats, and he was stopped. Each time he was asked why he was out running.

Think about that. Don't a lot of guys exercise on military bases?

He was both angry and resigned and when we (as a class) asked the MPs in the room why this would happen all they could tell us what that it does. They have to make random stops, he must look to some cops as the right guy to stop.

What was so interesting was how the black students weren't surprised and the white students were shocked. This was a SGT - someone they all respected who was a quiet force of power in my classroom (he could shut down a mouthy 19 year old soldier with a look) and yet he was being disrespected by MPs he outranked.

You mention seeing a group of brown-skinned young men; ever since my class when I see such a group I think of that SGT and I do my best to treat them with the respect not nearly enough people were giving him.

Lesson learned.

tanita✿davis said...

This came into my head especially because my brother was stopped by the police last Friday.

He was walking to the bus stop, doing a dry run for his junior college courses which will begin this August. He was stopped simply because ... because.

Why are you outside this time of day?
Why are you walking?
Where are you going?
Where do you live?
What classes are you taking?

My brother is quite possibly our Lord's wee brother, and is patient and sweet and goodhearted at all times. He didn't mind answering questions and chatting with the police officer. *I* minded. A LOT.

But, it will keep happening...

I've learned something here, too. I'm just not entirely sure what.

LinWash said...

Great post! We're going to talk about this very topic at school. When I was in Suzchou (near Shanghai) once, I had a hard time convincing a crowd of people that I was not Oprah Winfrey. I didn't know enough Mandarin to be convincing.

I've seen many manuscripts where authors try to include people of varying ethnicities, but sadly fall into stereotypes, i.e., the African American who constantly says "Yo what's up?" and acts like the class clown or says "Girlfriend" all the time and acts sassy. It's always sad to see people so narrowly defined.

tanita✿davis said...

Oh, aargh. Yes. The "sassy diva" thing has got to stop. I hate seeing the phrase "you go girl" in books, and not only because it's grammatically ridiculous.

I am imagining the whole Mandarin conversation, and having a tiny (okay, well, actually kind of loud) chuckle. "No! I am NOT Oprah Winfrey...!" Hee! Convince me!!

Thanks for stopping by.

LinWash said...

You can only go so far with ni hao (hello or hi) and duo shao (how much). Neither phrase is remotely helpful when a crowd is shouting "Oprah" in a park. Needless to say, I took a lot of pictures with strangers convinced that they had seen Oprah.

Yat-Yee said...

What's my experience? I am flooded by a whole host of memories of being defined not just by the way I look by also by the little bit of background people know about me. Eg when I was in secondary school, I was complimented many, many times by people who couldn't believe I was Chinese educated. Why? because the Chinese-educated person was supposed to be unworldly, nerdy, bad in English, good at cramming information but not learning etc. Even when the best students in my year were mostly from Chinese schools, acing subjects that required more than just cramming, people, especially teachers, still persisted in believing in their stereotypes and judging students accordingly.

Anonymous said...

WOW...I truly enjoyed this blog. You're spot-on about our stereotyping people - even those of us who don't think we do.

The experience that really shook up my assumptions was my first time in London. I was walking along the Thames, & there were two black guys walking in front of me. When I heard them speaking in Ebonics, with a British accent, I was floored. Somehow, I'd come to believe that those two were so disparate, that it never occurred to me I might hear them used in conjunction. I was ashamed to admit that I'd always thought Ebonics was something used by under-educated people, & that the British accent was a sign of "better-educated" people. It was a great lesson in assumptions.

Thank you for an insightful post!

tanita✿davis said...

Lin: Someday that story should make it into an essay or a novel: The Week I Was Oprah, by Lin Wash...

Ugh, Yat Yee -- that's not a stereotype with which I'm familiar but I definitely find the "you're Asian, wow, you're smart," to be so common as to be really disturbing. I think Asian prejudices and stereotypes within Asian culture are even harder hitting.

Morgan: There is a hip-hop shop here in Glasgow that took me from walking past to standing stock still. I stared. I gawped. I thought, "are they trying to be American, or...?" But, hip-hop and identity isn't tied to American-ness, but something more, I think, maybe more a common association to the themes of isolation and marginalization in the music.

Also what's still funny to me is seeing Asian and brown-skinned South Asian and African-British people speaking with a Scottish brogue. I always smile a tiny smile, because appearance does not equal voice - it's a lesson I'd do well to remember too!

Thanks for stopping by.

tanita✿davis said...

Oh, oops - I meant ALYX Morgan! Sorry!

Anonymous said...

LOL That's okay...I get that all the time. :o) "alyxmorgan" was already taken when I signed on for my email years ago, so I've just kept it backward with nearly everything else.

Sarah Stevenson said...

I'm just now getting to read this discussion (it's been a crazy week) and it brought up so many different thoughts for me...

...the phenomenon of being more likely to be stopped by a traffic cop if you look Latino, also known as DWM (Driving While Mexican)

...the song on the commentary soundtrack for Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, entitled "Nobody's Asian in the Movies" (a lament by the Asian groupie character)

...the strange fact that I have been in a number of countries where it turns out I can "pass" as whatever the local ethnicity is, provided I can speak a few words of the language. This happened to me in Mexico, France, Italy, and Spain.

...the shock I felt when I realized that Asian people have prejudices against other types of Asian people. (My dad, I'm sorry to report, has prejudices against a surprising assortment of people...)

...and the fact that I will often have to consciously reframe a situation if I find myself making assumptions about someone based on appearance. Like, if I find myself thinking, "check out that thug-looking guy crossing the street," I'll stop, and tell myself, you know, he's probably just a big burly dude who made the unfortunate fashion choice of saggy pants. :)

Brianna said...

I am so glad I read this. I am even more glad that someone actually wrote what I've been preaching to everyone around me. I was browsing for tips on how to spice up my YA novel, and I find this article. It's really inspiring to read this at this moment in time. Right now, I am writing a YA action/adventure/spy novel set in South Korea and I've been pulling my hair out for months trying to make it "acceptable" for western audiences who have been raised on such stereotypes about Asian cultures. I was worried about the "realistic" approach I was using, and I believed that no one would read my novel because the characters are far from stereotypical. I thought people might not relate, but reading this article made me realize that there are people that want to read stories like this. Articles like this give me a reason to finish my story.

People accept what they always see. So to break that, you need to show them something different. That's what I hope to do.

tanita✿davis said...

Sarah: I now HAVE TO listen to Dr. Horrible. That's disturbing... and sadly, more true than it should be.

Brianna: You're EXACTLY on track. Mitali Perkins' immortal theory as fiction as a window or a mirror is still so true - we are either showing people themselves when we write, or opening a window, and showing them the rest of the world.

Crank open that window, chica. We're waiting to see your South Korean characters shine. Good luck.