Sunday, June 8, 2008

Characters of Color

I am white. Let's be very up front about that. I'm not "Anglo," and I resent being called that. I'm Celtic, with the extreme pallor that suggests. I'm somewhere around the shade of tapioca pudding. I grew up in a Sundown Town and had minimal exposure to anyone darker than my Pakistani doctor. I went to a university with a 2% black, 40% Asian student body. So, I'm probably the worst person in the world to write this article.

But, I write characters of color, anyway. While I hesitate to call it "liberal guilt," I do worry about how I write them. People--especially authors and fans--of color say it is insulting that I worry more about how to make a Barbados sugar plantation owner accurately black than I do over how to make three-armed green aliens convincing.

The difference is that with the latter, I can use the time-honored method of "Making shit up." As long as it sounds good and holds up to being poked a little (where does that third arm go and why is it there from an evolutionary standpoint?), the readers will suspend disbelief.

With the former, I have the base layer: male plantation owner, and an extra layer atop it: half-black in a white society, half-white among the black society. I have critical readers who know more than I do examining it as closely as a piece of cross-stitch under the eye of a county fair judge, looking for knots and strings and such.

The very fact that I can choose not to write about PoCs is privilege. I know this. In many cases, I exercise this. There are many stories where the cast is limited to the two men, and there is no reason to make them CoCs. Then again, there is no reason not to, except for that extra layer of work to "get it right."

Too, I am constantly surprised by the way people define CoCs.
Someone posted an icon of Alexander Siddig, Dr. Bashir of DS9. It took me aback. I never considered him anything but white. Ditto a rather long discussion over whether a deliberately racist society would allow someone who looks like Oded Fehr to move through it freely. Middle-Eastern and Jewish never registered as CoC. Maybe it's a result of having half-Lebanese stepsisters and Pakistani doctors. They look white, except for the deeper tan. Given how deeply some of my white classmates tanned, even that was no obstacle.

To me "of color" means black. It's hard enough to write "People of Color" because my mind keeps making it "colored people," which is racist. Even PoC has its problems because I keep reading it as "pox" which implies a pox on society. But these are the preferred terms of the community and my discomfort is on par with straights who hate using the word "gay."

But onward.

Every time I write a story with a cast of more than two, I wonder if I'm being racist by not including a CoC. (sometimes I wonder about stories with two)

Every time I add a CoC, I wonder if I'm succumbing to tokenism.
I wondered about adding CoCs to my current project and realized there would be four places for them--stevedores, housekeeping, porters, transported criminals in steerage--none of which will set well with modern audiences. Period racism doesn't play.

I wonder if I'm being lazy and working from stereotypes, which are mental shorthand. Is saying "Yes, he is well-hung, and so is every other male of every shade in this particular outfit, by design. Eight inches is a minimum hiring requirement." acceptable? Or is it perpetuating sexual myths?
A quarter of the cabal that rules the world is Jewish (a married couple). Is this straight out of The Protocols and paranoia? (the other six are Catholic, Hindu, Shinto, animist, Russian Orthodox and atheist)


Much of my problem with all of this is that for some years I was actively racist. I did not consume media with people of color in it. I would turn the radio channel. My fanfiction and fanvids deliberately excluded CoCs. I was attempting to avoid the reality of my life in the south as much as possible. I worked in largely black jobs, lived in a mostly-black neighborhood and tried to escape by making my off-hours as white as possible.

I had an awakening a few years back and began working to behave properly and get my ideas in line with my beliefs. I do worry though, that old thought patterns wander back in, that old behavior patterns still dominate.

I'm lousy at detecting privilege, stereotypes, etc. I lived in that for so long, that I know a lot of it creeps in.

This is not a call to assuage my conscience.
This is not an effort to justify myself.

I'm just trying to get my ducks in a row and do better, one day at a time. I don't always succeed.
Sometimes I get it right. Sometimes I fall on my face.
The important thing is to keep working.

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