Sunday, July 21, 2013

As a writer, I'd like to think that I paint all of my characters, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or skin color, with the same brush: well-rounded, complex, etc. They're all kind of like my children; I know their backstory, what their dreams are, and where they are hopefully headed. Growing up, most of my characters were white because, hahahaha, I'm white, and well, you know, you're supposed to write what you know, correct? When I got older and became fascinated with anime, several Japanese characters would occasionally pop in to populate the woefully whitewashed casts of my stories, and then my interests delved into social anthropology (which is such a cool subject) and linguistics (I swear, this does fit in!). Lo and behold, new characters of all sorts of colors, creeds, sexual orientations, etc. started playing much larger roles in my narratives, and honestly, I felt super proud of myself that I'd learned how to create a diverse universe. "Mad props, Juj," I'd congratulate myself.

It's helpful, in my case, that most of my characters live in worlds that are different from my own but are nonetheless familiar. For instance, Ren, the main character in my "Legion" series, is from a city-state that I modeled somewhat on Sri Lanka, and my mind's eye pictures her as Tamil. Another character from the series is Captain Koca, who I initially believed was kinda Irish looking, has instead revealed herself to me as having Japanese or Korean features and culture (although she still has her flaming red hair and height). The only character in that series right now that is white is Mason, who more or less serves as the straight man among all the strangeness. In other stories, like my short story, "Waking Up," the characters are not really described as having a skin color; instead I focus on how they dress, their attitudes, etc. Part of this is because I want to eventually make it into a movie and I don't want to limit myself to certain people for the characters; I'm a big fan of open-ended casting, like Shonda Rhimes approach when finding actors for "Grey's Anatomy." It wasn't until the actors had been selected that they gave them last names. Pretty inspired, if you ask me. How the show developed beyond that point ... well, I'll just leave you to your own opinions on that one.

Now, I hate to say things like "I'm colorblind," because, let's face it, folks, it's incredibly disrespectful (and reeking of privilege) to even think it when talking to a person of color. Other better bloggers and journalists have covered this topic before (Google it!), so I won't delve too deeply into it. But when I watched the following video, I had to really think about how I handle race (and all other issues and words related with it) in my writing:
I highly encourage everyone to watch the whole thing because it's pretty incredible. I actually teared up a bit, as I just cannot imagine what it's like to see your race/ethnicity/whatever caricatured*, even if it's done by a seemingly well-intentioned person like I believe J.K. Rowling was**. Since I am very much a white woman (Polish, French-Canadian, Native American - we think Cherokee, if our family tree can be trusted - and a smattering of a bazillion other things because hahah I'm several generations into the whole "American" thing), it's important for me to truly examine why I started putting men and women of color into my stories. Was it to just "add color" so I couldn't be accused of being racist? Or was it because they just happened to be that way?

Growing up in the South, race relations have always at the forefront, even if you don't actively seek to talk about it. It just comes with the territory, where the culture is still dealing with the aftermath of the Civil War (we are, and anyone who disagrees with you is either lying to you or to themselves or possibly/probably both), so naturally, race is going to come up when I write anything. I live with it every day. This is not to say that the rest of the U.S. and hell, the world, has moved into that supposed eutopia of post-racism because BWAHAHAHA ARE YOU DUMB, but in the southern United States, it's just more visible because of the history. Now, this is not saying that there aren't racists in the South; hahaha of course there are. There are racists every-fucking-where, but it's just kind of expected from here. Cue: giant eye-roll.

Anyway, it's no surprise that I would take a different approach to race whenever I write someone who isn't white, but I'm starting to wonder if it's enough. I don't have the experiences, upbringing, or biases that would adequately prep me for writing a character of color, but that doesn't necessarily mean that I should just not try. And when someone approaches me (because someone will - and I don't mean that in a sarcastic way; it's just an understanding that you have to come to when you deal with the public, that you aren't going to please everyone and that, yes, you may even offend them), I'm going to listen to them earnestly about their criticisms. That's all I really can do. The above poet actually did a follow-up vlog about a lot of the outcry (both positive and negative), apologizing to anyone she might have offended and opening up further discussion and thoughts on the topic, which I find both brave and incredibly encouraging. If you should feel so inclined, I highly suggest you look up her response on Youtube.

At this point, I'm just rambling, and haha it's because I haven't really slept very well the past few days thanks to a long bout of playing with my new art tablet (thanks, Mommy!) and getting a short story ready for submission to an anthology. So with that, I bid you all adieu and good night! Or morning, since it's now 04:17. Sighhhhh. 

* Yes, I know there are caricatures of white people, but please remember that this is privilege we're talking about here. You don't see white people playing the same character in every.single.show that they are in, unlike a lot of minorities. 
** I honestly don't think that Ms. Rowling went in wanting to create a flat character or a stereotype when she created Cho Chang (hahahaha Garcia Sanchez - that's my favorite part of the video), but I also don't think she thought it all the way through. 
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