Thursday, June 1, 2017

Am I a Racist Writer?

There are many groups underrepresented in today's culture. As a woman, I often feel underrepresented. As a straight white person I'm objectively overrepresented. And I do underrepresent people of colour and the LGBT community in my own writing. So am I a bad person?

If you look closely and try to understand why underrepresentation happens you sooner or later
realize that you underrepresent other people as well ...

When I was seven or eight years old I made a curious observation: Almost all heroes of the stories I liked were male. Women and girls were usually nothing more than side-characters, prizes to be won or even some weird kind of background decoration. Needless to say, I rarely could identify with them. This may be one of the reasons why I have issues fully identifying with my gender: What I was told being female means never really matched what I wanted to be like. Fairytales, books, movies ... All those stories taught me to identify with men.

The first heroine I actually admired and identified with was Mulan from Disney's 1998 animated feature film of the same name. Mulan is strong, courageous, smart and very feminine at the same time. In my opinion, this is what a heroine should be like.

There are more great heroines in today's culture that can function as a role model, and their number is still growing. Maybe in this aspect growing up as a girl is better today than back in the 90's. Yet on the other hand, realizing you're part of a large group underrepresented in media and culture is a precious experience. Because if you look closely and try to understand why such underrepresentation happens you sooner or later realize that you underrepresent other people as well ...

Not Caring Enough about the Differences


We all know and agree that discrimination is bad. We don't want to be seen as lesser humans because of our gender, skin colour, sexual orientation or beliefs. We all want to be appreciated as who we are, but at the same time we're still mortal humans and not angels. I, for example, who suffered from underrepresentation of strong women in children's and popular culture, heavily underrepresent coloured and homosexual people in my writing.

Am I doing this because I'm evil? Of course not. I'm not evil, I'm not good, I'm just a human like anybody else. So why don't I write stories about certain groups of people?

Of course I'm against discrimination, and I can't remember ever treating other people differently because of their skin colour or homosexuality. At least not consciously. Because you can never be sure you didn't hurt somebody's feelings by accident. Yet ...

It isn't like I don't care about the problems people of other races and sexual orientations have in our society, but when I communicate with them I simply don't care about the differences. If they're nice to me, I like them, and if they're mean to me, I dislike them. I prefer to focus on the person they are. And so, even though I'm aware of the underrepresentation of certain groups, the mere difference in skin colour or sexual orientation doesn't matter to me enough to write a story about it.

Lack of Experience


At the same time, I do realize that there are differences in what we experience in life. If I decided to write about a non-white person and/or someone from the LGBT community ... Well, I don't think I would be able to be proud of the result:

Personally I am a mixture of German, Finno-Ugric and maybe Slavic genes, but, overall, still white. I blend perfectly with the German natives here, so I never got discriminated because of my appearance. Even though I know people of other "races" and enjoy talking to them, I'm still not really familiar with their problems. I know about them in theory, but I never experienced them myself. And I just can't write about a situation so unfamiliar to me. Because skin colour is part of an identity. It doesn't make you a better or a worse person, but it does have influence on the experiences you make in life and eventually the person you become. Even if a novel isn't about what it's like to have a certain skin colour, appearance still has an impact on a character's psyche.

With LGBT people it's the same: I'm heterosexual myself, and if I tried to write about a homosexual, for example, I'd most likely produce a lot of garbage. I simply lack a personal connection to such characters and the experiences they make. I write about what I know and I'm very careful about what I don't know.

Underrepresentation Isn't Evil


You know, nowadays everybody can find a reason to feel discriminated by media and popular culture. Yes, most protagonists in novels and movies are straight white men. Yes, most video games seem to be targeted at straight white men. Yes, you see straight white men represented everywhere.

It's a natural result of history. Straight white men had the most power during the past few centuries, and it were mostly straight white men who shaped the European culture that was imposed on the rest of the world through colonialism.

I doubt they hated everyone who wasn't like them personally. They just had their beliefs and prejudices shaped by their upbringing. By the experiences they had made in life. So maybe we should be even glad not many of them tried to write about other groups than their own. Because apparently, it has spared us quite some crap.

In the end, I don't think we can expect from other people to create art around something they don't really know. They might take up the task and even create something great, but you can't really blame them for not doing it. If we feel our group is underrepresented it is up to us - and only us - to change that. Just complaining won't get us anywhere. If you want your group to be represented properly, then go out there and represent it. No more or less.

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