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Be a Better Writer--AVOIDING ETHNIC STEREOTYPES

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Be a Better Writer--AVOIDING ETHNIC STEREOTYPES

Postby glorybee » Sat Jan 09, 2016 9:30 am

There will be times, perhaps, when you want to include a character of a different ethnicity than your own in a short story or a novel, or even to write about such a person in a bit of creative nonfiction. If you do this, you should be careful to avoid ethnic, racial, or religious stereotypes. At best, stereotypes are lazy writing; at worst, they can be offensive. There are several things that you should be aware of:

1. When you write the dialogue of a non-white person, be careful not to use inaccurate dialect. Some people make such dialect exaggerated, giving people of color a sort of “Stepin Fetchit” sound (if you’re not familiar with him, search for him on YouTube) or making every black person sound like either a thug or a mammy.

It’s not just black people who get this treatment—writers who might not know differently could stereotype an Asian character as serving a restaurant patron “flied lice” (fried rice), or a Native American saying “Me take white man to chief. Smokum much peace pipe.”

This advice goes for characters of European ethnicities, too. If your Italian character, for example, says “That’s-a some-a spicy meat-a ball-a,” you’re stereotyping.

When I was writing regularly for the writing challenge, I found that it was easier on my readers to simply suggest a dialect or an accent that might be attributed to an ethnic character. If several or most of that character’s words in every speech are rendered with their non-standard pronunciation or grammar, the reader had to work hard to ‘translate’ everything that character said. Also, the more exaggerated a character's speech is, the more likely it is to be stereotyped or offensive. So instead, I chose just a few representative non-standard words or phrases—enough to suggest their dialect—and wrote the rest of their speech in standard English.

STEREOTYPED DIALECT: Lawdy, lawdy, Miz Emmaline. Ah nevah knowed you was g’wan grow up t’be so purty an’ proud. Y’all looks lak a chile who done et a whole watermelon…

REVISED DIALECT: Lordy, Miss Emmaline. I never knew you was gonna be so pretty and proud when you was all grown. You look happy as a young’un who ate a whole watermelon…

Finally, I’ve had two different writing clients who had non-native English speakers speak with stereotyped grammar and syntax, and when I asked them if they’d researched how (for example) a Chinese person speaks imperfect English, they both said that they had not. Writing inaccurate dialogue will not go over well with readers.

2. Similarly, do not make your ethnic characters behave in stereotypical ways. Not all young black men wear saggy trousers. Not all Asians are bad drivers. Not all Native Americans are lazy alcoholics. Not all Muslims are terrorists. You get the idea.

When you write about an ethnic character in stereotyped ways, they become a flat character—one who does not change during the course of the story. Not only that, but your readers do not have to read as carefully, because once they see the stereotype, they know everything there is to know about that character.

However, if you have your ethnic character behave in a way that is counter to the stereotype, your readers will notice, and that character instantly becomes more interesting.

Of course, there will be times when you need for your character to be a thug, or a terrorist, or an alcoholic. If it’s absolutely necessary, that’s fine. Just consider writing that character in such a way that he or she is defined by something in addition to their stereotype. And consider that white folks can be thugs or terrorists or alcoholics or lazy, too.

3. Your ethnic characters shouldn’t have stereotyped descriptions of their appearances, either. I recently read a very articulate article by a woman of color in which she objected to character descriptions that included edible metaphors: caramel skin, mocha hair, chocolate eyes. She found them demeaning, and although not every person of color might agree with her, it should be a reminder to us that our words may be offensive, even when meant innocently. I couldn’t find the exact article as I wrote this lesson, but this one says much the same thing, and the fact that there are several articles with this theme on my Google search suggests to me that it’s considered offensive by more than just that one woman.

As I’ve said earlier, those descriptions are clichés—lazy writing.

Here is another article that mentions the use of food metaphors in writing about race, and covers many more racial and cultural issues, specifically for YA writers (but applicable for all writers).

4. An excellent addition to the original lesson from my good friend, Ann:

Choice of words is extremely important, not only for being PC and avoiding offense, but also because of bias. One example is the use of the words "indigenous people" or "people of aboriginal descent" or "First Nations people" or "Indians." Knowing which is acceptable.

In fiction, though, it wouldn't be appropriate to use a term that hadn't been invented yet. (And I have seen that error in several books... a period piece that was attempting to be PC by using late 20th century terms.) And that goes for the 'n' word as well.

5. Even if you don’t feel that you’ve written your characters in stereotyped ways, or you believe that no one should be offended by the way you’ve written them, try to consider what you’ve written though the eyes of a person of that ethnicity. As Philippians 2:3 says, “…rather, in humility, value others above yourselves.” There may be rare instances when your writing is meant to offend, or to challenge the readers, or to use a voice in which stereotyping of your characters serves a literary purpose. But in the absence of that literary motivation, strive to write with your potentially-offended audience in mind, and to eliminate ethnic, racial, or religious stereotypes.

No homework for this lesson, but I’d love a civil discussion:

Have you seen writing with ethnic or racial stereotypes?
How did you feel about it?
Can you think of an instance in which stereotypes would advance the narrative?
Have you written anything that you might re-examine with this lesson in mind?
Any other comments or questions? I don’t mind if you disagree with me, as long as the discussion is kind and considerate.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--AVOIDING ETHNIC STEREOTYPES

Postby CatLin » Sat Jan 09, 2016 11:05 am

I had NO idea that comparing skin color to food could be offensive. The linked buzzfeed article was hilarious! I especially like the "mayonnaise legs".

As a white person, with olive skin that turns caramel then latte in the summer sun, I don't have a peaches & cream complexion. However, none of those descriptions offend me. In reading the comments, I see it is the women who are offended, and the men pretty much thought it was funny or silly.

Do I need to throw away my Mocha coloring pencil for fear of offending someone who might come color with me? :shock: :wink:

An interesting remembrance - My husband and I love the Alex Cross novels. I didn't realize Alex and his family were black until the 3rd book. Talk about having re-picture a main character!

Great lesson, Jan. Lots to think about.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--AVOIDING ETHNIC STEREOTYPES

Postby glorybee » Sat Jan 09, 2016 11:14 am

Thanks, Cat!

Just to clarify--not everyone will be offended by food metaphors for appearance. However, many such descriptions are cliches, so if you can think of an alternative, why not?
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Re: Be a Better Writer--AVOIDING ETHNIC STEREOTYPES

Postby Anja » Sat Jan 09, 2016 11:39 am

I am familiar with this in the context of press, as well. Choice of words is extremely important, not only for being PC and avoiding offense, but also because of bias. One example is the use of the words "indigenous people" or "people of aboriginal descent" or "First Nations people" or "Indians." Knowing which is acceptable.

In fiction, though, it wouldn't be appropriate to use a term that hadn't been invented yet. (And I have seen that error in several books... a period piece that was attempting to be PC by using late 20th century terms.) And that goes for the 'n' word as well.

And yes... I need to consider a character in my WIP. A midwive with a beaming countenance, a braided crown of hair, and a tendancy to lapse into her native tongue, German. Is that cheery face and her calling her clients "liebling" too stereotypical? What about certain neighbours calling her a Hun? (Post WW1 setting.)
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Re: Be a Better Writer--AVOIDING ETHNIC STEREOTYPES

Postby CatLin » Sat Jan 09, 2016 12:45 pm

glorybee wrote: if you can think of an alternative, why not?


How about this: "Little Cathy had never seen anyone as dark as the girl on the swing. Her skin was beautiful - almost the black of newly tilled Iowa soil."

(From a memory. My dad thought was funny that I was making friends with her at the park that day.)
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Re: Be a Better Writer--AVOIDING ETHNIC STEREOTYPES

Postby glorybee » Sat Jan 09, 2016 12:49 pm

Anja wrote:I am familiar with this in the context of press, as well. Choice of words is extremely important, not only for being PC and avoiding offense, but also because of bias. One example is the use of the words "indigenous people" or "people of aboriginal descent" or "First Nations people" or "Indians." Knowing which is acceptable.

In fiction, though, it wouldn't be appropriate to use a term that hadn't been invented yet. (And I have seen that error in several books... a period piece that was attempting to be PC by using late 20th century terms.) And that goes for the 'n' word as well.

And yes... I need to consider a character in my WIP. A midwive with a beaming countenance, a braided crown of hair, and a tendancy to lapse into her native tongue, German. Is that cheery face and her calling her clients "liebling" too stereotypical? What about certain neighbours calling her a Hun? (Post WW1 setting.)


Ann, thanks for bringing up terms for groups. You're absolutely right, and I love that you often think of something that I missed. *high five*

In my opinion, I don't find your character stereotypical, nor do I think that her neighbors' term for her is offensive. It goes along with your own point of using a historically accurate term, and also with my last point about there sometimes being a need to write something potentially offensive.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--AVOIDING ETHNIC STEREOTYPES

Postby glorybee » Sat Jan 09, 2016 12:51 pm

CatLin wrote:
glorybee wrote: if you can think of an alternative, why not?


How about this: "Little Cathy had never seen anyone as dark as the girl on the swing. Her skin was beautiful - almost the black of newly tilled Iowa soil."

(From a memory. My dad thought was funny that I was making friends with her at the park that day.)


That's nice! I've never read a metaphor like that, so it's definitely not a cliche. Well done!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--AVOIDING ETHNIC STEREOTYPES

Postby oursilverstrands » Sat Jan 09, 2016 9:48 pm

This is a very touchy subject. Kudos, Jan and Ann, for presenting it with sensitivity and good taste. Writers are not the only offenders of ethnic stereotyping. You often find it used by artists when depicting characters of varied ethnic groups ( i.e. cartoon characters). In my opinion, pictures are like words without letters, and the message is no less muted or less offensive.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--AVOIDING ETHNIC STEREOTYPES

Postby Sibermom65 » Sat Jan 09, 2016 11:05 pm

One of the ways stereotypes can be used to advance the story comes with a story I'm working on. The strength of the conflict comes because of the MC's seeing his opponents as a stereotype, and having that image confirmed in his head through certain actions. Somehow I have to find a way to counter that reality without the foe becoming the good guy but still remaining a life-threatening opponent.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--AVOIDING ETHNIC STEREOTYPES

Postby glorybee » Sat Jan 09, 2016 11:29 pm

lish1936 wrote:This is a very touchy subject. Kudos, Jan and Ann, for presenting it with sensitivity and good taste. Writers are not the only offenders of ethnic stereotyping. You often find it used by artists when depicting characters of varied ethnic groups ( i.e. cartoon characters). In my opinion, pictures are like words without letters, and the message is no less muted or less offensive.


Very interesting point, Lillian!

Since much of cartoon art involves caricature, which is often times an exaggeration of physical attributes, you might see a Native American with a large, hooked nose, or an Asian person with very tiny, slanted eyes. But since newspaper cartoons are in black and white--I'm just thinking here--maybe cartoonists use those exaggerations because they aren't able to accurately depict skin color?

And political cartoons often have an agenda; I can well imagine a WWII German cartoonist depicting a Jewish person with exaggerated stereotypical features to indicate ridicule or aversion.

Just my two cents--I certainly agree that visual stereotypes have an equal capability of offending to written stereotypes, and that artists should be aware of what message they're sending with their images.

A very thought-provoking response!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--AVOIDING ETHNIC STEREOTYPES

Postby glorybee » Sat Jan 09, 2016 11:31 pm

Sibermom65 wrote:One of the ways stereotypes can be used to advance the story comes with a story I'm working on. The strength of the conflict comes because of the MC's seeing his opponents as a stereotype, and having that image confirmed in his head through certain actions. Somehow I have to find a way to counter that reality without the foe becoming the good guy but still remaining a life-threatening opponent.


Yes, this is a very good example of a stereotype that advances a storyline. I'm not concerned about this--I'm far more concerned of negative stereotypes that reflect the writer's bias, whether or not she's aware of it, and usually unintended.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--AVOIDING ETHNIC STEREOTYPES

Postby Caleb Cheong » Tue Jan 12, 2016 9:37 am

Hi Jan!

Do you think ethnic stereotypes may come in the forms of making people of another race as minor characters, and also denying them a voice in our narrative. For example, we can make a colored or black person a servant or a watchman. They are seen but not heard.


Regards

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Re: Be a Better Writer--AVOIDING ETHNIC STEREOTYPES

Postby glorybee » Tue Jan 12, 2016 9:45 am

Caleb Cheong wrote:Hi Jan!

Do you think ethnic stereotypes may come in the forms of making people of another race as minor characters, and also denying them a voice in our narrative. For example, we can make a colored or black person a servant or a watchman. They are seen but not heard.


Regards


Caleb, yes. Such depictions stem from the stereotype that people of color hold subservient positions. Very good observation--thanks!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--AVOIDING ETHNIC STEREOTYPES

Postby Caleb Cheong » Wed Jan 13, 2016 4:04 am

Hi Jan!

Thank you for opening up this topic-it's really food for thought! We are so conditioned by the world that we live in, and tend to forget others who may hold different values or beliefs. To say that someone eats like a pig may be an English idiom but it gives serious offense to those who consider it as an unclean animal. I didn't realize that "bul_s_t" is rude or taboo to an Englishman until I uttered it before someone in London. We can find such expressions in the English literature texts so we model them unwittingly.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--AVOIDING ETHNIC STEREOTYPES

Postby oursilverstrands » Wed Jan 13, 2016 3:22 pm

Caleb wrote: I didn't realize that "bul_s_t" is rude or taboo to an Englishman until I uttered it before someone in London


It's more than rude or taboo to many Christians, too....but back to the topic. :)

Caleb wrote:To say that someone eats like a pig may be an English idiom but it gives serious offense to those who consider it as an unclean animal


Most likely, it's also offensive to the person to whom the remark was addressed because they could consider pigs as gluttonous. I think, however, that in the context of writing (i.e. a novel), it's okay to pen it, even when some readers might take it personally and identify with the offending words.

I guess, if fiction writers have to consider readers who internalize some unfavorable characterization before publishing their stories, fiction writing could be in deep trouble.

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