Gahhhh. I have been marking the approaching date of this week’s Debutante Ball topic—the ethics of representing marginalized characters—with fervent dread. Who in their right mind is going to want to listen to me yammer on about the ethics of representing marginalized characters? I’m straight, I’m Christian, I’m able-bodied, and I’m whiter than Gollum. (Yep. I did my DNA one time and it came back greater than 99% English and Danish.) There was that one time when I got paid approximately half the hourly rate as a group of male doctors doing exactly the same job, but the issue of equal pay for women is a whole different ball of wax. About the only thing I can come up with that makes me even remotely marginalized is being raised in the hollers of Kentucky, which I think we can all agree is one place in America everyone else feels free to insult.
But in all seriousness, I’d be hard-pressed to make a case that my upbringing as a hillbilly has caused me any grief. Yes, it’s true that when Hollywood portrays someone from the backwoods of Appalachia, she’s likely to be a snake-handling, tongues-speaking, moonshine-drinking, gingham-dress-bun-wearing illiterate. That sort of stupid stereotyping irritates me. But it isn’t a pervasive and ongoing issue that affects my daily life.
So let’s stipulate that I have no personal experience of marginalization, and turn to my fictional debut. I have exactly one significant character who is a POC—the husband of one of the protagonists—and I didn’t make any attempt to get into his head. Since publishing moves at glacial pace, my book was written quite some time ago. Until recently, I’d never heard the terms ‘sensitivity reader’ or ‘cultural appropriation.’ I’m lucky I even recognized the term ‘marginalized.’ On a scale of comatose to woke I’m still staggering around half-drugged, struggling to open my eyes.
I do know one thing, however: I am prejudiced. No matter how much I’ve bled explicit bias out of my conversations and actions—or tried to—there still lingers somewhere in my psyche a trove of nasty, curdled assumptions about people based on factors beyond their control. I may think that my writing could never reflect unconscious or hurtful attitudes toward other groups, but I’d be wrong.
There are an enormous number of psychological studies examining the concept of implicit bias. One of the best known is the IAT, or the Implicit Association Test, which you can take HERE. Bias—the preference for one thing over another—is implicit when we are unaware of it, or mistaken about having it. In this particular test, you are asked to press buttons as rapidly as possible after seeing faces or symbols of a particular group (black or white, gay or straight, etc.) Then you are asked to push buttons in response to words that have good or bad connotations. The computer then measures your speed in associating good words with black faces versus white faces, for example.
One of the criticisms of the IAT is its lack of real world implications. Do people who more rapidly associate ‘bad’ words with black faces exhibit more prejudiced behavior in real life? Maybe yes, maybe no—there have been various findings attempting to correlate this. But there are plenty of studies examining real world examples of bias. In one disturbing and very famous study from the early 2000s, prospective employers were sent resumes of equally qualified job candidates, each with distinctly white- or black-sounding names. The results: Emily and Greg received significantly more callbacks than Lakisha and Jamal. Put another way: the hypothetical black applicants would have to apply to 15 jobs for every 10 the white applicants did to get a call from a real-world prospective employer for the exact same resume.
These are just two tiny examples of prejudices historically marginalized groups face in our society. Many people believe that racism and other isms are largely a thing of the past, apparently because it is no longer acceptable to be overtly racist or homophobic. (Ahem. I sincerely hope it is no longer acceptable to be an unapologetic racist homophobic jackass but you could argue that point, given certain political travesties of late.) But even if the incidence of overt racism is declining, there is still plenty of implicit bias or outright ignorance that could creep into a book without the author necessarily being aware. This is particularly fraught for white, straight, able-bodied people like me.
So what can I, as a non-marginalized author, do to make the situation better?
The only thing I can do: listen. I’m aware of the issue now—or at least more aware than I was—because enough people have spoken up about it. I can read their articles and listen to their interviews and try to quash my defensiveness and my preconceptions and, yes, even my implicit biases. (And I do feel defensiveness, in all honesty. I’m working on it.) This whole thing can get murky: does one critical member of a marginalized group speak for everyone? What if your sensitivity readers disagree with one another? Is it acceptable to perpetuate a stereotype if that stereotype is often true? Is it okay to offend people to make a point? Should we blacklist books containing awful, offensive characters? Should writers be discouraged from writing about groups to which they don’t belong?
That last question is a doozy because the entire point of fiction is to inhabit the heart and soul of someone you’re not … but if you are hellbent on making your protagonist black when you’re white, or gay when you’re straight, then at the very least you owe it to your character and the people who identify with her to do it really well.
Or you might find that your implicit bias—or your ignorance— causes harm.
- You can read about Kimmery’s upcoming debut novel The Queen of Hearts HERE
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