Two things set the wheels turning for this post. One is this talk which a friend shared with me: The Danger of the Single Story.
The other is what I read online about Djimon Hounsou’s conversation with his son. (About half-way down.)
I honestly used to think that racism wasn’t an issue when I was younger. I had no conception of just how alive it still is today.
How could I? Mom and Dad both completely forgot to teach me to consciously colorblind; they just assumed that I already knew that the color of one’s skin was not a factor in one’s worth as a human. God bless Michael and his literal mind: the first time he heard someone being referred to as “black”, he piped in with a “No, he’s not.” When asked by the amused black man what color Michael thought he was, Michael replied “A nice chocolatey brown.” Michael didn’t think that he himself was white, no, he was “a much lighter shade of brown.”
Michael wasn’t being consciously cute. He was just being, well, Michael.
I didn’t realize that people were still being treated as lesser beings based solely on the color of their skin or where they were from. How could I? I spent my most formative years in Turkey, a country where being Caucasian was being the ethnic minority. And as the ethnic minority, I was treated like royalty. At four years old, I didn’t grasp how much of that respect was being given to me because I was an American in an American military base…and how much of it was because of local beliefs and superstition. When the Turks referred to my appearance at all, my blue eyes took center stage, there wasn’t usually any attention left to pay attention to my fair skin.
(Bit of explanation here, to Turks, blue eyes are considered the blessing of Allah. As the wearer of the blue eyes, most Turks would go out of their way for me and almost out of their minds to get me to stop crying. To the Turkish rug-maker and “mover bears”: I’m really sorry. In particular to the youngest mover bear, I’ve always remembered you fondly as the man who took time out of his busy day to entertain an unhappy little girl. I realize now that you were probably told by the rest of your crew: “do whatever it takes to get blue-eyes to stop raining misfortune down on us with her tears while we finish packing up her toys,” but still.)
As a young child, I had very little conception of the political and superstitious elements at play; all I knew was that the Turks had treated me, the ethnic minority, extremely well and that must be how all minority groups were to be treated. Protocol established and it only took living in a third world country to do it.
Going from Turkey back to the States was the most massive culture shock of my life. In some ways, it’s a shock that I have never gotten over. Our first stop was Georgia, the Deep South. Michael’s surprise was great when a neighbor boy (who was black) told him: “You know nothin’, you’re just a little white boy!”
Deeply hurt, Michael replied, “That’s not fair; you’re only looking on the outside!”
Further conversation was interrupted by the Wrath of God storming around the house in the form of the boy’s mother, yelling out “Little man, you of all people know what racial prejudice feels like! You and me gonna go over yonder and tan yore hide!”
In Georgia, I had no conception of what she meant by “racial prejudice”. How could I? I was still trying to get over the shock of being in America, surrounded by Americans. And what a strange bunch of people they were, whatever the color of their skin!
Moving from Georgia to Southern Indiana just put another jolt in that culture shock. Michael and I immediately agreed that this area was “boring” because everybody looked alike. Most of the people we met were Caucasian with light brown hair. Our relief was great when we started seeing people of different skin tones. I believe Michael put it best when at 12 years old, he put his hands behind his head and sighed “Ah, diversity!” All with the biggest smile on his face.
Because of all this, I never really paid attention to the color of people’s skin on my TV, or in the books I read. Physical appearances were of secondary importance to good characterizations and interesting plots. I never really thought I had to pay attention. I watched Star Trek, where Uhura, Worf, Tuvok, B’Elanna Torres, Guinan, Julian Bashir, Geordi La Forge, Harry Kim, Chakotay, Hoshi Sato, Hikaru Sulu, Benjamin Sisko, and so many others inhabited my screen…no less complex or innately heroic than anyone else there. I watched Star Wars, where the bad guys mostly all looked the same and the good guys mostly all didn’t look the same. Morgan Freeman was clearly more badass and interesting then Kevin Costner in Prince of Thieves. (And much smarter too!) Aravis tied with Peter as my all-time favorite character in the Chronicles of Narnia. I read Egyptian mythology; I read Arabian Nights. I read the Bible and I knew that the people spoken of would more closely resemble the Turks of my childhood then me.
I thought racism was a thing of the past. I remember one day, I was staring at the fireplace that used to reside in my living room and thinking “How would my life be different if my family was black?” I tilted my head and mentally changed the color of my skin. I eventually shook my head. At 11, I still couldn’t imagine anybody believing differently than my parents and besides, in my head, people in general were still all generous Turks and gracious Southerners. I hadn’t yet really come into contact with cruelty of the white, middle class variety.
~ ~ ~ ~
When I saw “cruelty of the white, middle class variety”, I do not, in any way, mean to say that white, middle class people are the scum of the Earth. That’d be a bit ridiculous for one: I’m white, middle class. And that would also be like saying all black people are criminals, or that all Germans are Nazis, or that all Americans are stupid, or that all Cretans are liars. Or that all Turks are Muslims. Not true.
I also don’t mean to imply that Turkey or Georgia are paradise and Southern Indiana is a bad place. If I’d stayed in either of those places, I would have eventually come to see the problems that plague them.
I love Southern Indiana. I love the people; slow but never stupid, laid-back but not lazy. I love the flavor of this place. But it was here that I first came into extended contact with what I call “casual racism”. It was here that I grew up and lost the innocence of childhood where I assumed that racism was a thing of the past. Sadly, it was in conservative Christian circles that I encountered it the most.
It started out small, as most things do. Grumbles about “Mexican” immigrants…despite their true nationality. Arrests and mug shots on the news, primarily young black men…and then hardly a mention when DNA and other evidence proved them innocent of the crime. Girls flirting with a white male stranger and then clutching their purses tighter when passing a black man. Jokes that said “Well, he’s just in that movie to check the ‘diversity’ box.” Condescension creeping into people’s tones when they call someone “mixed”.
One time in church, I overheard a conversation about crayons. A leader in the church was complaining because Crayola had changed the name on one of their crayons. “I’m not being racist, but seriously? That’s just being oversensitive!” The name of the crayon color? Flesh. It was tan.
One time in a restaurant, I was ordering breakfast and witnessed the following:
There was a hispanic construction crew eating together. They’d ordered in English and then started a conversation in Spanish amongst themselves. The other large group was a bunch of white, middle aged men discussing politics. One of the second group raised his voice so that everyone could hear and said the following: “I hate it when people move to another country and don’t learn to speak the native language. What’s next? My kids will be required to learn Spanish in school because these immigrants came into our country and won’t make their kids learn to speak English!” Never mind that the first group had ordered in English.
At the time, I was at my most awkward. That’s no excuse. I still wish I’d stood up and said “So…you’re actually speaking Iroquoian or another Native American language, right?”
I was horrified by this man’s rudeness. But I didn’t say anything and so if those hispanic work men think about that encounter at all, they will remember the rude white guy and the silent white girl. They could have remembered the rude white guy and the white girl who rejected his casual racism.
My silence gave them a single story of white Americans. To this day, I am still ashamed of my inaction. I knew better.
As I started to grow up and pay attention, I noticed a pattern…a pattern that assumed, unless otherwise stated, that the hero would be male and white. I noticed that the stories that held more variety were still being praised as “progressive”. At first I was confused, because this was in the 2,000s…Civil Rights was years ago, so why was the “progressive” label still being applied? Not all TV shows and movies were like Star Trek; as I watched more closely and learned more about casting calls, I found out just how skewed Hollywood still is to white leads…specifically white male leads.
Racism. Sexism. Intolerance. Hatred.
These things make people repress stories and silence voices.
The fear of these things make other people keep quiet and not tell their stories.
Through both, we are robbed of rich stories and unique voices. Even the habits of these things without the malice still oppress. Hanging on to old formulas because “they work” and “are the money-makers”, at the very least, signals a lack of imagination. Can’t we trust the power of a well-told story? Let our movies rest on the talents of an actor rather than the color of their skin?
The world is rich in variety…shouldn’t the world of fiction be too?
So what am I doing about this problem? It’s not enough to point it out and blog about it. If the white, straight male is still the default hero, something more active needs to be done.
Laryn and Alyn, my lead characters in my story have “nice chocolatey brown” skin.
Before, they had no skin color. I don’t “see” my characters, they usually don’t have any physical appearance in my head, except maybe the color of their eyes. I had to go back and add brief mentions of their skin color. It’s not a defining characteristic, it does not change or alter their characters…most importantly, it does not make them and their story any less complex. It is there, canon and set in stone. They are not “default setting”. Will these two girls in W.I.P. story change the world? Probably not. Will all my main characters be “chocolatey brown”? No. I’m not limiting myself. I’m going to write many stories, God willing, and my characters will be as varied as my friends.
Laryn and Alyn are my apology to those hispanic work men in McDonalds and all the children who are ever made to feel that they need be white to be the hero in a story instead of the side-kick. They are my rebellion against the casual racism in American fiction. They are a nod to the Turks I grew up around.