The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Write who You Know Part 4: Race

Actually, Jasper Johns on my blog posted the obvious solution for all of this: find members of the target group, and have them read your text.  I’ve had writers from Harlan Ellison to Greg Bear use me to vet such material, and appreciated the consideration massively.

As you might guess from reading my work, this is an area where unhealed wounds still lurk in my psyche.  The commitment to rise above that damage is strong, but then so are the constant reminders that my life, thoughts, and reams are not held to be as valuable by the culture…simply because of the melanin content of my skin.  Because of basic human nature, it would be perfectly normal to adapt the attitude that racism is the result of group inferiority on the part of the racist: in other words, that if white people have imposed thee hundred years of slavery on my ancestor, then followed that up with a century of Jim Crow and another fifty years of denial as to the negative effects thereof, it must be a sign of some special moral weakness on their part.

Further, if it is demonstrable that history textbooks in America are strongly slanted toward a Eurocentric view of the world (I always loved “World History” texts that were, exclusively, European History texts.  The clear implication being that all that was important in the history of the world originated in Europe. Arrgh) then it would be natural to respond by developing an Afrocentric view of the world. 

Would anything be more natural and normal?  Don’t Asians (not so)secretly hold that Japanese, or Chinese, or whatever are the best and smartest?  Don’t Native Americans hold myths saying that they are descended directly from the divine, and all others were created later?  This is about as typical as any human response could be, and yet…

And yet…

If I allow myself to fall into this trap, the cycle of hate and fear continues for another generation, and when I think of the devastation it wreaked on my own life, I REFUSE to use the tools of my enemies, I refuse to fail to see the humanity in those who have wronged me, I refuse to fail to see the good and loving people of all colors who have helped me along my road.

When I wrote “Lion’s Blood,” my story of Africans colonizing America, I tasked myself to give the Irish slaves more humanity, more “inwardness” than I had ever seen a white author give black characters.  I wanted them to live and breathe, have hopes and dreams and sexuality and intelligence.  This was the great sin of “Gone With The Wind”—not that it depicted a slave society, but that it denied the slaves any hopes and dreams of their own.  Not for a moment could you assume anything other than that those slaves loved being slaves, that they perceived this as being their natural place in the universe, and that all was right with the world—until those damned Northerners upset the apple cart.  This movie is, in adjusted dollars, the most successful film ever made, or is ever likely to be made.  It is the single dominating mythology of our culture, and the damage it has wrought has been incalculable.

How to avoid this?  First, start by assuming that members of the “other” group have the same hopes and dreams and needs that you have.  That, as Sting once said about the Soviets, they “love their children, too.”  Give them the same soul, the same intellect.  THEN look at the differences in their behaviors, and ask yourself what circumstances would induce YOU to behave in that way.  Yes, you will occasionally be wrong.  Sometimes there really aren’t equivalences.  But more often than not, there are.

1)     Black rioting.  Confused by riots?  Then look into history at those conditions that have triggered whites to riot.  Usually, they involve a perception that their lives are at risk, and that the system has broken down.
2)     White Racism.  Believe this is disproportionately present in white culture?  Look at tribal warfare around the world.  Look at Religious wars, and class wars, and the social pressures used to keep women in their “place.”  Human societies fight like hell not to change.  And about 5-10% of any group are simply bad, bad people.  These will do the nasty work, and about half the remaining society will turn its head and let it happen.
3)     Illegal immigration.  National boundaries are artificial.  Human beings moving to where the resources exist is a natural fact.  It is also natural for any group to attempt to protect its boundaries and definitions of self.  When these two drives collide, there will be problems.  Yes, protect your boundaries, but be aware of that 5-10% who will try to “stir the troops” by demonizing the behavior of others.
4)     Sexual competition.  My favorite bugaboo, and the one that pushes my buttons. We’re having a flood of cinematic images of white men with black and Asian women at the same time that black and Asian men are presented as relatively sexless.  It is infuriating, and totally predictable.  If the shoe was on the other foot, black males would create a fantasy universe in which they were the  only desirable Alphas.

And on and on.  When you see unfair hiring practices, splintered families, disproportionate crime, higher dropout rates, massive cultural denial, or whatever…before leaping to the conclusion that this means that group X is terribly different from group Y, FIRST ask yourself what would induce you to behave in the same way.  What would make you that angry, that dysfunctional, that hateful, that despairing.

And if you don’t believe anything would, look into your own life:  are you really that balanced and healthy?  Have you really mastered your body, your finances, your relationships?  If not, what  damage stopped you, what pain?  If you can answer that question, extrapolate from the individual to the social, and you’ll begin to understand human history, and those of other racial groups, on a whole new level.


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