As a woman of color and a social justice activist, I’m always happy when I find fiction that accurately represents the world we live in. You know, fiction that shows all kinds of people as people, not as stereotypes, not as tropes, not as Other in comparison to a white Western Christian default. Stories that don’t assume everything outside that small framework is strange and exotic, whatever that even means.
But because our world—and for us Sirens, our North American society—is full of assumptions about people and the way they supposedly are, of course we’ve all internalized them. It’s hard to go against that, harder still to do so successfully in an industry that often doesn’t recognize its own problematic ideas. (See this post as an example of what I’m talking about.) So I applaud people with the courage to try to go against the grain and tell other stories in other ways, stories that challenge the ideas we all have. Because it’s hard! So hooray for that.
But. (You know a but was coming, right?)
But the thing is, we’re all human beings with our limited viewpoints, and we all do and say insensitive things from time to time. Even when we try to examine our biases and root them out, we’re still subject to many we don’t even know we have. Which means we’re going to get things wrong.
Our cultural narrative insists on many things, whether it’s that blond people with white skin and blue eyes are the epitome of what is normal and beautiful, or that all disabled people must be cured to be “whole” or even want to be cured, or that dark skin equates to evil and shadowy, or that a marriage must be between two people, a man and a woman only. Until someone points them out to us, or we’ve experienced the fallout from those faulty assumptions being turned on us, it’s far too easy not to question them. They’re the wallpaper in the house of our worldview, surrounding us all on every wall, but ignored.
And just like when we take a picture of our living room and the wallpaper’s there, those assumptions are going to show up in any story we tell, even if we don’t notice.
Readers will, though, and they’ll call us out on the way we’ve done harm. It was completely unintentional; most of us don’t want to hurt others. But intent is not the same as result, and so I can see why some writers would avoid taking that risk of messing up—and getting called out for it. No one likes getting yelled at!
But to me, stories are not just entertainment. They are relatable ways of telling truth, of allowing us to experience empathy for others and step into new situations, and we actually do more harm ignoring the reality of the world around us by focusing on the stories and voices of only one group of people. Then we’re erasing a good chunk of humanity and saying they just don’t matter, and we have nothing to learn from the stories we read.
If you write a character not just like you and later get told you messed up, it’s going to sting. You’re probably going to feel defensive and ashamed, and maybe even angry. You didn’t mean to hurt anyone, right, and yet they’re attacking you! But take a step back and breathe. The best thing to do is to hear the criticism, see if there’s anything you can learn, and promise to try harder next time. To fail better, as it were. Most people just want to be heard and acknowledged, and if we know we’re just as prone to mistakes as anyone, we can truly hear them and what they have to say.
We can also listen to people telling their own stories and learn to replace our assumptions and grow in the process. We all make mistakes along the way—including this writer—but we can also learn to do better, too, and become better people and writers.
And isn’t that the most important thing?