When We Think Different is Brave

I use Pinterest for a couple of reasons. It’s a think-ahead, a place to put ideas for things I want to own, because I tend not to be an impulse shopper. I like to know that if I’m spending my money it’s on something I’ve wanted for awhile, not just to fill a void at that particular moment. I use it to collect book covers I like, so that I can be inspired when I’m designing. There are recipes for drinks and food, some of which I’ve tried. There are also reference boards, with links to info on types of shoes or knife blades or the fancier ways to knot a tie.

While it isn’t the sum of human existence, it is an example of something I’ve been pondering for a while.

I’ve noticed that a lot of writers curate collections of “characters”. Photo reference for costume, inspiration for writing–there’s nothing wrong with the idea, on the surface. I have boards of images for reference. I’ve been collecting one for my Mythos noir story, so that I can get the prices, clothes, cars, and buildings right when I write. Visual models are great for adding true detail to a story when you’re no longer (or never were) in that time or place.

The problem is, many of these boards are filled with women or people of color, and labeled things like “fierce female characters” (or “fabulous”, or “tough” or “strong”–something implying they’re acting in a way that the bulk of the population wouldn’t). When the images are of women in armor, appropriate (or not) to their native land, then okay, an armored up person of either gender, of any race, is pretty fierce. They’re ready for battle, and as long as we’re not talking about chainmail bikinis or something like this*, it’s a segment of the population I think we can rightly label as impressive.

But what about a woman wearing a traditional hat, the same as any other woman in her part of the world? How about one standing outside, smoking a cigarette? Or a little girl standing in front of a bed? How about a woman who is laughing, carrying a baby, or the thousands of other images you find labeled the same way?

What makes all of these women similar is that they are doing perfectly normal things, without being afraid to do them. And we think of that as “special” and “strong”, because we expect women and people of color to be afraid, to blend in, to be unseen and therefore not making a target of themselves. Anyone acting differently, even if it is to simply be themselves in an unflashy but unafraid way, well, we call that “brave”. We decide that it’s fierce and strong and bold. We mean it in a good way, don’t we? We’re proud of their courage, we salute the fact that they’re not just bowing down… but that’s because there’s still an expectation that they should.

It’s a tough situation because as long as there are people who oppress anyone who stands out, then it can take bravery to be different. But we shouldn’t be encouraging a world where that’s true. And we definitely shouldn’t be writing new worlds where that stupid idea gets perpetuated.

Start with this: stop collecting pictures of women or people of color under the banner of “brave”, if you don’t know their story. Instead, give them accurate labels. Write down the real reason that photo moved you. “Woman wearing a hat I would never wear” or “little girl wearing a dress that took her mother hours to make, far more than my mom would spend on me” or “I wish I was brave enough to wear those earrings without being afraid someone would laugh”. At least then you’re admitting what you really think, and giving yourself–and others–a chance to consider that truth.

Note: I left out the women athletes, actresses, artists, musicians, or activists–people who we know something about. Though it’s more accurate to call someone strong when you know their personality, my point was about incorrectly labeling images without context. You want to say Joan Crawford, Frida Kahlo, Sigourney Weaver, Octavia Butler, Hazel Ying Lee, Bessie Coleman, or Elsa Avila are strong? Yes, I’m sure that they are. But we know they accomplished things that most people–regardless of gender or race–don’t ever do.

*Not “viking woman”, as the tag I found it under said, but Skyrim cosplay. In case that wasn’t obvious.

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3 thoughts on “When We Think Different is Brave

  1. One of the scariest things I did was make every single character in my novel a character of color. Political correctness teaches that we aren’t supposed to notice what color a person is, and yet, it’s the first thing we all notice. It got easier to simply bring in the skin color after I described the first few characters, but I had this fear of really messing it up.

    Maybe writers are afraid that if they give these characters flaws and make them into human beings, the political correctness police will come after them, saying, “You made this character a gambler. How dare you?” There’s some truth that. I’m on two message boards for writers. On one, you can’t even bring the subject up or you’ll get a warning from the moderator (I get she’s trying to keep the fights down). On the other, I watched a writer who was genuinely trying to put characters of color in his story get flamed for his efforts — so much so, he probably is no longer writing characters of color. Granted, he started out with cliches, but instead of using it as a teaching point to explain what he was doing wrong, people went on the defensive.

    Like I said, it’s really scary.

    • Deciding that anyone who disagrees with your characterizations are part of the “political correctness police” is a pretty good sign that you’re part of the problem.

      Make your characters real people, regardless of skin color. In fact, one of the easiest ways is to develop your characters without thinking of their skin color. Race isn’t indicative of personality, intelligence, charisma, sexual appetite, or anything other than, possibly, skin color and hair texture. If, at any point ever, you catch yourself thinking, “Well, black people would…” stop it. There is no universal thing that any person of color would do. Ever. None.

      People get into trouble–write flawed characters, caricatures, unbelievable characters–when they try to write a person of color, because the focus is on the color. Just write a person.

      And yes, I know that you’re saying that if you write a PoC with issues, people will think that you’re saying only PoC have issues. Solution: make sure they’re not the only person with issues. Make sure their issues aren’t what you think are “typical” for someone of that race. If you have a story of all white people, whose problems are romantic, or they’re only having to deal with the tribulations of moving through the story toward the end, and you stick into that one PoC who’s a gambler or drunk or prostitute, then yes it will be clear that you think a PoC person’s problems are different than a white persons. That’s something you should be called out for.

      If you’re not sure whether your story features PoC in a negative light, different from your other characters, try this: take a couple of stories you’ve already written. Now, flip the racial descriptions. DON’T CHANGE ANYTHING ELSE ABOUT THE CHARACTERS OR PLOT. Just make the white people a mix of Asian, Hispanic, African, Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern, and so on. Make your previous PoC characters, if there were any, white. Physical description only, no changes to dialogue, etc.

      Now, read those stories. Do you have the urge to change something about your characters now that they’re of another race? Do you see the now-white characters differently?

      If the answer is no, and all of the characters are equally interesting, intelligent, and well-balanced (or not), regardless of skin color, then congratulations! You’ve been writing decent characters all along. If anything seems off to you, or if you can’t believe your characters now that you’ve flipped them, then you have found your problem.

      • I don’t agree that I am part of the problem of political correctness. I was raised to not notice race the way other people do (which was a huge shock when I enlisted in the army and saw how other people saw it). I had a female character of color in one of my stories, didn’t think twice about it, and a writer commented that it wasn’t believable that a woman of that color would be a sheriff. I’m not sure what he would say about the last four stories I wrote!

        My characters are actually as you describe, just characters who happen to be a different color, but are still whatever and whoever they are. It seems perfectly reasonable to me because that’s what I see every day. But it is still scary territory because there is so much anger associated with the topic. Discussions often descend into “No one gets X right, so don’t even try.” Fiction may yet help the reality, if only people will try.

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