Creating Diversity Tip Five: Don’t be afraid to offend people.
Redheads are often portrayed as sultry nymphomaniacs. No one minds writing us this way. Those of you who know me can just be quiet!
No one worries about offending redheads, and yet we bite our finger nails with fear about possibly offending someone of a different color, religion, or sexual orientation. Why? We are all people and while we should try not to stereotype people sometimes it just works.
Your bad guy could be any color, but when you close your eyes you see a skin head with a scar across his face. Your sexy black hero can dance if you want him too.
Whenever you say all X people are Y, you are stereotyping. When you say, Greg a Cree Indian raised by his grandfather in the mountains makes his living leading tours and tracking, you’re not stereotyping. Now if his cousin Paul who grew up in Cincinnati and is a lawyer can magically track, then we have a problem.
Some traits are true, and while not true of everyone can be true of some. Do all lesbians have short hair, bind their chests, and identify as male? No, but some do, and if your character does that doesn’t mean you’re stereotyping. Is your gay character flamboyant and a fabulous dresser? Maybe, why not. But his boyfriend could be a muscular cop whom no one would guess is gay and whose idea of dressing up is a button-down flannel shirt.
A good way to not offend people: be specific. Know your character, what drives them and where they are from. Is your Indian man third generation or eighth? What tribe is your Native American from? How accepting of gays is his family? These things make a difference, and the more specific, you are the fewer generalities you’ll use and the less chance of offending people.
Characters in stories are larger then life, and as long as you’re not saying this is how it is for all of “them,” then why not have your white southern belle scared when the guy in gang clothes comes into her shop. Then give him a teacup dog and polite manners to go with the tattoos covering his arms.
Remember you can’t make everyone happy, no matter what you do, so why try? Write your story, celebrate diversity, and be creative.
Tell me about a character you’ve thought of writing, but have been too afraid to because you don’t want to offend anyone.
Which stereotypes about you/people of your race, religion, or sexual orientation do you hate? Which ones do you encourage? Which ones are true about you or someone you know?
Drama Queen from Denmark, singer DQ
I’m writing a book now that has a scene in a group discussion of women who have been abused by their partners. One of the women is black and I have her talking jive. I thought about changing that then thought, no, because she reminds me of someone I’d seen who talked just like that and it was true. I don’t want to stereotype all black women, and I bet I’ll offend someone, but I’m not creating a stereotype but writing about real life.
Exactly you are creating a specific character and when you do that it gives you the freedom to use specific behavior patterns. It’s when someone tries to make them a ‘general ethnic type’ that they become offensive.
Can’t wait to hear how your jive talking woman turns out!
Alicia, The only stereotype about my people that I dislike has to do with the accent of recent immigrants from my family’s homeland, Italy. I dislike the stereotype for only one reason: Most folks who write, speak or film the accent GET IT WRONG! My people who were recent immigrants to the USA spoke with Italian inflections when they spoke English. But they didn’t put a breve “a” sound at the end of every syllable or word, “l’m…uh like…uh you..uh. Will…uh you…uh go…uh to…uh bed…uh with…uh me…uh?”
Get the accent right, and I’ll enjoy listening.
Other stereotypes that I love because they are in many cases true: 1. We sing well. 2. We’re all good looking. 3. Cosa Nostra is real (Our Thing, not the violent Mafia bull…uh…shit…uh).
You blog, she’s pretty.
Those are some great sterotypes to keep around 🙂 The over done accents can be so offensive. I do have to admit, however, when I watch British shows and they have an American actor I get a kick out of how they portray us and out accents. It makes me laugh.
I like what you and Patti said. I see ridiculous stereotypes sometimes, and it makes me want to cringe. For instance, I am loving the series Hart of Dixie, except that the Hollywood costume designer may not have been to Alabama much.
And Christians often get stereotyped as all fundamentalist crazies, whereas the religious people I’ve known run the gamut. So have a religious crazy in your book or show, but not twenty of them (unless your book is about a crazy religious community, in which case go right ahead). My two cents on this topic. Interesting post!
Thank you Julie- and it’s true, people need to get to now their characters, where they are from, and their backgrounds. If you can tell me why they are a religious freak then great- if you idea is all “X” are religious freaks, then that’s offensive and I’m going to put your book down or turn off the movie. Being specific is an important key to staying away from stereotypes.
this is an insightful post – thank you. I do get worried about offending people, worried about the steretypes, worried about what ‘real’ such and such will think if i portray such and such in my book …And this can be a paralyzing trap. its so true, we cant make everybody happy. And we will somewhere down the line, manage to offend somebody. Especially if our book reaches a wide enough audience! Like the comment above from Patricia tho, most of my characters are blends of pieces/insights of lots of REAL people that i have met/known. And so I dont feel that Im writing to a stereotype, but that its real.
Either way, great post!
Lani thank you so much! It can be nerve wracking but when we write from our own experiences, create full dynamic characters, and do our best then at least we can proudly pass out our book knowing we did right by ourselves. And we can hope to reach enough people that at least one of them is offend- maybe it should be a badge of honor 🙂
I love your point about redheads. *Of course I do!* I worked in a diversity education group for a few years and we actually created a training scene called “closet redhead” that paralleled the discriminating world for gay and lesbian people. It was one of the most talked about scenes of our show because it was presented humorously, but brought home the point that discrimination of any kind is wrong against our fellow human beings. I’m proud I was a part of that.
Jess it sounds like a great group I wish I had one here! I think when things are presented with humor it allows people a safe way to look at themselves without feeling bad or lectured.