Skin-deep storytelling

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I was just off visiting one of my favorite bloggers and her latest post got me thinking … and my thinking has got me all upset and bothered and pondering uncomfortable questions.

She wants to know, where are the kids’ books with non-white heroes? And she makes the point that, while there are books about black kids, in almost every case the fact that they’re black adds a whole chunk of extra Stuff to the story. Usually, it’s not just a story the way “James and the Giant Peach” is the story of a boy who has an adventure. The kid’s color almost always matters.

So my first thought, on reading this, was to wonder how much of the issue was inherent in the way these stories are written, and how much had to do with Stuff already floating around in the reader’s head. Could it be that when the main character is white, you don’t think about their whiteness because that’s the norm in Bookworld, so you simply identify with them, and focus on the action? Seems to me that might be part of what happens. Whether the reader was white or black (or whatever), the very fact that a hero or heroine was Not-White would make them unusual. You would notice. You would wonder whether there was another layer of meaning hidden in the Other-colored skin. You would be alert to cultural signals, speech patterns, other indicators of Not-Whiteness, and if the author got them wrong you wouldn’t like it.

When does the hero's skin start to matter?

When does the hero’s skin start to matter? (Source)

This got me to wondering when it starts to matter. White kids obviously don’t notice the whiteness of characters. Do they notice not-whiteness? And what do black kids think when they read book after book about white kids? If nobody points it out, do they care that Snow White is an unusually attractive shade of pinkish beige, while they are not?

I find myself remembering an incident that shocked me when the Girl Child was at preschool. It was a Montessori preschool – in other words, featuring parents with liberal opinions about matters such as educational philosophy – in an upscale neighborhood (the Girl Child fit right in, but my battered little no-name-brand car looked pretty silly when I pulled up between the Mercs and Beemers to pick her up). Maybe 10% of the kids were black, and they all played together just fine. And then one day when I picked her up, the sweet man who tended the grounds waved goodbye to her, and she stuck her nose in the air and refused to wave back. Because he was black.

It was a long time ago and I have forgotten just how I reacted, but I remember feeling nauseated, wondering where in Hell she’d picked up that ugly piece of nasty. I remember saying, “But some of your friends are black!” and how she just rolled her eyes and told me that was “different”. They were kids. He was black. The end.

So much for the real world. What do kids see when they read story books? Could we make Jack the Giant Killer black, and not change the essence of the story? Would the result be a politically correct version of an old European fairy story? Or would it be blackface?

Anyway, this got me wondering whether I could write an ordinary adventure story or fantasy in which the hero or heroine is black, and get it right. Because a kid is just a kid, right? That’s what I want to believe … and yet … we are all so much a part of our families, our neighborhoods, our culture. From our earliest days we are immersed and soaked and pickled in the worldview, assumptions, expectations, fears, beliefs of our family and community. Even if we consciously reject everything we are taught, I don’t know that it’s possible to climb into an Other-colored skin and know how to wear it.

I lived for two years as a teacher in a poor rural South African community, where the only white people were my daughter, another woman who lived separately from us, and I. We were fully part of the community. We shared an outside toilet with our neighbors, ate the same sort of food as they did, went in and out of each other’s homes, prayed, argued, worried, grieved and celebrated together. I remain in contact with several of my former pupils. Their children call me Granny, and I wouldn’t hesitate to call on them if I needed help.

Yet I really don’t know that I could write a convincing story from inside the head of a black African kid. And I don’t understand this failure of imagination and empathy. Can I imagine being a desperately poor, or fabulously wealthy, or superpower-endowed white kid? You bet! Can I give that white kid black friends who are also fully-developed characters each with a unique voice? No problem – in fact that’s an integral part of the book I’m working on at present. Can I imagine being a black kid growing up in an ordinary black home with the spoken and unspoken everything that generations of racism means to my family, my future, who I am, how I think – can I get out of my white head and into theirs? I don’t know, but I suspect – I fear – that I could not. And I don’t know whether that is because I am lacking, or because it really isn’t possible.

And even if I did – if I were to try – what would readers think of my story? Would they assess it simply as a work of fiction – well written or not, believable or not, enjoyable or not? Or would I face the hostility due to an ignorant trespasser on sacred ground?

And, you know, thinking about all this just makes me so. Damn. Sad.

It shouldn’t matter.

It shouldn’t matter.

It shouldn’t matter.

But God help us, it does.

[UPDATE: I posted the link to this video of a white police officer sitting on a bikini-clad teenage girl to restrain her, while cursing and waving a gun at other teens. Apparently a party “got out of control” when a large group of black teens showed up in a predominantly white, upscale neighborhood. The video, taken by an observer, is out there somewhere but not where I could find it during a short search. I’m sure you get the idea, however … We’re talking about kids here, not hefty 18 and 19-year-olds, and a cop who thinks the best way to calm them down is to wave a gun. Not okay. I don’t care who did what, that’s simply poor policing.]

So now it’s your turn. What do you think? I really want to know.

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About Belladonna Took

Into my second half-century and still trying to figure out what to be when I grow up. Born South African, naturalized American, at constant risk of losing my balance and landing ass-first in the Atlantic. A wife, a mom, a daughter and sister, kind of a grandma. Until recently a full-time dog rescuer, now more concerned with rescuing myself. User of dog hair as accessory, decor and garnish. Technical writer, strategic thinker, occasional entrepreneur. Voiceless poet and storyteller. Born again Christ-follower and former missionary schoolteacher chewing on some uncomfortable questions. Ignorer of rules, challenger of assumptions, believer in miracles. Skeptical libertarian, equal opportunity despiser of politicians and assholes. Gonnabe gardener, wannabe beekeeper, Monsanto-hating tree-hugger. Morbidly obese chocaholic, with a horse I don't ride because I might break him, and if not he would probably break me.

17 responses »

  1. After days of terrible sleep, I am not equipped to answer well, or really at all. But I would recommend searching out articles dealing with outraged Hunger Games fans protesting the movie’s inclusion of a black character. Despite multiple explicit references to her dark skin in the book, thousands of readers scrubbed all those references from their minds and were shocked by the casting travesty. No joke.

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    • Oh my word yes, wasn’t that horrible! I remember that I also didn’t particularly take in that she was black when I read the book – but I wasn’t surprised or disturbed when she was black in the movie, because it wasn’t relevant. If the story had been written from Rue’s point of view, now … then maybe it would have been relevant. Or maybe not. I would really value your take on this, Deborah – but not right away. Go get some sleep!

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  2. Interesting especially looking at it from the point of view of South Africa and having 4 Black children as a part of our family and the youngest of them not even speaking a black language, but speaking the language of the previous apartheid oppressors. What I find most interesting is the new school books that are used in the SA schools. Stories are totally multiracial with different races being the central characters of a story being told. So the generation 18 downwards is growing up in SA being acclimatised to seeing a multicultural interactive community from the stories. However how relevant that is to a child in a squatter camp sitting doing homework with no food in their belly and walking over a kilometre to school every day where there is no desk or chair for them to sit at, and my Afrikaans speaking black child from a middle class home driving to school every day with a full belly I cannot tell.
    In South Africa however with the extensive TV coverage and Vernacular and English soapies we have lots of local black heroes and villains. They open shopping malls and are presenters at functions and have double page spreads in magazines. This however is possible a different issue for black Americans.
    What I find fascinating however when the older sisters come to stay for a weekend or the youngest particularly when she is on study leave is that they watch Black American reality programmes obsessively as if that is a norm to strive for.

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    • My friend! So so glad to hear from you on here! What you say about striving for the standards set by black American reality TV – ugh, that is a low bar to set, but I’ve noticed how black Africans tend to glamorize the whole American experience. All my “grandchildren” and their parents beg to come and visit – I wish I were rich and could bring them all over! But they would find the reality very different from their imaginings, especially if those imaginings are shaped by the crass b-s of unreality TV.

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  3. Yoh! And you are so right. Very close to home for me, too. I think, though, that the universal stories that we read – with no pictures – and where we just have characters who don’t have physical descriptions, we make in our own image. And yes, I used that phrase deliberately – is God (or whatever you call him/her if you’re not an atheist), black or white?

    You will be pleased to know that there are increasing numbers of children’s books being published in SA in isiXhosa, isiZulu and other languages, here. And in English where there are children of all races. I’ve not done a study, but I see them in the bookshops.

    Here is a blog you want to read: https://thecostofabornfree.wordpress.com/ Busi is a very courageous young woman.

    Yoh! Again. What a start to my day – this and a few other reads about Robin Williams, Charlie Hebdo and Busi….

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    • Hey, Fiona – good to see you on here! Yes, you know what I’m talking about … and I’ve heard that things are changing for the better in South Africa – it’s not all crime, blackouts and Nkandla. I took a look at Busi’s site and will definitely follow – looks good, thank you! One thing I really love about the blogiverse is the windows it opens into other ways of being. You may not be able to get into another’s skin, but you can hear directly from a blogger what it’s like to live there.

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      • Hi, Bella – I’ve lurking and not as engaged as I would have liked – really busy with my “day job” and we’ve also had a really hectic time at home. Some of which I’ve posted about 😉 Thank you for following Busi – she needs support. South Africa continues to be the paradox it always was but under a different government. But yes, there are some good things and a lot is much better than before 1994.

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  4. Good questions, relevant stories, haunting post. You can add into the picture the racism of (at least American) publishing–most of it, I expect, the kind of clueless racism that passes as realism and marketing. And of reviewing. And, of course, of reading, which is to say the world at large. In the same way that a male central character is read as larger and more important (and universal, as opposed to specifically of one sex) than a female one, a black (or brown, or anything other than white) central character is read as specific while a white one is read as universal.

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    • We all live in such tiny boxes, don’t we? And it’s so very hard even to see over the sides of them, let alone climb out. You discussed that in your recent post on writing British and American English, and the post I referenced in this piece is actually the second consecutive one by I Am Begging My Mother Not To Read This Blog. The previous one, also really good, focused on sexism in writing. So maybe we’re seeing a growing awareness that will have both writers and readers striving to peek more closely into other boxes.

      And maybe the self-publishing trend will help push down barriers to entry erected by the conservative marketers in the traditional publishing world. I hope so. I know how much pleasure it gives me to read bloggers who, usually without focusing on these specific issues, tell me something of what it’s like to be black, or homosexual, or a New Yorker, or a wanderer through the woods, or … whatever it is that they are and I am not. It’s opened up my whole world.

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  5. This is something I often think about in fiction, whether it be books or movies, and I try to point out both racial and gender imbalances in fiction to my kids. I also try to include diverse characters in my books. In my second novel, my nurse protagonist happens to be black. She’s a strong woman who propels the story forward not because of her skin color but because of her actions. As should all characters.

    Thanks for visiting my site. Much appreciated!

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