Thursday, April 3, 2008

Stereotypes

One of the things that I mentioned in the previous discussion I had on the Ten Year Nap was how I was bothered by stereotyping. I had found the one Asian American character in the book a stereotype of all things most people would associate with being Asian. Nerdy, good at math, no sense of humor, parent with bad accent, etc. But I have to wonder if I am not guilty of stereotyping myself.

In my last manuscript, I had a character who was a housekeeper in the Washington, DC area named Maria who was a lovely, motherly woman from El Salvadore. During my critique, my writing partner told me that it was a stereotype. I was puzzled by this because in no way did I think that. But in the Washington, DC area, a large portion of the Hispanic community is from El Salvadore and statistically they make up a large pool of the number of domestic service workers in the area. Without thinking, I had perpetrated a stereotype in my book. I was aghast. Was this really stereotyping? After all, my intent was not to state or judge that all El Salvadoreans are domestic help. The lovely ladies of my housecleaning service company are all from El Salvadore. Clearly they had influenced me when I was writing. But what was different from this characterization and the one about Asians that had me all riled up? Not a lot.

This reminds me of a conversation I once had with a colleague. She was in accounting, I was in legal. She was running numbers for financial statements we were working on together. She asked me to check over her calculations of a complicated formula. I stared at her blankly. "Not very Asian are you?" she asked somewhat snidely. "What the hell do you mean by that?" I asked her. "Well, you aren't good at math. That's kind of weird for you guys," she said. "It's because I don't eat enough dog and cat meat in my diet that I am not good at math," I replied straightfaced. For a long moment, it looked like she really believed me.

Hey, I am not the type to fight my heritage. I am proud of it. We have a term for those who actively dislike their heritage and try to pretend they are something they are not. Banana, twinkie. That is not me. So to say I am not very Asian because I am not good at math makes me laugh. I say, yeah, I am not very like that stupid Asian stereotype you have. Good! I won't dazzle you with an amazing display of tae kwon do either, but guess what? I can kick your ass up and down the street if you'd like!

But how can we completely avoid stereotypes? What makes characters stand out above and beyond a stereotype? And what about accuracy? If I am doing a novel with an owner of a fruit and vegetable store/salad bar in New York city, how could he or she not be Korean? The Koreans invented the concept and pretty much took over that niche of business. But a stereotype is bad whether it is positive or negative, right? Yet in writing, how can we avoid stereotyping anyone? In part, I believe that only by the true development of the character can you avoid the pitfalls of stereotyping. For you can draw a nerdy Asian math geek but avoid the stereotype by drawing a fully fleshed and realized character that have different quirks that makes them unique. Since this is not easy, we end up with characterizations that we consider stereotypical, especially when it comes to secondary characters.

So I was thinking how best can I avoid a stereotype that might be troublesome to others. We can't always fully flesh out our secondary and minor characters, but I think it is important for all writers to be aware of the type of judging and wholesale generalizations that we may unintentionally make. Keep it in mind. We can't always stop ourselves from stereotyping, but by being aware that we might be doing it, it will open our eyes to how to change the stereotype and let a character be more than a generalized lumping of impersonal oversimplified set of traits. I would love to hear more thoughts on this so please share!

29 comments:

Erica Orloff said...

I feel like I could write a book on this topic. Why do, for instance, white people assume most main characters are white when it's not expressly stated? Or why do, in a pet peeve of mine, some writers make a point of describing a black person's skin color, or decribing someone as Asian or Hispanic . . . but NOT make a point of ever saying the main character is white, for example. Myabe it's a small thing, but it's something as a novelist that I notice. I have a lot of black and Hispanic characters in my books, and the funny thing is I will hear from readers who ask, "Hey, was so and so black?" Because you have to search REALLY hard to find a clue to that. Might be as subtle as curly hair or something . . . because I don't necessarily feel I have to call attention to race.

That said, my significant other is Mexican. In his family I see things that might be stereotypes (doing shots of tequila at the family wedding, eating Mexican food all the time), and I see non-stereotypical things (my father-in-law is a classical violist not a mariachi player). I think the main thing is searching to just describe PEOPLE. We are all a mixed bag of traits that make us unique, even if some of our traits fall into some range of stereotype. I am Russian . . . we brood. :-) But I'm a Buddhist. And a mother. And a writer. And a person.

So . . . great post Ello. All food for thought.

Peace,
E

Merry Monteleone said...

You know, stereotypes get tricky, because they're there for a reason. There's some truth to them, or they wouldn't become commonly associated with people - I think we all get offended when someone comes at us with a stereotype, even when they're true of us... like your co-worker, who was an ass by the way - I think the biggest thing I'd be offended by was the 'you guys' line... any time someone says, 'you people' to me I get offended... it's like setting a different class or distinction between where I come from and the rest of the planet. I get irked, too, with the placating stuff. You don't know how many times I've had people say something along the lines of, "I knew an Italian once..." or "I had a great friend who was Sicilian," or "I love Italian food" Okay, seriously, it's like they're bending over backwards to tell me that they think it's okay that I'm Italian... to which my response is generally, 'Well, who the frig cares what you think' - okay, I generally smile and nod, but it has the opposite effect of making me think, "yep, they're bigots, they just don't know it"

And I know a lot of people just read that and thought, but you're Italian, it's not like other ethnicities that have had to deal with bad treatment... Yes, actually, we have and do. Ask any Italian, they have at least one story of people asking them if they're 'connected'. I have a double whammy, the town I grew up in is looked down on by most of the outlying area... mostly because of us Italians...

As far as how to handle the stereotypes in fiction, I think you have to be true to the character. Fleshing out a side character so that the stereotypes aren't the only thing the reader sees doesn't have to be that hard. One or two sentences can give you a better insight to the person to get past the association with their background. I think sometimes writers will leave the character one dimensional though, because they're lazy or they don't think it's important.

Melissa Marsh said...

Good post, Ell. I'm trying to really take notice of stereotyping my characters in my latest novel. But you're right - it's incredibly hard not to.

Merry, I've gotten the Italian-jokes, too, - asking if I know any mobsters.

Merry Monteleone said...

Melissa,

Is it wrong that I simply say, "yes," and stare them down?

:-)

Demon Hunter said...

I grew up in South Carolina, but I have a very eclectic view of people. I made friends with as many people of as many races and cultures I could, and I ended up being a better writer for it.

If we want to avoid stereotypes, maybe we should allow betas of said race/ethnicity/culture read the manuscripts and point out the offensive parts. I try to avoid it. I find that when you have actually been discriminated against, you tend to be a lot more sensitive to other folks.

Stereotypes are born of ignorance, guessing, and assumptions of other people. I'll never forget being in 6th grade and a White girl told me that she didn't know that Black folks ate peanuts. Being 11, I didn't get angry or anything---I told her, "No, we just eat the shells." What a moron that kid was! We all need to teach kids that we are all people! ;*)

Merry Monteleone said...

Hey Demon hunter,

You know, I don't think kids need to be taught not to descriminate, I think they have no issues with race or religion until some adult gives them a bias. They might be ignorant of different people because they haven't been around them, but they just see difference as a new thing to discover, rather than something to be afraid of... at least that's my take.

My daughter, when describing friends from school that I haven't met yet, will tell me their hair color or how smart they are or how funny. I never know her friends' races until I meet them, because she just doesn't think to describe people by their race - she's 10, I hope she does that forever.

When she was five she asked me why one of her friends had brown skin and hers was peach - I told her we were melanin deficient... it's the only time it came up and I think just simple curiosity.

Erica Orloff said...

merry:
My kids describe everyone as "flesh-colored." They have been exposed to so many different types of people through my friends--races, religions, genders and sexuality, families of every kind of make-up. I also have zero idea of race of their friends until they come over. That said, they are also really upset by anything they perceive as ignorant in that fashion, or unjust or wrong--in fact, we attend a really liberal church together, and my 10-year-old would like to leave it because she feels there isn't enough diversity in the seats each Sunday. So I am pretty happy with their worldview, and I agree with you . . . they are curious--and it's the adults who bring in the prejudice.

E

Larramie said...

Such a tough issue, Ello. I've never cared for or watched -- except for previews -- MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING or MAMA MIA because they looked over-the-top stereotypical to me. OTOH so many think these shows are hilarious...is there a happy medium?

Precie said...

Ah, yes, the trouble I'm STILL having with the development of my Compadre character. It's definitely a challenging problem. Even when you use descriptions or situations that come out of your own experiences, it's difficult.

Maybe my next WIP will avoid describing any character's ethnicity. LOL!

The Anti-Wife said...

Stereotypes smack of laziness on the author's part to me. There are many creative ways to describe people that will convey what they are like without using stereotypes. I'm not sure you can ever get completely away from them, but as writers we should all try.

Mary Witzl said...

I could write a book on this topic too -- I really could.

After 17 years in Japan, I had a pretty good taste of what it was like to be a minority, but it cracked me up to hear fellow white folks saying that they knew what black people back home felt like. No they didn't! Our situation was completely different; we merely got a sniff of what it felt like to belong to a minority -- to go about feeling like the odd one out.

I get irritated to bits when I hear comments made like your co-worker's: she ought to see what it feels like to be pigeon-holed and expected to behave in a certain way! In Japan, the one western stereotype I got tired of FAST was that, as an American, I was assumed to require large amounts of meat. I grew up in a largely vegetarian household and am to this day not much of a meat eater, but no one paid my protests the least bit of mind. I think I got taken out for steak at least half a dozen times my first two years in Japan, despite my politest excuses.

I just love Merry's response to that mob question. I wish I were Italian so I could use it myself, but you can't have everything.

Aerin said...

I wuz here.

I read the post.

I am not going to comment.

But it's a good post.

J. L. Krueger said...

Ell,

Stereotypes aren’t always…

If 90% of the lawn care guys in LA are Mexican (no statistical evidence to say that’s the real number), then writing a story about a white lawn care guy in LA doesn’t ring true. Having Mexican lawn care guys in LA in a story is not a stereotype.

If most of the housekeepers in a town happen to be El Salvadoran and your story is about the time and place where that demographic is true, then that is not a stereotype.

Currently in Winston-Salem, North Carolina probably 80% of the construction workers are Mexican. So writing a story involving a character who is Mexican and a construction worker in Winston-Salem today is not stereotyping.

In all these cases it needs to be done in the historical context of the story. That is to say, one hundred years ago none of the examples listed above would have been true. Therefore if the setting of the story is a different time or place where that situation is not reasonable, then that would be stereotyping.

I see nothing wrong with presenting a character as belonging to a specific cultural group. Where it gets tricky is when your character displays all the bad stereotypes…or all the good stereotypes…in other words, the character is not a “full human being” with both good and bad traits.

Lisa said...

I don't think reflecting the truth of a demographic isn't stereotyping. Depending on where you are you may find lots of Korean grocers, Mexican landscapers, Vietnamese manicurists and Jewish doctors.

I think where description becomes stereotypical is when the Asian characters are bad drivers, the Mexicans ride a dozen to a car, the Irish are drunks and the Jewish characters are argumentative or whiny.

I think we're interesting when it comes to stereotypes because of course we don't like it when other people apply them to us, but the truth is that most of us find them funny and may even play them up and exaggerate them when we're among our own.

It's that reverse bias where "I can say that because I'm ________, or my husband is ________, but no one else should."

I don't think you're stereotyping the El Salvadorian character if that's a reflection of the demographic of your setting.

Seriously, you're not good at math?
KIDDING!

JaneyV said...

Note to Precie -I also believe that if your character's demographic is in a certain job then it's not a stereotype - you are reflecting life. What you do with character's development is where the murky world of stereotyping comes into play. Make your character as human as you can. Why is she a domestic? How doe she feel about it? What did she do in El Salvador? Is her life better now or did she escape one oppressive life for another. Was she oppressed at all? (Is the notion of the immigrant fleeing oppression itself a stereotype?)- I was an economic migrant. When I arrived in London in 89 the IRA were planting bombs everywhere. It was a bugger to get an apartment! Jump 10 years later they couldn't get enough of the Irish - at least we weren't Eastern European - we could speak English.

So do attitudes change over time too? How you handle Compadre's story will be the acid test. Don't avoid putting minorities in your stories to avoid stereotyping. What a huge pity that would be. Be brave!

The thing is discuss it.
Thanks to Ello for the discussion!

Leigh Russell said...

So difficult to avoid stereotyping or equally, deliberately non-stereotyping. It's not just ethnicity, but social class as well.

Precie said...

Jane--Oh, there would be minorities in the book (the heretofore hypothetical book, LOL!!). They just wouldn't be identified as such. :) I'm thinking of it more as an intellectual exercise at the moment...a "let's see if I can do..." kind of thing. :)

Bernita said...

"It's because I don't eat enough dog and cat meat in my diet that I am not good at math"
~howls in delight~
Every last living possible group on the planet gets stereotyped, she said, clutching her WASP pearls.

Sustenance Scout said...

Had to laugh at Bernita's pearl comment, probably because I'm from a big Catholic family. Talk about a stereotype!

Also loved "melanin deficient." When my nine-year-old announced to her gym teacher once that she has extra melanin in her skin, he asked what kind of melon was in her skin. Watermelon? Honeydew? She thought that was a riot.

Maybe humor is a good way to approach all of this, humor plus awareness plus the occasional "in fact, I do know a few mobsters" glares to make the point clear to those who don't yet get it.

Terrific post and discussion, Ello!! K.

Demon Hunter said...

Hey Merry,
I said that kids need to be taught that we are all people. With that, other kids and adults won't be able to change their minds. You're right, kids don't know the difference, it's the adults who taint all of their innocent world views. It's great that you're not tainting your children's view! :*)

Discrimination doesn't necessarily derive from the home. Our peers, other adults, and the world can provide that. What I mean was a preventative measure, to avoid being prejudice in the future.

Lana Gramlich said...

This is why I don't write & mainly ready non-fiction. *LOL*
In all seriousness, though, stereotypes are so much more pervasive in our society than people may realize. The mass media is a powerful tool that has far ranging effects, even if it's just on "in the background." It also seeks to appeal to the lowest common denomenator & one of the best ways to do that is through stereotyping. Considering the constant bombardment we get on any given day, from TV to radio to magazines to billboards, etc., etc., is it any wonder our perceptions are so compartmentalized that they're hardly even ours anymore?
Okay...I have to stop my aimless rambling now, before I take a bazooka to the nearest industrial radio antenna. Good luck to you, however!

jason evans said...

Isn't it a stereotype when you meet a person from El Salvadore and assume they are a housekeeper? Here, you are simply saying that a particular housekeeper is from El Salvadore. I think those are two very different things.

cyn said...

i think the trick is to go beyond the stereotype. we are all stereotypes in one way or another. i'm a tall flat-chested asian femme who sucks in math. not everyone is ALL of a sterotype.

you run into trouble when you have a cardboard character who is nothing but a stereotype. sure, write about the chinese woman who runs the corner laundry store, but have the protag bumping into her dressed in aerobics clothes the next week, ready to cardio kickbox.

you know what i mean? we are all real people with different facets to us, some of them very expected and many things wonderfully surprising.

Carleen Brice said...

Ello, I'm writing about race in novel #2 right now. I don't feel that having a cleaning woman from a country where many cleaning women in your area come from is stereotypical. That she is motherly might be. That's where the stereotype lies for black women. And that's why lots of us were mad at Margaret Seltzer aka Margaret B. Jones, gangbanger.

I also don't feel there's anything wrong with describing a character who's black as black. But I agree with the 1st poster: I HATE when white is the default and never describe and only characters of other races are! Great post!

Merry Monteleone said...

Demon Hunter,

That's a good point, too, and you're right - kids get a lot of their views of the world from their peers, more for a few years in there when their parents just 'don't get it'.

Also, I meant to mention, I did actually have one of my friends who is Mexican read for me and offer insights for one of my characters... which worked out great because she gave me little subtleties I never would have thought of.

The funny thing about all of the stereotypes and bigotry is that if it wasn't race, it would be religion, or background, or economics... the dark part of human nature is that we often sooth ourselves by judging others.

One of my favorite children's books is Sneetches by Dr. Suess, if you guys haven't read it in a while, check it out. There's some awful deep thought in that little rhyming children's book.

Great discussion, Ello.

Absolute Vanilla (& Atyllah) said...

This is such a timeous post. I have two secondary characters in my current WIP and a critique partner, commenting on the opening chapters, said "oh, you can't write them like that - that's not what IT types or lecturers of international politics are like". To which my response is that I don't like stereotypes or generalisations. I believe they limit us and constrain our thinking. They are things that try to keep us separated into neat little boxes when in reality, life is anything but neat. I said if she could give me a really good reason why I should have unstereotyped the characters I'd consider changing them, but until then, they stay as they are.
If we don't challenge stereotypes how will we ever learn that we are really all much more the same than we are different.

Okay, getting off my soapbox now! :-)

Charles Gramlich said...

We had a talk about this in our writing group not too long ago and realized that stereotypes sometimes appear in our work because we "don't" fully flesh out secondary characters. Many times, of course, we just don't have the page or word count to do so. As long as the character isn't portrayed as strictly negative, though, I'm not sure what harm it does to have a very brief stereotypical activity appear in a story. I'm also not sure exactly how to avoid it. Do you make all your secondary drug dealers white so as to avoid stereotyping blacks? Do you make all your math whizzes black, or all your housekeepers Canadian? These are so contrived as well.

Ello said...

This is a great discussion! I was fascinated by everyone's perspective. I will have to think of another challenging post to rival this one!

Vesper said...

Very interesting post, Ello. Food for thought.
I think you're right about good characterisation. But you can't spend equal time and space on all the characters. We should probably also ask ourselves how important it is for the story the colour of a person's skin or the shape of their eyes.