So, I wrote this story with a black, inner-city protagonist. I based her on a friend of mine and like that friend she is compassionate and witty and willing to do anything for the people under her care.
In an early scene in the story, she describes a boy “as prim and proper as a Jane Austen heroine.”
In workshop, a guy asked me to explain how an inner-city black woman could possibly make such a literary reference.
I was like… STFU. One, my friend, on whom this character is based, is college-educated. Would you have asked me if a white character would have known JANE Token Woman on Every Reading List that Needs A Token AUSTEN? You think one of the most recognizable literary names being dropped in relation to someone behaving in a way stereotyped by movies of her works is too obscure? It’s not like I had her quote some impenetrable passage by Pynchon… man you don’t even have to read to get the reference and never mind that excuse because THIS WOMAN HAS A BACHELORS DEGREE.
Okay okay… breathe, Marie.
I wrote another story with a black character in it. She was described as young and fashionably-dressed, with a Boston accent, living in an apartment in a trendy neighborhood. The main character in the story is a lawyer this woman called. She pays the lawyer for her time.
SAME DUDE in workshop is like, “I don’t think she sounds like she could afford to pay the lawyer.”
WHAT? I’m like… do you know how much the lawyer charged? Do you think someone would call a lawyer if they couldn’t afford to pay them? Do you know anything about this character other than she is black and has an apartment in HIPSTER TOWN? Do you have any idea how expensive those apartments are?
Okay, okay, I move on. I can just ignore critiques, after all. I don’t edit to that particular critique. If I put in an ‘explainer’ I would just be feeding in to this bias that a black character is necessarily broke and uneducated until proven otherwise.
Then, I write another story which had a poor white woman who was a computer programmer. And, you guess it, the same dude said, “You really need to explain how she could have learned to do this.” How about the same way anyone else would? In his written comments he clarified, “Not a skill you develop in that environment.” Because he’s an expert in this woman’s environment? I GREW UP IN THIS ENVIRONMENT AND I AM A COMPUTER PROGRAMMER.
For most of my life I had to deal with conservative authority figures telling me the poor are lazy and stupid. When I said, “Hey! I’m poor! How dare you say that about me!” They would always say, “You’re an exception.” BUT I WAS NOT. Every poor conservative probably thinks they are the one fucking exception and will keep supporting policies to punish themselves for the crime of not being born rich because of course, these policies aren’t for the exceptions! Someone will notice, right? Along the way. They’ll explain it. See, I’m poor, but I also read a lot! I’m poor, but I work so hard and get good grades!
Society is based on systems, not individuals. There are no individuals in the face of public policy unless rampant leeway in enforcement is allowed in which case… hey! Guess what happens when you have unequal enforcement of laws? That’s right, you get Institutionalized Racism because of course that inequality is not going to be based, like you hope, on carful consideration of each person’s true inner soul, but on the depth of thinking that goes into “She wouldn’t be able to pay a lawyer because she’s black and has an accent.”
When you say the poor are stupid and lazy, you mean Every Last One. No making exceptions when you want to because you will not always be present where your words are repeated to list the exceptions.
Okay… okay… must stop head exploding…
I’m sick of people asking me to justify a character knowing something. I can recall no time ever being asked to “explain” how a male character knew something.
Every time you have a female mechanic in a TV show or movie – or a woman with any skill – they have a scene or a line where they explain how they got their skill. When Kaylee on Firefly dismisses her own training by saying she learned from her dad, I threw a pillow at the TV. (“I learned from my dad” is almost the first sentence out of any female character who does a male-assumed task on TV. Or “I had a lot of older brothers.” It’s almost always a man who imparted the skill to them – because of course, a man in the same situation can be expected to learn this, but a girl? Oh no, she must have a dude to take her gently by the hand lest she fall over her boobs.)
NO I AM NOT OVER-REACTING, the emotional woman screamed at her laptop, alone, in a quiet room. *ahem*
Once I noticed the “Explainers” I started noticing how you never get them for white male characters. Forget about just having a mechanic walk on screen and never once allude to how he learned to be one. A white male who is introduced as a mathematician will fly a fighter jet – and no explainer line about how his mother was a pilot. A white male with no bomb training will disarm a nuclear warhead without an instruction manual while sweating and the audience just rolls with it!
“That’s just what was needed by the plot,” they say. “It makes sense. The character is smart.” But you put a minority in the same situation and suddenly they’re like “Footnote that! We need to see his degree!”
It’s easy to say “stop assuming.” It does nothing. What I can do, though (aside from writing a long ranty blog post) is promise to continue writing women and minority characters who are smart, competent, and well-educated, and not throwing some bullshit excuse on there so the audience can rest comfortable in their negative stereotypes and label this character “an exception.”