Most of us have limited cultural experiences. If you’re white, you hang out with mostly white friends; your church and various groups are filled with people who look like you. If you’re Black you look around the congregation on Sunday morning into a sea of colored faces; the radio jock you listen to on the ride into work tells jokes that affirm your cultural experience. Asians and Latin Americans have the same story. I’m not judging. I’m just stating facts.
We stay within a level of comfort so it is not surprising that when we write it is geared toward the audience with which we most identify. Notice I say most of us, because there are some of us, who have had enough variation to write outside of the scope of a single audience. And this all works well except when it doesn’t. When you decide you want to add a little color to your work and the Blacks are all saying things like “yo man” or “what’s happening” or they’re all snarky or angry, or the whites use the word “like” more times than humanly possible or the Asians all speak with broken English; it is then we have a problem. It is a tricky thing to take on a character or a setting of a different ethnicity without trudging in the dirty waters of stereotype and hence peeving off dual audiences.
Earlier this month I talked about writing what you know or knowing what you write, both phrases are basically equal except, writing what you know is drawing on experiences you already own and knowing what you write is reaching and learning so that your knowledge and experience increase and now you can write with a new level of understanding.
We tread lightly when it comes to bringing other ethnic groups into our writing and if you don’t know what you’re doing you very well should. Sapphire the author of Push, the basis of the movie Precious does it, with the broken dialect and dark life of this teenager girl. Although the author is Black, it is still a culture unfamiliar to the author. James Patterson brought it with his character Detective Alex Cross; the complexity of the character is what is evident. Author Kathryn Stockett did it well with The Help. And she admitted she was a little concerned about using dialect associated with many Southern Blacks of the time in fear of insulting, stereotyping or appearing to mock. And still she was criticized. I personally loved the book and thought it was an honest portrayal. I’m reading and seeing my grandmother and great-grandmother throughout the pages and marveling at how she was able to capture not just the dialogue or the text, but the subtext; movements and things not said but implied. I read the book because I was attracted to the cover. I hadn’t read her bio yet. I didn’t know her history. But when I did I thought “ahh”. You see she had a close relationship her family’s help growing up. It was a risky thing to assume to know what was in the mind of this group.
It is important, I believe to step into that divide to try our hand at something different and daring, but only after we can paint a complete picture. To pretend to know the life of a gang banger and only see his violence or anger is doing it void of experience. Assuming to know the life of a middle class white woman living in Westchester County would be disingenuous for a Black woman raised in the Bronx, unless she knew her story. Simply watching does not an experience make. It’s empathizing and finding that humanity which connects you with the subject. And even with the most deprave people or situations there is that humanity which connects us. To tap into the part, to connect to the human spirit is when we start to know, when we can create and then make the story our own.
As writers we have the privilege to share what we know, by creating new stories. In doing so you may evoke more questions than you answer. And that is where the real story begins.