Writing and Unconscious Bias

I’ve been pondering this one for a while. A few weeks ago I stumbled across a radical feminist critique of one of my favourite shows, Firefly. My first reaction was ‘no, say it isn’t so!’ and my second was ‘maybe she’s got a point’. I don’t intend to address the arguments about Firefly, as that’s been done here and here.

What I do want to talk about, and what has been occupying my mind ever since, is what is it I do when I write. How much prejudice of any type is revealed in my writing because I am unconscious of it? I think writers want to show people as they actually are – and that sometimes means characters who are bigoted in various ways. That means characters who think they are not prejudiced but reveal by their words that they are.

Lately I’ve read novels and short stories where characters that are not white are described by their skin colour. It’s niggled at me and is possibly a sign that my consciousness has been raised a smidge. A white male character is just ‘a man’, whereas a black male character is ‘a black man’. It would be fine if all white male characters were described as ‘a white man’. Why does the black character need to be identified by his skin colour rather than some other characteristic individual to him? What it reveals is the (unconscious) assumption on the part of the author that white is the norm and that any deviation from this norm needs to be flagged to the reader.

Of course writers have to describe people and it’s nice as a reader to have some physical information to base their imaginations on. But in most cases does it matter if the reader is visualising your character as white or black, gay or straight? How often is it really relevant to the story or to character development? And when it is, it can be just about the individual rather than applying a label.

The trouble is, people use shortcuts and labels. In order to cope with all the information we process everyday, our brains code things. It’s even better if the people around us use the same codes. This is how stereotypes and tropes and mores get born. It’s why we have misunderstandings – because my word ‘woman’ might have different associations to your word ‘woman’. We need assumptions to get through even the most basic conversation.

I think as a writer, I need to have greater awareness. This is for entirely selfish reasons; I want to control what my words say as much as is possible. I don’t want to be misunderstood because I wrote something lazy, muddled and ill-considered. I think I’ve been a bit complacent about being tolerant and inclusive and that I have a bit of work to do in identifying my assumptions.

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