Sunday, November 18, 2012

Race And Ethnicity In Fiction

In our oh-so-politically-correct era, it's a rare thing to tune the Idiot Box to a crime drama, watch the grisly mess all the way to the end, and discover that the villain is -- gasp! -- a Negro. Negroes are a "protected minority." Terribly fragile of psyche, don't y'know. Prone to rioting when they feel they've been "dissed." Merely putting a store in a majority-black neighborhood has cost a few Koreans their lives, to say nothing of their livelihoods, courtesy of that prominent apostle of nonviolence Al Sharpton. As for the Rodney King episode, we should be grateful that Los Angeles came out of that still standing. So there's this reluctance for a writer of any prominence to "color" his bad guys in the darker hues.

Rarer still is the perpetrator of any heinous deed allowed to be a person of Middle Eastern heritage. Indeed, when Tom Clancy's blockbuster novel The Sum Of All Fears was made into a movie, the producers shied back from using the plot as Clancy wrote it. Clancy made the bad guys Muslims! We can't have that. The poor dears might be offended...and you know what Muslims do when they feel offended. More, I learned recently that in remaking the Cold War classic Red Dawn, the producers wobbled back and forth between Iran and North Korea as the villains, and finally chose the Norks as "safer." Safer for what? I hear you cry. Well, given that Robert Spencer and Geert Wilders are accompanied by armed guards wherever they go, I'd say the question answers itself.

From the behavior of the above and the results it's garnered, the other races and ethnicities of Mankind have learned that if you howl loudly enough and threaten credibly enough, you can...persuade most writers and filmmakers to exclude your group from the candidate pool for villainy. Some call it prudence; others, pusillanimity. But either way, few artists buck the trend.

For my part, I ignore it. Fifty percent of the violent crimes and crimes against property committed in these United States are perpetrated by young male Negroes. Worldwide, essentially all acts of terrorism and hate crimes committed for religious or ethnic reasons are committed by Muslims of Middle Eastern origin. I feel no reluctance to portray my villains as Negroes or Muslims, and I will continue to do so when it strikes me as appropriate. I've been counseled against it as "unfair," "unkind," "not politically correct," and outright hazardous. I've shrugged the advice off.

We've known for ages that the way to detoxify a stereotype applied to you and yours is to embrace it and caricature it. Make it into a source of laughter; to laugh at oneself is always endearing. Of course, that only works if the stereotype is erroneous. If it's accurate -- a reflection of the realities around us -- there's nothing you can do about it but reform yourself and police your fellows so they won't bring further shame upon your group.

The virtue of frankly acknowledging racial and ethnic reality even in fiction is that over time, readers would cease to be troubled by it...and the previously protected groups would cease to believe they can prevent it. Fiction has often had a clarifying effect on men's attitudes and beliefs. Consider the polemic potency of C. S. Lewis's Space Trilogy and Narnia series, or the widespread effect Atlas Shrugged had in opening readers' minds to the perniciousness of a government-controlled economy. Realism about the distribution of crimes and terrorist acts among the races and ethnicities of Man would be just as clarifying.

I like clarity. Quite a lot, in fact.

The final segment of Chosen One features two explicitly black characters: a protagonist and a villainess. A test reader gigged me for it -- "not politically correct," he said -- and I resolved to ignore him. Verisimilitude would not have been served nearly as well had Angela and June been white. If my readers had qualms about it, none of them have written to say so.

When I sat down to write On Broken Wings, among my first needs was to visualize each of my Marquee and Supporting Cast characters. Two of the villains -- the brothers Raymond and Ernest Lawrence -- I visualized as Negroes -- and big, hulking Negroes, at that. I never stated their race explicitly in the text of the book, nor in the sequel Shadow Of A Sword. Nevertheless, I allowed them to manifest virtually all of the tags and verbal motifs of the American Negro, subcategory Practicing Thug. I'd be surprised if as many as ten percent of the novel's readers failed to visualize them as black. Visualizing and characterizing them as such helped me greatly in putting them through their paces in those books.

Two of my stories of polymath technologist Todd Iverson and two others featuring President Stephen Graham Sumner have featured Muslim villains. I have received death threats for them, but I'm still here. Of course, it probably helps that I'm heavily armed at all times, but still...

It really doesn't take much courage. Call it my little contribution toward diversity in fiction if you like.

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