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This blog post is going live during Black History Month 2021. Last year saw a great deal of social unrest and the rekindling of the Black Lives Matter protests. By coincidence, the book I’m currently writing (Mailboat IV) features a person of color in a major role. (Not a black person, but a member of a minority group which also suffers discrimination, and so the parallels were hard for me to ignore.)
With all these events coming together, my thoughts turn to the problem of racial discrimination in my country. The unrest, demonstrations, and riots we saw in the past year struck me very hard. And so, I’ve gone on a mission to try to sort out my thoughts and feelings about racial discrimination.
I write positively about police in my novels. I have friends who work in law enforcement. And I also have friends who are people of color.
As protests around the country turned to riots, my stomach churned. I literally felt as if I were sitting in the corner of a room, watching my friends having a screaming match.
Understanding racism, and sorting out my own thoughts and feelings on the matter, may be a life-long pursuit. But I wanted to jot down my thoughts so far, and share them in hopes it’ll help someone else on their own journey.
Why Do People of Color Suffer So Much Police Violence?
After Michael Brown was shot and killed in 2014, it came to light that there was no national database tracking lethal shootings by police. The Washington Post went about to rectify that problem, and you can see their ongoing project here: Fatal Force.
You can see in their findings that, while more white people have died overall, people of color have died at a disproportionate rate.
“[Black Americans] account for less than 13 percent of the U.S. population, but are killed by police at more than twice the rate of White Americans.” ~ Fatal Force, by The Washington Post
I’ll admit, beyond looking at the numbers, I haven’t yet researched the question of why this is happening. It’s something I do plan to educate myself about.
But one likely root of racial tension is feelings of “other” and “them versus us,” both in terms of “they are against us” and “they are not one of us.”
And for that, I think I have at least one answer:
I have always been an intensely curious person–especially when it comes to people who are different from me. I grew up in an extremely homogenous environment, but instead of getting comfortable with sameness, I became curious about different-ness.
Your skin is a different color than mine. I want to learn more about you.
You speak with an accent. I want to know where you’re from and learn about your culture.
You wear a gun and a uniform and a bullet-proof vest. What on earth is that like?
You date someone of the same sex. I want to watch your relationship and see how it’s different from–and the same as–my relationship with my boyfriend.
You were assigned male at birth, but now you’ve come out as female. I want to watch your transition and see how you interact with life in a new way.
You grew up in a religion much different from mine. I want to understand what you believe and how it affects the way you live.
Your political views aren’t the same as mine. I want to try to understand where you’re coming from.
I have to say, curiosity this vast has been a great boon as an author. So long as I stay curious and humble and ask questions, I can create a vast array of characters.
And by staying curious, I get to meet all kinds of people–so that my fiction keeps benefiting the variety of my relationships. The more people I meet for research purposes, the more people I count as my friends, and thus the more diverse my circle of acquaintances.
Stop Talking; Start Listening
Like anyone, I sometimes see something different from what I’m used to and I want to reject it out of hand. It’s just too unfamiliar. Maybe I’ve even got notions already swimming around in my head about what this person is supposed to be like, because of some narrative I’ve heard from… somewhere.
This, of course, is called bias, and the experts claim we all have it, whether we realize it or not.
But then I breathe and remind myself that we’re all just people. I remind myself not to judge until I’ve walked a mile in someone else’s shoes. I remind myself to stay curious instead of shutting people out.
Whether I’m spending time with a cop or with a person of color or literally anyone else, I’ve found that accepting them just the way they are helps them open up and be themselves. I feel absolutely privileged when people who were strangers a moment ago start telling me their life stories. Start trusting me with thoughts they would only tell a close friend. I’ve had it happen again and again, with people of literally every description. I’ve seen people’s hearts, and that matters to me.
Only once you truly understand people, on both sides of a given conflict, can you identify the problems that may exist. Only once you truly understand those problems can you fix them. Until then, it’s only a shouting match.
Be quiet. Listen. Understand. Stay curious. You’ll probably find you have far more in common with “different” people than you thought. I keep returning to the words of a very dear friend of mine, an African-American woman. We were discussing racism, and her comment was simply this: “At the end of the day, people are pretty much the same.”
As I write this, I’m reading a book called 13 Days in Ferguson. The author is Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol. He is also an African-American. During the Ferguson riots of 2014, the governor of Missouri put Captain Johnson in charge of returning peace to the city.
As I read his memoir, I find that Captain Johnson models exactly what I’m talking about when I say to stay curious. When people were yelling in the streets, he was reaching out to as many of them as he could. He showed them he was listening. And they responded. All they wanted was for someone to hear them out.
If you’re looking for a riveting read that straddles both sides of the line–the experience of a black man, and the experience of a cop–this is a fantastic book. You can shop for it here on Amazon.
Over to You
The comments are open to discussion, but I want to remind you to be kind. (Inappropriate comments will be deleted!) This is a space for coming together as brothers and sisters. To practice that curiosity and openness I was talking about.
As another suggestion, go ahead and leave a prayer, a positive intention, or words of kindness. Let’s spread a little love and inspiration.
Mailboat IV, Releasing August 1, 2021, features a person of color as a key character. I had such a great time getting to know someone from that community in order to write this character as best I could.
6 Replies to “Staying Curious”
Really enjoyed reading this. Listening and curiosity. Yes!
I was at a basketball clinic a few years ago (I coach girls basketball outside my job) and he talked about the importance of connection. Connection to teammates, connection to the coaches. His big line was; Learn to Listen, Listen to Learn.
I’ve always loved that.
Take care and look forward to more writing!
I like it! That saying really summarizes a lot. Thank you, Mark!
My daughter brought home many international students from Moody Bible Institute to spend Christmas with us. We sang Christmas Carols together, had coffee and meals together over the kitchen table. My favorite conversations started with “Tell me about your country, tell me about your culture, tell me about your family, customs, etc. It was so very interesting and enlightening and I was very blessed to learn so much about them and their lives. To this day, I am friends on Facebook with many of them.
I love this story! Thanks for sharing.
Thank you for this article. It’s something that has been on my mind for a long time. I grew up in a very white area & didn’t know a person of color until I went to college. My parents were racially biased. I try not to be but wonder if I am. As a nurse, I worked with ALL types of people & didn’t seem to have a problem. I could go on & on with this, but here’s my question:
Do people of color mind/resent when white authors write about people like them? I’m also an author, and a girl in the last book I wrote was definitely Black, in my mind. I would like to develop her for the next book but I don’t want to offend anyone. I have a couple of ladies I know who I could possibly ask to proof read & give an opinion. Do you think that would by ok? Thanks.
Thanks for your comment, and your deep question! I can think of a lot of relevant responses, so this reply might be lengthy! Also, if there are any people reading this who are members of a minority group, feel free to weigh in. I’ll just jot my own thoughts here.
First, this is definitely a question people are asking in the writing and publishing community. Is it okay to write about a person of color if you yourself are white? Is it okay to write a gay character if you yourself are straight, etc.? I don’t know that the community has come to a consensus on this question, and frankly, I’m not sure we ever will!
Personally, I think representation is vitally important. For instance, I think it’s fantastic that young fans of hero movies finally have a hero to look up to who is not white (Black Panther). Apparently, there was once a study of which dolls black girls chose: white dolls or black dolls, and they chose white because it was “better” to be white. (This breaks my heart!)
As a white female, I know I look up to people who are similar to me in any way, shape, or form, and that having relevant role models is huge and literally influences my success in life. Why should people from minority groups not have that same advantage?
But with representation comes responsibility. I think it’s vitally important to avoid incorrect stereotypes. All people are nuanced, no matter their background. If we, as writers, fall into the stereotype trap, we have done our readers–majority or minority–more harm than good.
This is why I believe strongly in getting to know the people you’re writing about. I went out of my way to delve into the mindset and personalities of the people of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin (the setting for my series). I did it because I love drawing life the way it is. So when I decided to write about a person of color in Book IV, I knew I had to do that character the same degree of justice. I went out of my way to learn about the culture and to get to know at least one person (thank you, Alondra!) who could talk to me about their experiences.
Personally, I don’t think that white people continuing to write about white people helps with diversity. I think white people diversifying their cast of characters does. Also, the publishing industry making more space for authors with diverse backgrounds, a movement which is gaining momentum.
In a nutshell, I personally wouldn’t shy away from writing diverse characters. But I would accept that responsibility with gravitas, get to know the people I’m writing about, and yes, ask representatives of that community to read my work and correct any errors made in ignorance.
As you venture forward on your journey, I think you’ll find what my friend said is true. People are just people. If you approach them with respect, generosity, and kindness–and just be yourself–they’ll respond in kind.
Good luck, and thanks for such a deep question!