One of my favorite things as a writer and as an observer of general human behavior is to examine why people do and say things. What feelings, experiences, or previous biases inspired someone to say or something? Would this dialogue be in character for this person? If it’s not, what has changed to make them say something like this?
Obviously, it’s not as easy to dissect things without the person’s entire backstory, like we might get from books. When dealing with real people, we have to substitute a lot of what we know of them personally to things we can guess about them from social factors.
This practice comes in handy when someone says something that’s racially charged. They probably don’t mean to make it sound like that, but they never thought of how it would sound to someone who didn’t already have those underlying racial prejudices.
An example of this happened to me the other day: I mentioned a dude I used to have a crush on, using his name ‘Dayvon’. My friend, who I only met relatively recently thank to my new job, responded with “Oh, I didn’t know you liked black guys.”
Which was a weird thing to say.
I was left feeling mildly offended but mostly uncomfortable by his comment. Which I know he didn’t intend and which I know he didn’t even think about that deeply.
But this is what I mean: a lot of the messaging we’re putting out stems from some uncomfortable pre-conceptions or biases. And we need to be aware of those.
What really inspired this post was something I saw on Facebook yesterday. The a capella group, Pentatonix, recently put out a cover of “Jolene” with Dolly Parton.
Please watch it, it’s really good.
I am a huge fan of Pentatonix and also of this song, so this cover was an absolute delight to me. It was marred to me, though, because of how this one girl from high school presented it on Facebook.
Like, why? Why did you have to do that? When appreciating the talent of one artist, why do people feel it’s necessary to put down other artists? Especially poc artists?
I’m trying to think why she picked these artists in comparison to all of the popular artists of the day. What do these artists have in common?
I bet you can guess.
I know this person personally (or at least I went to high school with her) and I know she didn’t mean anything by it. She probably didn’t think she was being racist.
But taking these prominent black artists – possibly the most prominent black artists (barring Beyonce, but no one could argue the talent of Beyonce) – and dumping on them, unprovoked,to prop up a predominantly white group is just so messed up.
It didn’t sit well with me, and now I can’t enjoy this song as I might have otherwise because I’ll always be thinking about how someone is using it to preach the inferiority of black performers.
So why do we say these things? Why do people bring up race or religion or sex or sexual orientation as if it was something other and shocking? Is it because of messaging we received growing up? Probably. Is it because of messaging so ingrained in the American psyche that people think Kylo Ren is a better love interest for Rey than Finn?* That’s also likely.
We can’t control what messaging we experience or internalize, but we can examine ourselves and control what messaging comes from us.
Don’t be that guy.
*Yes, I know, I couldn’t make it through an entire blog post without bringing fictional characters into this. But look at all of the fanfiction websites! The fact that more people ship a heroine with her actual abuser rather than the love interest narratively set up for her just because Kylo is white is actually staggering. And why? Because of messaging that tells us interracial couples aren’t normal. Boom.