The whole world was shocked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month. Videos and pictures showing a white police officer kneeling on the neck of an unarmed black man who was calling out that he could not breathe flooded the media.
This was not the first time that such a thing had happened, but the consequences have been worldwide. A great wave of protest headed by the Black Lives Matter campaign has hit the conscience of everyone. Demonstrations have been seen in major cities breaking lockdown regulations everywhere.
Surely the vast majority of us want to show our support for those who have faced blatant discrimination throughout their lives because of their colour. Many have expressed their views on Facebook and Twitter.
There has been a huge demand for action with calls for governments to bring in legislation and for authorities to take down statues of historical figures associated with the slave trade. More recently, the views and actions of once revered figures are being questioned in the light of today’s values and their memorials have being vandalized. Such extreme reactions might well backfire – losing the sympathies of the majority.
Perhaps it is time to think about the only thing that will bring about real change. Our attitude. We all like to think that we are not prejudiced against others because of their colour or for any other reason, but are we?
As writers, do we unwittingly reinforce prejudice? Are our heroes always white and our villains black? Are heroes handsome, villains ugly, etc? Surely, it’s not as simplistic as that. Does our cast of characters include a cross section of society?
The perceived wisdom may be that you should write a novel with your audience in mind but for most of us we write the kind of books we like to write. I am white, middleclass English and British. I write Agatha Christie type whodunits with a modern twist.
I gave the matter some thought –
After a quick pat on the back – yes, every Fiona Mason novel includes the dependable, always smiling Wilson, her West Indian driver and the narrator for my Aunt Jessica series is a gay man in his early thirties (how on earth did that happen?) plus a good sprinkling of people from minority groups among the passengers, but…
Though none were intentional token figures – they just seemed appropriate at the time, how had I represented them?
Winston, who I love dearly as does Fiona, was criticized by one of my readers for being portrayed as too uneducated. I don’t know any gay men – young or otherwise. Though no one has ever commented on it, how can I have any idea of how such a man might think, feel or react in any given situation?
What about Sol, the elderly Jew in Blood Hits the Wall, who I describe as looking like the archetypal Jew only to be justly taken to task by an American writer friend who said there was no such thing.
I am a writer. I make things up, that’s what we writers do. I love the experience of trying to see the world through someone else’s eyes. I’d like to feel that helps to make me a more understanding, caring person. But…
My experience of others of different colour, race, creed, sexual orientation, disability is limited. Should I do more to research these characters? Will I? Probably not. But I will think more carefully. Though all my characters are one hundred percent fictional – never taken from people I know or have met (with the exception of a few physical characteristics) and the views they express theirs not mine – perhaps I will think more carefully just how I represent them.
Having decided on the topic for my blog a few days ago, I found it fascinating to read in this morning’s paper that the Charles Dickens Museum had been defaced with graffiti claiming that the great Victorian author was a racist. In his novels, Dickens strived to gain the sympathies of his readers for the poor and the disadvantaged but what about Shylock? Was it his racist attitude or was he guilty of using a stock figure – the mean Jew? Afterall, he came good in the end, didn’t he? I don’t know enough to debate the issue, but the article highlighted the need for me to think twice before using conventional two-dimensional characters in my books.