Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Being Afraid of Making Mistakes with Characters of Color

I've witnessed a lot of conversations wherein White authors have expressed some trepidation about writing Characters of Color in their books. While I totally understand where they're coming from (after all, I write characters who are from different cultural heritages than me and ask for help/do research to make sure I Get Things Right™), I must admit that I’m also quite perplexed at the same time.

An example:

I’m a bi-racial cis-female. My father was white, and my mother is Filipina. I grew up in a single-parent household, as my mother took us with her when she left my father. I was around the age of eight, and am thankful every day that she removed my brother (who is four years younger than me) and myself from an alcoholic and abusive parent. My mother worked three jobs to make sure that her children would be well-provided for, and I’m happy to say that we grew up not really wanting for much. Sure, there were years when we got that cool new toy that came out during the Holiday Season (why we ever wanted a Furby is beyond me), but there were also years we knew that cool new toy wouldn’t happen. Although I was disappointed, I was safe, loved, and taught that reading was something fun people did in order to pass the time.

In high school, one of our required readings was The Catcher in the Rye. While some of my classmates absolutely loved the book, I hated it. I thought Holden Caulfield was whiny, and I had no time then (or now, really), to suffer boys who whine about their problems and refuse to do anything to change their circumstances. One could make the argument that I missed the point of the book entirely, and I’ll admit that I haven’t re-read it since high school, so maybe now I’d feel different about Holden. Maybe.

My point is that, even though I love reading, there are some books that I don’t think are worth my time. I couldn’t identify with Holden’s struggle at all, and didn’t care about what happened to him. So, for about ten years, I’ve walked around hating The Catcher in the Rye.

Question: Does my hatred of The Catcher in the Rye prohibit White authors from writing more stories with White protagonists?


Another question: Does someone’s disagreement with how a White author portrays a Character of Color hold back other White authors from writing books with Characters of Color in them?

The answer I’ve found so far is a resounding yes.

And this, my friends, is privilege.

This fear of confrontation (in this instance, of being critiqued for a character choice) is, perhaps, one of the more subtle forms of privilege, but it exists nonetheless.

While I am by no means the spokesperson for all bi-racial White/Filipina cis-females, I can vouch for my own experiences – and for the fact that I get asked quite frequently where I’m from from, as if my answer of  “Virginia” isn’t good enough. The looks I usually get are confused, or incredulous, as it does not compute that I come from Virginia. The temporary relief that crosses their faces when I explain that my mom is from the Philippines wrenches my stomach every time.

It makes sense, all of a sudden. I’m from Virginia, but my mother is not. My mother is foreign. My mother is not one of us.

This is a confrontation that I didn’t ask for – but it’s one that I have to face on (at least) a monthly basis. Or whenever I meet someone new. I have to explain my right to be considered “American,” because, when I have a tan, I happen to look…not white. My example is also one of the lighter miroaggressions one can face. I’d also like to remind everyone that people are dying/have always been killed for looking or presenting a certain way.

My mother didn’t dare teach us any of her native dialects, because she wanted my brother and me to not be questioned as much as she is. Other families kept their traditions going while ours fell by the wayside.  I have bi-racial friends whose mothers are Filipina and their fathers are White, and they can speak Tagalog fluently. And, like I said before, I can only touch on my own experiences. What I do know is that I lost a crucial part of one of my cultures, because white is the default. It’s the expectation. It’s the norm.

When White authors write White characters, are they afraid of getting “whiteness” wrong? Some are, sure, but others keep on trucking like there’s nothing holding them back. White characters get to be intelligent, moody, make terrible decisions, win the championship soccer game, slack off in school, have an excellent grasp of sarcasm and snarkiness, have powers, save the world, live in dystopia, etc – and people rarely bat an eye or sweat over whether they’re being “true to the White experience.”

When I was growing up, do you know how many characters I found who were the same kind of bi-racial as me? (HINT: The answer is none) So, I went to the next best thing I could identify with – I found Asian characters that I could cling to. And what was I presented with? Tiger Moms, Book Worms, endless math equations, broken English, submissive women, Geisha, Samurai, cultural barriers that were passed off as jokes, nerdy best friends who only existed to validate the White best friend (and who never got a date), and Miss Saigon syndrome (wherein: the Asian woman is wooed by the White American man, who is obviously her ticket out of her horribly under-classed existence, but she’s then dumped for a better/more suitable female. Usually White).

I was presented with a portrait of Asian-ness that was as true as it was incomplete. Sure, there might be some Asian/Pacific Islanders who’ve had these experiences – but that doesn’t mean all of us have. I am no more a spokesperson for the Asian/Pacific American experience than the next, and I certainly don’t expect White authors to spearhead the movement, either.

In fact, the only thing I expect White authors to do is some research. Acknowledge my culture by putting in time to get to know it, and then write it as well as you can. Will some people think your depictions are spot-on and true to their experiences? Sure. Will some people take issue with what you’ve written? Of course.

That’s art. That’s how art works.

Art isn’t built to have everyone agree on everything all of the time. That’s why I used my Holden Caulfield example. I didn’t particularly care for his experience, nor did it resonate with me. That doesn’t take away from someone who does enjoy that book. My experience is just one in a sea of endless experiences.

Now, this isn’t carte blanche to just go off and start writing things without research. If you rely on stereotypes to convey your Characters of Color, we’re going to have a talk about why that exists in your story. As a very wise friend pointed out, if you’re writing a story about a pilot, you’d take the time to do research on what being a pilot entails – so why would you not take the same care with a Character of Color’s experiences?

Mistakes are inevitable. Everyone messes up. But to refrain from writing Characters of Color because you’re afraid of backlash is unacceptable, and it only ensures that underrepresented kids will grow up unable to find themselves in stories. They’ll be relegated to the best friend/side-kick role and never understand that they can be the protagonists, too. They can save the world, win the soccer game, be moody, intelligent, have an excellent grasp of sarcasm and snarkiness, too.

If you do make a mistake, own it, listen to the people calling you out, and figure out a way not to make it again. Uplift and help underrepresented writers who crave to get their stories out – who clamor to be heard every day. Who have amazing stories to tell, but are held back for systemic reasons and because they’ve been taught that their stories aren’t worth telling.

But, whatever you do, please don’t make the biggest mistake you can make: assuming that there are stories out there that can’t be told. Somewhere out there is a child who desperately needs your character, your world, your story. To deny them that is a truly frightening thing.

Isn’t it?

Sunday, February 1, 2015

To Get the Thing Worth Journeying... (Part 2)

Okay, so when we left off in the thrilling saga of Alex does musical theater, I'd gotten a call back and was super excited. So, here's what happened next!

I got to the call back...about thirty minutes early. I was so freaked out about being late that I basically booked it there (woops). Anyway, I got there about the same time as another person, who I'd talked to a little during the open audition night. She was excited, too, and together we journeyed into the building.

The Director (who, coincidentally, is my bathroom buddy from the last post) split us into three groups. While I was busy trying to figure out the method with which they divided us, I was herded into the first round of the call back - rhythm.

Stephen Sondheim likes to make people cry (especially the performers), so his songs are...challenging. Yeah, we'll go with challenging. We had to sight-speak what might be the hardest song in the musical because it's so fast-paced.

We were randomly assigned parts, and I got The Baker the first go 'round, which was quite disastrous. Our group stumbled through that for about fifteen minutes or so, and after slowing down the tempo to a snail's pace, we left that part of the call back feeling defeated.

Then we went right to choreography and half my group groaned tragically (myself included). When we did musicals in high school, I was always that kid in the back that the good dancers hid. Don't get me wrong, I have rhythm and was always one of the people keeping people on-beat - while we were singing. But you ask me to dance and I have two left feet, and whatever the other non-dancey cliches are. So, I stumbled my way through that two eight-count, mostly jazz squares routine and thought that perhaps this wasn't for me, after all.

Luckily, our group saved the best part for last. We went to the acting part of the call back determined to get something right - and we did! We had a couple of asides set aside, and got to act out various scenes from the musical. I was picked to go in the first scene, and was assigned Jack. With the scene I had, my only line was in the beginning and I basically spent the rest of the time off to the side while everyone else in it argued. So, instead of doing that, I started talking to an imaginary cow (he's milking it at various intervals in the scene). Since I was probably a failed stand-up comedian in another life, I encouraged the cow to produce milk because hey, if the US Hockey Team could be Russia in the Olympics and win the gold, the cow could also beat the odds and produce milk. I referenced the movie Miracle, and asked if the cow remembered watching it together and, by this time, the people not in the scene were laughing at how ridiculous I was.

We switched characters and scenes around, so by the end of it I'd had my fair share of yelling/fighting/being sad. Then we all went back into the auditorium and after five minutes of conferring, they called a group on-stage to talk out that difficult song from earlier. Guess who one of the people they called was?


I did a bit better this time, and even ran across the stage at Cinderella at one point (apparently I harbor a secret disdain for Cinderella. No idea how that happened). They ran it through a couple more times with a different group, and then lined us all up on-stage to sing a few bars from a song in the musical. That part was awesome because we all got to hear each other's voices (up to that point, we had no idea what everyone sounded like when they sang).

We were dismissed after that, and waited for an email with the cast list.

And waited.

And waited.

And then, it finally happened!

I'm pleased (and proud) to say that I got a part!!! WOOOO!

Which part, though...well. That's another story for another day :)

Monday, January 12, 2015

To Get the Thing Worth Journeying (Part 1)

Okay, so that whole "be better at blogging" thing starts...now! After my introspective last post I figured I'd put something a little more fun on the interwebs. I think I've touched on it a few times in the past, but when I was in high school I was a theater kid. And a chorus kid. Basically, if there was singing and a story, I was all about it.

Then I went to my undergrad, and while I loved it there and wouldn't trade it for anything, I stopped singing in organized groups. It had been the first time I wasn't in some kind of choral setting since I was in the fifth grade.

That "no chorus" streak continued into...well, this year (for those of you keeping track, that's 2007-2015). Then, while traveling back to Salem, I decided to look into community theaters to see if auditions were happening for anything interesting. I danced around my hotel room for a while when I found that a theater around twenty minutes away was doing Into the Woods...and that auditions were the day I was supposed to get back from my holiday shenanigans.

So, I rooted through my vast array of showtunes hoping to find something that would be a suitable audition song. I had a very good idea of which part I wanted, so I picked a song that would probably be sung by my character if she were in that musical.

One of my goals this year was to do something fun that was outside of work, because I love my coworkers, but everyone needs an escape. I also wanted to do something that was just for me, as a lot of last year focused on me taking care of other people.

I went to the first night of auditions armed with twenty to thirty seconds of a song and a universe's-worth of excitement to try-out for something that I love (Into the Woods, consequently, is one of my favorite musicals). I got there, and...

...everyone had sheet music. I had no sheet music, as I hadn't put that much thought into it. I almost turned around, but asked the nice registration lady if I could just go up there and wing it. She checked, and I was clear to sing a capella.

I waited for about half an hour as other people went ahead of me. Then, one of the directors came out and called my name. After I took a deep breath, I went through the creaky double doors and...immediately cracked a joke.

You see, I tend to do this when I get nervous. It's a terrible habit (or an awesome one, you decide). Anyway, about fifteen minutes before my audition, I'd gone to the bathroom and was washing my hands when another lady walked in. We did the awkward you're-here-too-I-should-acknowledge-your-existence head nod, and I left.

So, I walk into this auditorium and one of the directors also happens to be the lady I ran into in the bathroom. Naturally, I blurt out, "OH, YOU'RE MY BATHROOM BUDDY!" at this poor woman. I got a laugh out of everyone in the room, which was probably a blessing and a curse. My "bathroom buddy" quipped that she's a frequenter of the bathroom, to which I replied that I, too, qualify for this title.

At this point, my brain really wanted my mouth to stop talking, but there was no way to derail the train. They asked me what I was going to sing, so I told them, "My New Philosophy." Someone said that they hoped I wasn't going to sing the whole song, to which I replied that I could sing both parts if they wanted (which would have been interesting).

If I hadn't already lost their attention, it was fading fast. So I finally stopped talking and sang.

My bathroom buddy almost fell out of her chair as she scrambled over to the piano, and, by the time I was done, everyone in the room had huge smiles on their faces. They asked me if I knew any of the part that I really wanted (which is a mystery for this post haha), and I told them that I did indeed know that part.

I wound up singing a bit of a character's song...right into the Director's ear, 'cause she was playing the piano. I projected like my life depended on it, and hit the notes as precisely as I could while I freaked out on the inside. I apologized for yell-singing into the Director's ear after we were done, and she laughed it off.

I left the audition hoping to get a callback. There was a second night of open auditions a few nights after mine, so I waited all week to get an email about my fate.

Said fate-email arrived Friday and...I GOT A CALLBACK!!! I pretty much ran laps around the building on Friday after the email came because I'd only ever had ensemble parts in musicals, so being called back for a role with a name --- any role --- was/is pretty awesome!

Our callback was yesterday, but if you really want to know what happened you'll have to check back on the blog tomorrow :)

Until then, I'm going to go back into the woods...