Sometimes I fantasize about eliminating the words “us” and “them” from every language on Earth, and what it would mean for bringing about peace and understanding. I know. We’d immediately invent new words to differentiate between “our” tribe and those other, lesser people. Based on evidence of language throughout history and cultures for describing the group of people we consider that we belong with vs. the derogatory names for people we exclude from our group, this whole categorizing thing seems to be part of inate human behavior.
We separate people into groups by gender, skin color, religious beliefs (or the absence thereof), age, sexual orientation (or the absence thereof), country, occupation, financial status, ancestry, primary language, political bent, and opinions. You can probably think of a dozen more. Some frown at new phrases which are “politically correct” — others are appalled at the lack of empathy the critics of PC are expressing. Us vs. Them.
I’m puzzling over a concern about some characters in a novel I’m in the process of writing. They are a mother and daughter, and they’re black. I’m white. As if either of those labels really means anything at all. Race is a political and social concept, not a scientific one. It has about as much scientific legitimacy as phrenology (determining a person’s personality traits by measuring areas of their skull) or reading the entrails of a dead chicken. Still, the concept is so much a part of our culture, and has influenced so much of our history and present attitudes that it is a social aspect that can’t be ignored.
I’m wondering if it is presumptuous or racist or inappropriate for me to have a black woman as my protagonist. On the other hand, I can’t imagine someone being offended by a female author writing about a male character, or a middle-aged author focusing on an older protagonist, or a straight author featuring a gay person — as long as the depiction feels genuine. I mean, if a character is written badly, it doesn’t matter how closely that fictional person matches the “us” characteristics of the author. Bad writing is bad writing.
The thing is, I’ve become very fond of this mother and daughter and learn more about them (in my imagination) every day as I fine-tune scenes. Could I re-write them as white instead? Maybe, but they’d no longer be the same people. Why? Scroll up a few paragraphs and read my comments on the political and social aspects of this strange idea we call “race.”
Even while I wrote this and tried to avoid “us” and “them,” I used those words as well as their relatives, “we” and “they.” My fantasy to change the world through language is a pipe dream. But that doesn’t mean I can’t keep trying to include more people in “my” tribe.