Books

“Political Correctness” in Fiction

It happened again. My comments on someone else’s blog post prompted me to write a post of my own. This time, the discussion was at the Sweet Americana Sweethearts blog, where author Heather Blanton addresses the practice of sanitizing historical fiction to make it polite, palatable, and politically correct for twenty-first century readers.

Without rehashing that whole post, I’ll note that I agree with Heather. Trying to clean up history to make ourselves comfortable is indeed dangerous. The more inaccurate we are about the past, then the more we misremember it, and as the saying goes, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

With that said, when it comes to race, culture, and history, it can be easy sometimes to paint over everything, or everyone, with too broad a brush. We can think to ourselves, “Well, yeah, people were prejudiced or just said ignorant things back then, but they couldn’t really help it. Where they came from, that’s just how it was.” So it’s good to keep in mind that while there may be a mainstream idea or habit within a society, there also tend to be people who don’t conform to the mainstream of their time. In the past (as it still happens in the present), not every person thought or behaved the same way as “everybody else.” Light and truth are constants, even in a period or place when light isn’t prevalent or the truth isn’t popular.

Nonetheless, when it comes to various areas of life, including writing about the past, there’s a difference between being politically correct and being culturally competent or sensitive. As an author, when it’s time to write about unsavory parts of history, and you don’t want to offend readers, it’s a great idea to check your motives. Are you trying not to be offensive because you genuinely care about the people concerned, or do you just want to prevent negative reactions from coming in your direction?

In his book, The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege, author Ken Wytsma highlights some good stuff about following the silver rule versus following the golden one. The main principle there can apply to political correctness and writing.

Political correctness can oftentimes adhere to the silver rule: “Don’t do unto others what you don’t want them to do unto you.” It can focus on trying not to do something, being polite at all costs in an attempt not to offend anyone. Being polite so as to avoid the trouble of backlash, whether or not the actual human beings you might hurt are your real or main concern.

In contrast, cultural competence applies the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Imagine yourself in the place of the person or culture you’re writing about, even if it’s only a minor character or a small aspect of the plot. Imagine yourself in the place of readers who are a part of that culture. Consider their triumphs and their plight, past and present. Consider how you’d feel if the people in your book weren’t “other people” but they were your own friends, your own family. Consider how you’d feel if the person in your book was you. What, then, would be your attitude as you approach telling that person’s story or depicting aspects of that person’s culture or lot in life?

Political correctness often comes from a place of fear, while cultural competence comes from a place of love.

Being a culturally competent author doesn’t mean you have to whitewash, misrepresent, or try to erase history. One of my all-time favorite examples of cultural competence in entertainment is a television show, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. In ways big and small, the show is historically accurate. It doesn’t shy away from depicting racism, injustice, and ignorance. It illustrates complex scenarios, brings substantive characters with room to grow or shift, and it relates powerful, relevant messages about love, acceptance, and justice without trying to ignore or erase the facts of the past.

When you’re a culturally competent author, it doesn’t mean you gloss over, sugarcoat, or tiptoe around uncomfortable social elements because you’re terrified of stepping on anyone’s toes. Rather, it means you’re active about finding ways to show love through your writing; to show that while ignorance did and does exist, it doesn’t mean it was or is okay, and that it’s possible and necessary for us to do better. There are different ways authors can convey this, whether they weave it into a plot, reflect it through a character, infuse it into a story’s overall tone, include a thoughtful word directly to readers before or after the story, or what have you.

On a related note, for authors who do or want to write competently about people of different races or cultures than their own, it’s smart to have a diverse circle. If everyone in your critiquing or publishing circle, or in your life, is pretty much the same as you are, then you may need to widen your circle. But that’s another topic to unpack.

Anyhow. A little consideration and/or creativity can go a long way in getting a message of light across in fiction, even when depicting flawed characters or regrettable portions of history.

You don’t have to write from a place of fear when you can write from a place of love.

 

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Arts and Entertainment, Books

A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History by Jeanne Theoharis

Book reviews are subjective. I tend to rate books not according to how “perfect” they are, seem to be, or are said to be in general but rather to how perfect they are to me.

A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History by Jeanne Theoharis

(Click the title to find the book description/blurb.)

This history is humbling—showing how hard it is to do the right thing and exposing the many barriers to unseating the status quo. It reveals that the perpetration of injustice is not always about hatred but often about indifference, fear, and personal comfort.

My goodness. A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History by Jeanne Theoharis. I’ll admit it’s hard for me to review a book like this because I wish I could write down each strong, thought-provoking, or challenging point the author makes.

This narrative speaks on the tendency for many Americans to relegate the civil rights movement to something that’s (safely) behind us. It speaks on the tendency for people to applaud figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks while separating them from the totality of their messages, from their anger, from the fact that they were controversial and that the civil rights movement was disruptive and unpopular to most Americans at the time. If we now reduce Rosa Parks to a sweet, quiet lady who sat meekly on a bus one day, and we strip her of her years of politics and activism and most of what she actually said, we can comfortably celebrate her without being challenged by her anymore.

This book puts clear language to ideas I’ve been chewing on, including how racism isn’t merely about people’s feelings, that as long as enough individuals don’t feel or express personal malice toward people of color, then social injustice in America is no longer a real or serious problem.

My one issue with the reading was that it often seemed redundant, repeating the same information or quotes in places or using different words to make the same points over again. I also wasn’t able to comb through all of it (time constraints with a borrowed copy), but this is the kind of book I’d have no problem revisiting.

America has much more work to do for civil rights, and it’ll take having an accurate view of our history.

 

Arts and Entertainment, Books

I Will Not Fear: My Story of a Lifetime of Building Faith Under Fire by Melba Pattillo Beals

Book reviews are subjective. I tend to rate books not according to how “perfect” they are, seem to be, or are said to be in general but rather to how perfect they are to me. Revell provided me with a complimentary copy of this book for an honest review.

I Will Not Fear: My Story of a Lifetime of Building Faith Under Fire by Melba Pattillo Beals

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

(Click the title to find the book description/blurb.)

Despite the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling against it, racial segregation in public schools was still prevalent in Little Rock, Arkansas for years afterward. In 1957, nine African American students were chosen to integrate the city’s all-white Central High School. Those students became known as the Little Rock Nine. One of their number, author Melba Pattillo Beals, recounts this matter and more in her memoir, I Will Not Fear: My Story of a Lifetime of Building Faith Under Fire.

As the title indicates, this isn’t just an account contained within the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, but it spans much more of the author’s lifetime and experiences. Even so, issues of prejudice and equal (or unequal) rights, including gender inequality, appear frequently throughout this story of adversity, faith, and perseverance.

This isn’t a book about detached, historical “figures” but about people. It’s not a testimony of immediate victories for social justice, or complete accord within the black community. Beals wasn’t even always sure she was doing the right thing by being a part of integration.

The author makes interesting points, including how racism isn’t merely about donning conspicuous white hoods or blatantly calling black people “niggers.” Subtle racism is just as vicious, and also treacherous, particularly when it’s institutionalized or otherwise trickier to call out and combat. Still, one of my biggest takeaways from the book is that when it comes to injustice and other challenges, you have to know when it’s time to hold your peace and simply keep on living, and when it’s time to speak up and fight.

Again, this book is about much more than racism and civil rights, but I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in social justice, Christian memoirs, or both.

 

Arts and Entertainment, Books, Race

Diversity and Christian Publishing

Diversity and Christian Publishing

So! I was in a discussion at what has become one of my favorite blogs, Diversity Between the Pages. The latest chat posed a question, asking why ethnically diverse Christian Fiction is so important. I’ve blogged about this topic before, and I wanted to post my answer from last Saturday’s discussion here, slightly edited to make more sense as a standalone post. 🙂

Among other good reasons for publishing more diverse books, I don’t think Christian publishing would want to fall on the wrong side of history.

By that, I mean like Crusaders who murdered people in the name of Christ in medieval times. Or unscrupulous Church leaders who contributed to the need for the Protestant Reformation. Or preachers in the U.S. who condoned and pushed for American slavery over the pulpit. I know those examples may sound like extreme comparisons to fiction publishing, but I believe the principle is comparable. In super-simplified and understated terms, when we don’t value humanity as we should, the legacy we leave isn’t too pretty.

The Bible speaks of those from “every tribe and tongue and people and nation” who were redeemed by Christ (Revelation 5:9, NASB). I think it’s important for Christian Fiction to reflect that kind of diversity—especially now, at a critical time when there’s a struggle and a fight going on for the rights, the dignity, and the very lives of people of color. We wouldn’t want Christian publishing’s legacy to be, “At that critical time, we still shied away from publishing diverse books because it didn’t make sense to us, money wise,” or “We didn’t think it was essential,” or “We discussed it but couldn’t get our ducks in a row to make it happen.”

Now, I’m not saying that Christian publishing is deliberately devaluing humanity. Or that no one in Christian publishing sees the seriousness of the time we’re living in. But I do think it’s important to consider the picture we’re painting that people will look at, years down the road. Will the books we’ve published indeed reflect that we value all humanity? What will the lens of history reveal about what we’ve produced—and what we haven’t?

Even as I’m mentioning “the wrong side of history,” I don’t think Christian publishing has to come at this from a negative angle, producing from a place of what we don’t want to be, or just trying not to paint a bad picture. But literature is a huge part of any crucial point or movement in history. How positive and powerful a message it would send should Christian Fiction become more dynamically diverse now!

And when I talk about Christian publishing, yeah, I’m including myself. There’s so much more writing and publishing I need to do.