I’m going to talk about racism today.
I promise, it’s relevant to the title. And to writing, even.
It’s easy (for some of us) to turn racism into an abstract discussion. To forget that there are real people being affected. To downplay how severe the chasm of reason runs amongst white supremacists.
So I’m going to ask you to watch this video. Right now. You don’t need the sound on, it’s subtitled. Just take a moment and do that before proceeding, please*.
Now sit and think about what you just heard. “I’m not racist! Really, I’m not!”
I’ll admit, I actually hope that after they turned the camera off, the interviewer hauled off and decked that idiot halfway into next week. I’m sure he didn’t. But it’s a nice fantasy.
Humans. Are. Fucking. Stupid. We grab on to what the people around us say, gather in disparate bits and pieces of data like frantic magpies, and rest comfortable in our nest of righteousness.
When writing, this is important. Human beings will contradict themselves every other sentence and insist that they’re being rational and you’re the one being unreasonable. If everything your characters do is well-thought out and perfect, and the people around them are operating on a Spock-like plane of rationality: I’m sorry to say, that story, especially these days, is going to fall flat as a pancake without leavener. Yes, even in a science fiction story.
Mind you, there still needs to be internal support for the stupid decisions, even if it’s a random mishmash of nonsense. “We need folks who will contribute to our country! Well, no, I’m not contributing right now, but, well, I’m different. I was born here.”
Humans. Are. Fucking. Stubborn. We do not like to change our minds if that change carries any risk whatsoever of causing us hurt–whether that be the shame of realizing we fucked up, or putting us in conflict with our families, or literal physical harm.
We will literally throw someone else into direct harm’s way to avoid feeling the least bit of discomfort ourselves, and when they get injured we’ll pronounce that they jumped into harm’s way all on their own and we had absolutely nothing to do with their injuries.
Humans. Are. Fucking. Petty. We will punish those causing us to question our self-image with disproportionate vengeance. We poison each other’s pets. We spray paint hateful symbols on churches. We key someone’s car. We take great joy in coming up with new insults for those we disagree with.
I’m absolutely certain at least some of you watched that video and had the thought in the back of your mind: That clearly didn’t happen in my country. It was in–something something elsewhere–far away from me! They’re not like me over there, it’s much more–something something horrible–and of course if I heard someone spouting such nonsense I’d do–something something righteous indignation–well, I’d stop it on the spot.
How am I positive of that? Because it went through my mind. (I was watching for that reaction and stared it down when it started; I’ll continue scratching it apart until it’s de-fanged.)
I’ve been very deliberate in using we throughout this post. The points made apply to all of us.
No matter how well-scrubbed our brains might be, there are going to be corners we missed. Otherwise, we’d literally be saints.
Put another way: we live in a world and in a time when racism, prejudice, misogyny, and fanaticism might as well be in the air we breathe. If the ambient society says, repeatedly, that this is a bad thing, these are untrustworthy people, god is one our side but not on the side of those folks over there–when we hear that from the cradle onwards–it gets internalized, and it becomes normal.
When society shifts and those core statements are challenged, overturned, shown to be flawed, it triggers us into being stupid, stubborn, and petty. When we’ve been taught from day one, for example, that homosexuality is deeply wrong, and things shift to where we’re forced to listen to gay activism on (what probably feels like) a daily basis, it hurts. “When we’re hurt, we lash out” is a default human setting, but it can be changed–as long as you admit that it’s there in the first place, and decide it’s not something you want to keep.
Refer to points one through three again. We don’t want to admit that we might be wrong. Whether it’s racism or misogyny or ageism or ableism or some other prejudice, I fucking guarantee there is something, right here, right now, that you’re not willing to risk discovering you’re wrong about.
Here’s a question. Are you searching through this post, as you read, right now, to see if you can argue that nothing here actually applies to you personally?
Think about it.
Now look at the characters in your fictional stories. How would they react to being challenged on their core beliefs? How would they react to their world being upended, even if that’s as small-scale a matter as finding out that the neighbor they’ve trusted for years is actually a cat burglar, or that their boyfriend is cheating on them?
If they react with complete logic and reason, you’ve created a robot, not a person.
People. Are. Fucking. Stupid.
People. Are. Fucking. Stubborn.
People. Are. Fucking. Petty.
Even the good ones.
Be a writer. Write it.
*Oh, and please, if you’re not already doing so, follow DeRay McKesson on Twitter. He’s worth listening to.