I'm reading "Blink" by Malcolm Gladwell. I find it profoundly insightful and thought-provoking, partly because I am a self-obsessed creature and love to relate everything psychological and sociological to yours truly.
"Blink" is about how our underlying prejudices affect our decision-making processes, for better or for worse. Chapter Three talks about how we associate visual appearances, such as race and gender, with intangible traits, such as beauty, goodness, valor, intelligence, etc. One of the illustrative examples Gladwell uses is the Implicit Association Test (IAT).
The IAT is the kind of thing that makes educated white Americans squirm. We KNOW that we're all supposed to treat everyone equally, but unless you have your head up your ass, you also know that you're bombarded, day-in/day-out, with subtly denigrating impressions of black Americans, especially black men. And if you have any self-awareness at all, you feel it changing you. I know I do.
I grew up in an almost completely white environment. My neighborhood was all-white. When I started first grade there was one Vietnamese girl in my class; the first black kid joined us in the fourth grade. And I didn't think anything about any of it--positive or negative. My parents were naturally egalitarian, without making a big deal about it. Once I heard the old man next door say "nigger" and when I asked my mom about it, she told me what it meant and added, nice people didn't use it––her stock response for any profanity or blasphemy. There was no political message, ergo I never got a sense of other races being "other," if that makes any sense.
I don't think learned there was a "difference" between black and white people until I was in college and started to learn about political correctness. (Some would probably call this white privilege, and I suppose it is, but can you blame a fish for not noticing it's wet?) Suddenly there was a lot of talk about what it "meant" to be black and "sensitivity" toward blacks. And that made me extra "sensitive," too––suddenly I was afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing, where before my natural tendency was to adapt my speech and mannerisms to the person I was speaking with. We all do it, it's called code switching, but suddenly I worried it was the wrong thing to do.
In college I started to notice myself becoming wary around young black men. Not because they were black, but because they were young men (hooray for rape awareness!), and more aggressive than the white guys in our tiny college. Black and Latino guys hit on me all the time. White guys were intimidated by me. My sister later told me it was the same for her--apparently the women in my family tend to have attitude, and black guys can handle that better than the white boys--or so she was told by an admirer.
Years ago, before Trace and Boz, I wrote a story featuring a sort of love-triangle, but not in the competitive sense--three friends, two of whom were involved romantically, and another man who was their comrade-in-arms and shared a special bond with each, independent of the others. There was a save-the-world plot, and there was the romantic subplot (much like Harry, Hermione, and Ron). But the "third wheel" in my story happened to be a black man. And one of my beta readers took it upon herself to tear down the whole story and the whole character as a racist stereotype, "the black character who has nothing to do except worry about the white folk's problems."
I honestly had no idea what she was talking about. Someone actually had to explain to me about the Mammy archetype in old Hollywood movies. I had never been exposed to it, so it certainly wasn't an influencing factor in the characters I constructed. I still call bullshit on that reader's critique. If the character had been white, she might have legitimately said that the character wasn't given enough to do in that particular volume (he had a much bigger role in the first and third installments), but because he was described as black she took the cheap shot. #jealousbitch.
As my Chinese kung-fu master once said to the homeless black guy who asked him for money, "How do you know I'm a racist? You just met me."
I saw this thing on Jezebel today about bigoted idiots complaining about The Hunger Games movie and the casting of black actors in certain roles. Haven't read the books myself, but the trailer caught at my heartstrings. When I caught a glimpse of the tiny big-eyed girl playing the character I now know is Rue, tears sprang to my eyes, because I knew right away that tiny beautiful girl was going to die a horrible unjust death in the name of Plot Point.
I knew, because that's exactly the kind of thing I'd do to my characters.