Friday, April 5, 2013

Otherization in Lit & Life

We've had conversations before on this blog and on Twitter about readers' tendency to assume characters they're reading about are the same ethnicity as them unless the author specifically states otherwise.  There was an uproar last year when a character in Hunger Games was clearly described as having brown skin and was cast as such.  Some of mainstream (and by mainstream, I mean white) America was upset and took to Tumblr and other social media sites to complain because they thought Rue was white.  Some went so far as to say that they cried when she died in the book, but couldn't work up any emotion over her dying in the movie because, "she was just a black girl." Why would they have thought this even though the author described her?   They probably skimmed over the fact and in their mind, she looked like them.  The idea that a character or person that doesn't look like them is not what they perceive as the norm, and is somehow less than human or a different kind of human, is what I call otherization.

Columbus Short
Otherization happens not only in the literary world, but in the media and every day life.  I was reading a book this week where the author felt the need to describe a bartender as "a big black guy." His ethnicity played no part in how he served drinks.  And, in this instance, that's all he did.  The character had no lines.  His blackness didn't make the drinks taste any better.   But, for some reason, the author thought readers needed to know that a BIG black man was making drinks at a bar.

Type in "big black guy" on Google and 771,000,000 results pop up.  If you've lived as a black person in America, you already know that "big black guy" is supposed to be code for "oh my God, he was so scary and I thought he was going to kill/rape/maim me."  The reality is, more than likely, said big black guy is under 5'9" and weighs 180 lbs. soaking wet, if that much. How scary and menacing does Columbus Short (and praise God for him!) look at 5'10"?

Think I'm exaggerating the tendency to otherize people? Look at all of the instances where white people, in real life not in some book, have conveniently blamed incidents on big, black guys, only to recant their statements after the police have rounded up every black man in the area and harassed them.  Remember Susan Smith, the woman who killed her kids because they didn't fit the plans she had with a new boyfriend? She sat on national TV begging for the big, black guy that stole her children to return them.  Remember Ashley Todd?  During the 2008 presidential election, she falsely claimed that a big, black guy mugged her AND scratched a B on her face for Barack Obama.  Why did these women think they could blame their attacks on black men and not be questioned for it? Because the media and America have bought into the belief that big, black guy equals trouble.  And that's boiled over into literature.

I read to escape the every day world.  I don't read to make social statements.  When the every day BS of the world creeps into what I'm reading, it's a problem.  Now here's your homework, the next book you read, I want you to note how often characters of color have their race mentioned and whether or not it plays into the typical stereotypes (e.g., sassy black woman, submissive Asian woman, etc.).  Then I want you to note how many white characters are described by their race and/or stereotypes.  Listen the next time your friends or co-workers tell a story that involves people of color and note whether or not they mention the race of that person to describe the story and whether or not it's relevant.  I bet some of you will be surprised.  Not me.

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