An experiment, and a discussion question

Okay, I’m going to have a little experiment here for my readers. First, I’d like you all to read this paragraph:

I saw someone today while I was out shopping. This person was tall, with brown hair, and was carrying a sack. I really liked the red shirt the person was wearing.

Okay, now that you’ve read the paragraph, the experiment is to think about the person the narrator saw. Try to imagine the person. Get a good picture of the person in your head.

Now, apply the following statements to the person you’ve imagined:

This person is overweight.
This person is black.
This person is female.

Did any of those statements surprise you?

One of the annoying things about language is that implied meanings can work against openmindedness.

Don’t get me wrong–I think implicature is great, and loads of fun. But sometimes when we say things, there are underlying assumptions that are unfair, and often accepted unconsciously as normal.

For example, when I say “a man flirted with me,” and give no further information, what do you imagine? I have realized that I automatically imagine a white person.

It happens that I have been flirted with by two black men in recent months. The first time was in December, and the second time was today.

The first guy in that story from December–the one who just rode by after exchanging normal pleasantries–was white, and the second guy–the one who hit on me–was black. I realized as I was framing the story that if I stated that, I would be inadvertently making some sort of statement. So I chose not to state their races at all.

This morning’s story is much the same. What is the point of saying that the older gentleman–with a winning smile, twinkling eyes, and a salt-and-pepper patchy beard–happened to have dark skin?

Bringing it up now seems to imply something about me and black men, too, which is unfair.

But it bothers me that these men lose their identities if I don’t identify them as being black. How many of my readers share my unconscious prejudice? How many will see “a man” and think “a white man” without realizing it?

There seems to be no ideal solution to this. It occurred to me that rather than omitting race information completely, I could simply add it for everyone. However, I can’t just go along and say stuff like “my white friend, Brooke” and “my Puerto Rican friend, Mari”, because that is just inherently racist-sounding. It’s like I’m labeling everyone so that the readers will know which set of preconceptions to use when thinking about the people I write about. :P A better way might simply be to describe people physically–for example, the man this morning would become “an older gentleman, his smile a flash of white and gold in a dark, lined face”. That’s harder to do, and it still doesn’t completely escape the race labeling, but it might be the best option.

What does everyone else think? Is race information part of a person’s identity? Think back to the experiment at the beginning of this post. Do most people have a “base template” for “a person”, which is then modified by extra information? Do you have one? My base template, I’m coming to realize, is a white male at a healthy weight, with a full head of hair. What’s yours?

I realize that this is a touchy subject, so it might be embarrassing to share your preconceptions. Please don’t feel obligated to respond at all. But I really am interested in hearing some other opinions on this.

1 comment

  1. Original comments from Blogger:

    Sam said…

    To answer the basic question, no. None of the modifiers were surprising. The reason for this, I think, is that the basic description didn’t provide enough information to build a mental picture of. So the resulting “good picture” was actually rather fuzzy and subject to change with additional information.

    The real question here,”Is it important to the tale you are trying to tell?” Nothing else matters. No matter how hard you try you can never convey the identity of another person with words. So you shouldn’t try. You should convey only enough to support or flavor your story.


    Picture an Elizabeth;
    Picture an Elizabeth II;
    Make it Queen Elizabeth II of the Star Kingdom of Manticore.

    Got a picture? I suspect you may, but it’s not a rock solid picture, is it? But it’s good enough for duty. The Hero of the tale is one of the Queen’s Officers on one of Queen’s ship’s dealing ship-like stuff. All that you need to know to support the story is that there IS a Queen.

    Perhaps one, or perhaps 2 books later we are introduced to a cousin of the Queen (I don’t recall all of this with perfect clairity). I think, but this point a few sailent facts about the Queen have come out.

    She is relatively young (Her father was killed when she was 16, a skiing “accident”)
    She is married, and Hot tempered.
    She is black.

    Most of this information is not important to understanding the stories as they play out. You only learn that the Queen is black because the hero observes that the friend (the queen’s cousin) closely resembles the Queen. The hero, who is white notes in a rueful and mildly jealous manner. Our hero has often envied her friend’s looks.

    Oh, did I forget to mention the hero was a woman? If I did, it’s because knowing that she is a woman didn’t help to illustrate my point, until just now. Knowing the “race” of the friend and of the Queen is unimportant except as a means of illustrating that “race’ is no longer an issue in the future world of the story. That fact that Queen Elizabeth II, House Winton SKM is black is aboult as important to the story as the exact number of times she skinned her knees as a child. Which is to say, not very. The information serves to give you a small insight, but nothing more.

    So ask yourself this: does the race of the men measurably alter the way you feel about the encounters? Had they been white, would you feel differently? Hispanic? Mongol?

    If so, then it becomes somehat more important, as by describing the person’s race and the emotional cantent and context that it had for your, you help set the scene for the reader.

    If not, then it’s not relevant, and in fact it is counter productive. If the race of the man is unimportant to you, it does not follow that it is unimportant to all of your readers. For those readers to really see the ride from your perspective, they need to be able to imagine the man as somone who would flatter them. Further information isn’t required.

    Until you start second guessing youself :?
    Friday, April 01, 2005 10:12:00 AM

    Heather Meadows said…

    That is an interesting point!

    I think I was looking at it from my OCD archivist perspective, in which I want to portray everything as truthfully and completely as possible. The storyteller’s perspective is far more liberating, isn’t it?

    Any other opinions?
    Friday, April 01, 2005 12:52:00 PM

    AJ said…

    I think Sam spoke well, though I also believe he deviated from the original question just a bit. I think what you were basically asking is whether or not it is fair to these two black men to be labeled as “men” in your post, based on your asumption (and it’s likely correct) that anyone else reading your journal would automatically figure that you’re talking about white guys.

    What you’re asking, far as I see it, is whether or not it is fair to blacks to write about them in such a way as to take away their “blackness”. Or at least let others assume they are white.

    You know, the movements to make all men equal, and that includes women too (of course. ;D) have caused a lot of confusion despite what they’ve helped. For instance, if black and white are equal, then why does it matter if you just call them simply a “man”?

    Further, the movements – with the special weeks, months, days, for celebrating black heritage have pushed a lot of people to think that while a white man is a “man”, we must go the extra mile to celebrate the heritage of the “black” man. The history of the blacks must not be forgotten, and in this, we must be sure to not only accept them as equals, but (and though this sounds insane, it’s basically the truth) recognize them as different.

    Way I see it, you wanted just what you said – to recognize them not as black or white, but as men. Because whether it’s a black man or a white man, it’s still a man, and the compliments paid to you are worth just as much no matter whom they come from.

    And then you got to thinking – are you somehow “holding them down” (sorry. ;>) because you aren’t letting us all know their color?

    Maybe? Maybe not? The real questions here are these:

    “Why on earth do we feel confused over these sorts of situations?”

    “If it was two black men or two white men, wouldn’t that have come out in the post?”

    “And when you have one of each, why does it feel awkward to say one or the other?”

    There’s two reasons that I can put my finger on. First is because of racism. Because it’s been passed down so long among whites (and blacks) that in the back of our minds we make these preconceptions that lead us to think of “man” as “white man” (or the opposite for blacks).

    And the second is because of the way we’ve had these movements push us in directions beyond simple “acceptance”. They make those of us that strive for unity wonder if enough is enough. When enough is enough. How can we live our lives and say our piece without discrediting those that are minorities?

    If you ask me, it’s simply a product of what those in our history did, and the constant striving to make things right – when sometimes it might just be better to remember that we aren’t our ancestors, and you know what? We don’t owe anyone anything for shit we didn’t do. Let’s just all be people.

    Until that actually happens – when racism is finally gone, and those people vying for human rights realize they’re further isolating their special interests rather than mending fences – I guess we’ll forever be stuck in this rut.

    If you ever worry what we’ll think of you for anything, just explain it from the get go – that’s the best way to avoid feeling like you did.

    And if you want to make a statement about your view on race, then maybe that could further show us, the readers, your own opinion of the way people are.

    Anyway, I’ve rambled enough. I think somewhere along the way I started losing sight of my coherancy. ;>
    Friday, April 01, 2005 3:40:00 PM

    audra meighan said…

    Your point is as eloquent as it is scary.

    Instead of responding to it directly, I’m led to think about my own personal biases.

    For example, when someone talks to me about Jesus, God, or a Saint, I always picture them as white–like me. I met a girl in college who, as a child, was shown a picture of Jesus as a white man and she contested that he wasn’t white. She was five. It never even occurred to me to think of the holy family as non-caucasians because all the depictions I had been surrounded with in the Catholic church Mary, Joseph and Jesus as white.

    I guess what I’m saying is, even information that many people take for granted or assume can be different when filtered through someone else’s pre-conceived ideas.
    Friday, April 01, 2005 4:10:00 PM

    AJ said…

    Audra put down exactly what I was searching for that entire time. Instead of all that “past racism”, which still is a possibility, it is most certainly about preconcieved notions based upon what we saw and what we heard when growing up. When someone says, “Yes, I worship God. She takes care of me.” That always makes me start. “SHE?”

    The fact that Jesus was pictured as a caucasian is just one of the many things we’ve seen without even realizing as we get older.

    Of course, what all this does boil down to is that no one, at any time, is going to grow up the same. We’re always going to have our own ideas of what this was or what that was, and that trickles down into race as well as it does anything else.

    I’m not going to enter into a religious debate, of course, because then I’d deviate entirely too far from your original question.

    But yes, Audra spoke true. It isn’t just racism as one factor – it’s an evolution of what our fathers and forefathers and ancient forefathers thought, knew, and even assumed. All that trickles down into our perception.

    So let’s change the first of my two points to the sum of “that”, but I’m still sticking with the other – I stand by it 100%. We are being told to be fair and to be equal so much so that we second guess even how we look at a minority as compared to another white person.

    In my honest opinion, I don’t think either of the gentlemen that could have gotten their heads blown off by your baby brother if they’d done more than shoot off their mouths (;D) would be just fine with being known in your blog as “men”.
    Friday, April 01, 2005 9:35:00 PM

    AJ said…

    Bastard. Let me say that right.

    In my honest opinion, I think that both of those gentlemen that could have gotten their heads blown off by your baby brother if they’d done more than shoot off their mouths (;D) would be just fine with being known in your blog as “men”.
    Friday, April 01, 2005 9:37:00 PM

    Heather Meadows said…

    That’s what you get for trying to use complex sentences!
    Saturday, April 02, 2005 8:48:00 AM

    mari said…

    I feel that racially based descriptions are quite fine and somewhat necessary when describing someone for the first time if you’re going into their physical description at all. It would be different if you were talking to someone who was yor friend or who you had known for awhile. Racial characteristics are a part of physical description, period. There is no getting around that and when you are describing a stranger how much more details do you know about them really other than their physical description? Its only when you get to know a person that you can describe beyond the physical. Thats my two cents anyways.
    Wednesday, April 06, 2005 10:47:00 PM

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