Monday, July 20, 2009

Grappling with, and Portraying, Discrimination

This post was inspired in part by a comment on the Analog forum about how difficult it is to portray discrimination if you've never been subjected to it. In fact, I think that it's difficult to portray well even if you have been subjected to it.

The other source of inspiration is an epiphany I had about portraying discrimination in a story that I've already written, but which I was never fully happy with.

I'll start by talking about the experience of discrimination. I'm from the US, which means that ideologically I'm not supposed to value discrimination on any basis. On the other hand, I do recognize that it exists all around me. For one thing, I'm female, and while I've never been told by my own parents that I can't do something because I'm a girl, I've been told it in other contexts. Believe it or not, when I was a kid I got really ticked about the way boys could go shirtless and girls couldn't.

My experience of discrimination changed and sharpened when I went to live in Japan. Wow, was that interesting. The variety of reactions I got was quite remarkable. Here's a sample:
  • There were the people who asked to touch my hair.
  • There were the hairdressers who told me they couldn't help me because I had fluffy hair like a cat's.
  • There were the people who wouldn't sit next to me on the train, even though it was packed.
  • There were the people who didn't recognize that I was speaking Japanese until I addressed them directly, because they just couldn't believe Japanese would be coming out of a face like mine.
  • There were other people (fewer, fortunately) who never did recognize that I was speaking Japanese.
  • There were people who would praise my Japanese up and down, making sure to remark on how difficult Japanese was for foreigners - at first I found this nice, and later I realized that many people would say this for anyone who could put together a basic sentence, so it really ended up belittling all my work.
  • There were also people who told me I spoke Japanese "too well" and that it made them uncomfortable - I suppose because they wanted to keep it for themselves and they felt invaded by my skills.
I also got gender discrimination in Japan - probably less than a Japanese woman would, but at one point I was told that because I was attending Ochanomizu Women's University (where the government had chosen to place me) that I must be smart for a girl. I nearly went apoplectic.

I once had a five-minute argument with a male professor over a point of English language grammar, because he decided to expound an analysis that was incorrect before he gave me a chance to answer the question he'd asked me. And this wasn't linguistics stuff, folks - he asked me the function of the word "but" in a complex sentence. It took me a while to realize he wouldn't back down, and I was in trouble because I don't believe in capitulating to something I think is incorrect, so I just said I couldn't agree with him and sat down. The girls in the class were open-mouthed at my audacity; the professor never spoke to me again. I am not proud of this, in fact, because it shows me that I'd missed some critical cues to the social situation.

I spent a lot of years learning to understand Japanese culture and social context, but I never learned to find it easy. As my husband says, "The good thing about being a foreigner in Japan is that you never get treated like you're Japanese. The bad thing is, you never get treated like you're Japanese."

The experience was an eye-opener, for sure. I've only started to scratch the surface with the things I've mentioned here.

For the purposes of writing fiction, I would begin by making the following observation: discrimination is complex. It is pervasive, and it has many different faces, all of which will show themselves in the relevant contexts. Even people's attempts to be nondiscriminatory in one way can show their bias indirectly in other ways. And even though I resent bias, I understand that I hold many biases myself, subconsciously.

If you want to show discrimination in your world, it's not enough to show people calling one another names. That's the obvious one - and you can do it, but you should also try to push beyond it into the overall picture of how a society marginalizes one group of people. Explore the limits of how your people define "self" and its value, and how they define "other." All the nuances of these definitions will make themselves felt in different social contexts.

I've dealt with this in more than one of my stories. Cold Words definitely deals with questions of superiority, inferiority, and the perception of discrimination between people. I also deal with this a lot in Varin, which has a complex caste structure with seven different levels.

My recent epiphany had to do with Varin, and in particular with my main character in one of the novels, a girl called Meetis. Meetis is a subversive (if not a revolutionary) because she chooses to look beyond the easy caste-based definitions of people and try to fathom their motives; she believes that people have common human characteristics in spite of caste. Here's the problem: this view of hers appears to be quite normal to many modern Americans. Thus, when I began the story with her, she appeared to be rather insipid and I was never able to get fully in touch with what her subversive character would be. Now, I'm thinking about it differently, and I won't be starting her part in the story until three or four chapters in.

The trick is to set up the context of discrimination first. To show the blatant abuse, to show the subtleties of labeling while visiting the POV of characters who are not at all like Americans. Once I can get that moving in all of its multidimensional horrible qualities, then when she shows up on the scene, her views will stand in contrast to what I've established as the norm. And now that I'm thinking about it in these terms, I'm starting to see how hard Meetis has had to work to maintain her views - the pressure she's been under to change, even within her own loving family, and the fierceness with which she must hold her beliefs because she knows precisely how dangerous they are.

Are any of you dealing with discrimination issues? I'd love to hear about it.

I will also note that on Wednesday night I'll be leaving for two and a half weeks in Australia. During that time I should have internet access, but I'm not sure how much blogging I'll be able to do. I'll be back here in California - and seriously jetlagged - on August 10th.