“Period Typical Racism” – One kind of historical accuracy in fiction that I wish would go away

Want to throw me out of a story in no time flat?

Include “Period Typical Racism” in a book written after 1989.

(Seriously, I read one Miss Fisher book because it was recommended as a “feminist James Bond” and honestly, I’d’ve preferred to read Fleming’s James Bond books because at least I can go into them knowing that the guy was a racist misogynist.)

The thing about looking at and reinventing older genres like Noir and Gothic fiction, is that you have a duty to reinvent, not rely, on harmful tropes. It’s your job as a writer writing in the twenty-first century to take our century into context. It’s your job to look at what was written years ago and go “no, I won’t do that”.

It’s your job to be better than the writers who were working in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

If I’m reading a Raymond Chandler novel and he uses slurs to refer to Chinese people or African Americans, it’s not okay but it’s also the product of the time he lived. If I’m listening to an episode of The Shadow radioplay and Orson Welles says something about Indian people as exotic mysteries, I know I’m listening to something written in the mid-1930s.

That doesn’t make the works any less racist.

That doesn’t make them any less problematic.

But it does put the works into context because we know that even the “nice” people were prone to horribly dehumanizing racist comments in that time period.

To read a book written in 2015 that does that though? That’s inexcusable. Why? Because you’re not writing for or in an era where that’s acceptable. Your audience is (or should be) made up of people who value diversity and positive representation. From the second that you as an author in 2015 decide that “historical accuracy” (for some values of historical value) is more important than not having your hero be a racist typical to their period, you lose readers.

You lose me.

You lose anyone who doesn’t want to start reading a story and have the so-called hero of the piece deliver an internal commentary like:

“When he’d first partnered up with her, he’d had a strict rule: no Negro cases, even though she was one.”

You’re writing your story in 2015.

Not 1915.

No one’s going to root for your foray into historical accuracy if it comes at the expense of readers and characters of color. Readers of color aren’t going to ID with your hero if he’s referring to Black people as “Negroes”. We aren’t going to pat you on the bat for including this specific type of historical accuracy in a story where the Black female character you introduce is dead, killed before the story starts. And we’re not going to thank you for not using a harsher word.

Your job, the only job you really have as a writer outside of writing, is to keep your audience in mind. You’re supposed to keep their wants and needs in mind, focusing on what sells but also what won’t get you a scathing review from fans. You’re writing for a diverse world now and it’s your job, no matter what kind of fiction you’re writing, to recognize and represent that.

If the diversity you insert leaves readers of color and their enlightened allies reeling when they see the quote in or out of context, you’re doing it wrong. You’re doing it so wrong.

You don’t need to use slurs or stereotypes to denote the period you’re writing in and if you can’t write about the pre-Civil Rights era without it, maybe you shouldn’t be writing in that period.



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