Writing Advice on Microaggressions

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On to today’s topic: Writing advice, and microaggressions.

What’s a microaggression? Here’s a good primer. Basically, it’s all the very minor bigotry that people casually use toward marginalized groups of people. It’s usually not overtly hostile, and often unintended as harmful. But, as you probably know, intent doesn’t matter when it comes to harm. As a writer, dealing with microaggressions is touchy, especially when you’re not part of the marginalized group you’re writing about. For example, I’m bisexual, but I’m white and a cisgender male. I find it very easy t write about microaggressions that people use toward bisexual people, but it’s harder to write about microaggressions toward nonwhite people, trans people, or women. I’m even pretty good at catching them when I see them; it’s just that they’re not so ubiquitous for me that they’re second nature to write about. If I’m writing about microaggressions toward bisexuals, that’s easy—I just write what I deal with on a daily basis. I can straight crib the bullshit I put up with. So I’m not going to touch on how I write about microaggressions I deal with, but ones I don’t deal with.

Before I talk about how I write microaggressions, let me frame this with a really short story. I live in Japan. I love Japan. I love my home. But, it’s no secret that Japan has a complex relationship with foreigners. Sometimes I face a little racial ignorance. It’s not but a tiny fraction of what non-white people in America face, though. However, in Japan, not all foreigners are equal. I was at a meeting with a few other people. The leader of the event was Japanese, and fluent in English. One of my associates was a Sri Lankan woman, likewise fluent in English.

We began discussing food, and eating arrangements. I didn’t get a single question. In fact, the facilitator overlooked me and asked my associate if she’d have any trouble eating the foods we have available. She said she’d have no trouble. The facilitator asked if she was sure. She said yes. The facilitator then said that the food is not halal, and asked if that would be a problem. She said it’d be no problem. The facilitator asked if she was sure she’d be okay with eating non-halal food. Literally four questions about the same topic, and any given answer should have sufficed. My associate, put on the spot and singled out, was embarrassed. I had to interrupt and tell the facilitator that she’s not Muslim so it won’t be a problem—I knew this from a previous conversation with her. The facilitator acknowledged me, thanked me, then dropped the question. Because in this case, I was a white man, I was immediately respected where she was second-guessed over and over. My statement about her religious preference carried more weight than her own answers.

During a later part of the meeting, we were writing material for group consumption on a white board. I noticed a glaring spelling issue in part of my material, and I was also working off the wrong topic. I was also relatively sloppy—I’m not very good at writing on boards. My mistakes were overlooked. When my associate beautifully executed her material, the facilitators spent more than ten minutes criticizing her handwriting, saying that it was unreadable and not proper English because some of the half-sized letters were too big. Mind you, my letters were easily as bad and probably worse than hers, but as an American native, they trust my facility with the language more than they trust her. They also had her repeat a few presented pieces because of her accent, which they described as “impossible to understand.” She has a lovely British English accent which is no more or less English than my Southern California drawl.

This was all meant with the best of intentions. They didn’t mean to embarrass her. They didn’t mean to make her uncomfortable, or put her in an inferior position. But, they did. I cannot imagine someone treating me like that—it wouldn’t happen. Those were microaggressions.

Start By Stop Writing Microaggressions 

If you want to get good at writing microaggressions you don’t deal with on a daily basis, you have stop accidentally and unintentionally writing them. If you haven’t examined this in your writing, you probably do it. When writing about people that don’t look like you or fit your cultural identity, you may unintentionally belabor unnecessary points. For example, if I was writing my Sri Lankan associate in a novel, I might be tempted to explain and describe her accent. I wouldn’t, however, explain other English speakers’, as I would presume their English was “the default.” That’s a microaggression toward people like her. It’s a tiny, easy-to-overlook way of othering them. You often find this sort of thing with skin colors written by white authors. Some authors liken non-white characters to food, which is very weird and dehumanizing. I even wrote a piece about that topic.

Having a beta reader who is sensitive to these topics is one good way to avoid these problems. However, no beta reader will be able to catch everything, and everyone walks in with their own prejudices. Also, it puts the onus on that beta reader to do your social due diligence. Often I find writers fall back on beta readers as a shield. “I had a black beta reader who would have caught it if it was racist.” Um, no. That’s not how it works. And it’s ultimately your responsibility as the author, not the beta reader’s. Your name’s on that cover.

Instead of relying on your beta readers (which are super valuable, mind you,) you should comb your draft for descriptive references which are ultimately irrelevant and only seek to describe the way characters are superficially different. Readers are clever, and will imagine how characters might look or sound based on their backgrounds and contexts. Instead of telling me about your Sri Lankan character’s accent, add some depth to the character. Add context. Show me who she is, and why that matters. In the end, does her accent add anything of value to the story that the specifics of her cultural identity won’t do better?

Now You Can Consider Writing Them Intentionally

So really, the difference here is that you want to avoid microaggressions as the writer, but you can use them within the narrative as a storytelling tool. To avoid things like racism, sexism, and bigotry is a choice you can make, but if you’re trying to present a realistic world, minor issues like microaggressions can go a long way without being too overbearing. But you really need two things to make microaggressions in the narrative work. The first is context, and the second is introspection or examination.

By context, I mean that the microaggression needs to be contextually sound, and serve a function. Just throwing slurs and random hostility into your book is going to fall flat, and reek of the kind of edgy nonsense that won’t attract anyone sensitive to these issues. If I see racism in a book that doesn’t serve to build upon the narrative framework, if it just seems to exist to shock or paint villains as villains, that story’s going to fall flat on me. I’ll likely put it down. It’s not that it’s “offensive,” or anything like that, but it’s just fucking tiring.

My favorite example of this is in the film Guardians of the Galaxy. If you’re familiar, at one point Drax calls Gamora a “green whore.” Drax’s single most important driving character element is his pure literalism. He is very blunt, very direct, and very honest. And, frankly, Gamora isn’t a sex worker. It’s completely out of character for him. Sure, James Gunn backpedaled a bit to explain it. But, the line still falls hard and flat because it completely ignores the narrative context to score some shock points. If you squint hard enough, it works. But you shouldn’t have to justify it, and it turned off a lot of viewers.

By introspection, I mean that as a writer, you need to explore what it means. If a character suffers a microaggression, or if a character commits a microaggression, you should approach it as a valuable part of your story. After all, if you put a gun in act one, you should fire it in act three, right? Microaggressions are tiny guns. If you can’t come up with how they matter, maybe they don’t. Maybe you should consider omitting them. Sometimes, “it says something about the character” is enough. But in most cases, we already know enough about the character that the microaggression is just piling it on.

And remember, writing advice is a dildo. Not every dildo works for every person, or every encounter. This is just how I do things, and it may not work for you.

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