Questions to Ask Yourself Before Writing About a Race or Gender That Is Not Your Own

In light of the recent New York Times article on Shonda Rhimes, here are some questions to ask yourself before writing about things you don't know about.

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Complex Original

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Has Alessandra Stanley seen any black people outside of TV?

Sorry—that lede was rude. Perhaps that rudeness is just the result of a recent lede that Stanley, a critic for the New York Times, wrote in a piece about Shonda Rhimes. “Wrought in Their Creator’s Image: Viola Davis Plays Shonda Rhimes’ Latest Tough Heroine” opens with this zinger: "When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called 'How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.' "

Criticism began rolling out almost immediately, centering on the fact that Stanley, a white woman, had failed to realize that this line (and so many others) played on stereotypes that African-Americans have long been victims of, namely the "angry black woman (or man)."

When a writer tackles a subject that deals with a race or gender that is not their own, there's extra pressure to not screw up. Tell your own story wrong and people might quietly pity you, but tell someone else something untrue about their life and experience, and you will not get away with it. Talking about race and gender is a necessary and important part of our culture, but if you're about to take your thoughts online answer the following questions before you hit publish:

First, do your descriptions of the person you're writing about align closely with stereotypes?


Would you feel uncomfortable reading what you wrote aloud?


Are you writing about individuals of a race or gender that you have little connection with?


Do you have experience in discussing or writing about that race/culture/gender already, in college or the like? Are you familiar with the related literature?


The last time you discussed that race or gender, did your audience react negatively?


Would mere acquaintances  of that race or gender be offended?


Have you used adjectives like "sassy" or "volcanic" or "bossy"?


Would anyone at the Westboro Baptist Church agree with you?


Do you sound like you're quoting lines from the Glory script? 


Might you be arriving at your conclusion because you've been conditioned to think that these stereotypes are facts?


Would the world be a better place if you had just kept these thoughts to yourself?


And finally, a question just for the fellas: Is your dick talking right now?  


If you've answered "yes" to, well, any of the above questions, hold that thought! Now, go and make some new friends.

Thanks for playing!

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