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Does this come across as racist? Or, as it is intended, as an explanation of a misunderstanding?

When Beta readers read this they questioned Anthony, the social worker, being black and Cat's reaction to him. They suggested I made him white because otherwise the piece comes over as being racist. However, what I am trying to explain is the Cat (a country woman) is alone in London which she doesn't know, and has been scared by various things in her surroundings and so assumes he is a drug dealer partly becuase he is black. I hope this is all explained and resolved in the piece but maybe I am wrong.

Could I ask what other people think? The piece is 700 words long.

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    • Hi there Georgina it is a lovely piece of writing but yes sorry I believe it does, 

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      • Thanks Caron, is that because she shows an ingrained racism or because the piece does?

        What I am trying to do, and I actually do try this in various ways in all my books, is to show that when people first come across something new they are often scared by it and react in a feral way.

        Intellectually Cat is a liberal, but her instincts for survival lead her to react as though Anthony is her enemy, when in fact he is so much her friend that he came out of the house, where he is with her daughter, to protect her.

        He is quite an important character in the book later on.

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      • She is. It isn't.

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        • Thank you. It looks from people's reactions as though I have quite stressed her shame enough. Is that how you see it?

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          • Sorry that should read: have not stressed her shame enough. Is that how you read it?

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          • Hi Georgina, Thank you for posting this. It's clear why Cat reacts as she does, but it's presented in a 'telly' way. As a result, for me, the  text reads at times like a pamphlet, as though you wanted to demonstrate something.

            I assume that it must be important that the man be black for some reason connected with who Cat is, but I don't know why.  I recognise from my own experience that's it difficult to account for all this in an excerpt.

            Unfortunately, I have little time, so I've taken the liberty of inserting comments directly in the ms. Normally, I wouldn't do this without asking you first, and I hope that you won't mind.

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            • Hi Georgina, I think it comes across as you intended. I'll add that I'm white and won't necessarily pickup up on unintentional messages. It's highly likely I'm not be as well informed as your Beta readers.

              When I moved from London to a rural area in the early nineties, I noticed how many people were afraid of going to London even though it's within standard commuting distance (and many people do commute). The combination of a complicated transport system and the belief that Londoners were too unfriendly to help a stranger were huge barriers to going there unless you went as part of a coach trip. I also noticed how extremely racist rural people could be.

              With all Cat's ongoing anxieties about her daughter I can see how she'd be nervous about everything. She comes across as fraught and inexperienced in a situation that's making her more paranoid than she'd normally be. The possibility of being asked a question when in London can be worrying if you think it will show up that you're a stranger and therefore vulnerable to any trick anyone wants to play on you. I think you've caught the perceptions of a well-meaning, anxious woman of 25 years ago who realises the mistake she's made and is very embarrassed. 

              I wasn't convinced that the social worker would behave in the way you portray him. I imagine he would know exactly why Cat was behaving as she does and wouldn't laugh as he'd know that could be taken as aggression. In my imagination of the scene he'd smile to reassure her but perhaps would also look sad or tired - or just something you as author could note for the reader even if Cat misses it. He'd also be well aware of the impression a large dog can have on someone nervous and how dogs have been used to control people, especially people from minorities. The dog didn't feel like a realistic character, as it were.

              I don't know if this helps or not. At best it may break the scene down so that you can ask more questions of someone knowledgeable such as sensitivity reader.

              As a general writing comment, the scene is pacey but currently tells a lot when, for me, it would be better to show more. I felt some sentences could be deleted, such as "Or is this it? .. the verge of hysterical giggling." In a moment of tension for Cat, less might be more.

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              • I was going to comment that the set up for the encounter was a bit over the top. Why would this social worker just ask someone in the street if they were-whoever-. Did you provide a good indicator that they maybe that person?. The dog is provocative. There will need to a conversation/dialogue that clarifies, Cat owning her response, Cat gaining insight into her clearly racist response. The social worker's experience of her response, how they felt about it and so on. Racism must be discussed and literature is a good place to do it. Open it up.

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                • Thanks. Yes, I absolutely agree that literature is a good place to discuss issues but I can see I need to be careful how I do it. I don't want to upset anyone or make things worse. It might well be a good idea for me to get them to talk about everything a little longer. Thank you I am pondering again.

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                  • The extra information you've given is helpful. Anthony is going to be an important character and you'll have time to sort out some of these questions on the page through the characters' own conversations and thoughts (as you say to Daggilarr below) and in your own thinking off the page.

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                  • Yes it does. At least you describe the reaction of someone’s ingrained racism. 

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                    • Thank you. What I was trying to do was show how her initial reaction to Anthony (who later becomes an important character in the book) is very much the result of her country upbringing at a time (she was born in 1961) when there were no black people in the UK countryside. And that there are indeed people who think 'scared'.

                      But what I don't want people to do is think that I am condoning racism. I rather wanted to make it a possible discussion in the book. I realise this is a very sensitive subject but I wanted my book to show all the people who populate the country and not just make it look as though the country is unicolour. 

                      Do you think it shows that, or just comes across as a bit of loose racist prose?

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                    • I didn't think so. I mean the MC appears to have been racist, but that doesn't make the writing racist. It is what happened and where your MC's mind went, and MC's aren't always  (sheesh they shouldn't be) perfect. Is this what you meant?

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                      • Yes, this is absolutely what I meant. She has lots of journey to go through in this and several other problems. Thank you.

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                        • lol I just 'liked' my own comment meaning to like yours.... I'm not that big headed! I swear! The fact she recognises her own failings suggests she's trying to do better.... I like that :) Very relatable (not in the racism sense... I mean in general)

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                          • 🤪😂

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                          • This is so complicated and PC rules these days are so complex. I lived in London for about 5 years in the early 00's - I was young when I moved there and whilst I'd moved from one city - Glasgow to a bigger one - London, I was initially quite fearful of going out and about. This was more to do with not knowing the landscape than any kind of racial fear.

                            I lived in Peckham initially then moved to rent a place in East Dulwich - before I continue I'm not sure when this piece is set because Peckham these days is very gentrified (run a Right Move search for property values and you'll see what I mean.) It's moved on since the Del Boy days. Homeless people are everywhere in London - and most seem to have Glaswegian accents for some reason!! 

                            The character here - I'm not sure is she fearful due to being unsure of the landscape due to it being alien to her? or is her fear born from news items describing 'another stabbing in London' or purely because she's not used to black people?

                            it is a valid point - Glasgow has a large Asian (India/Pakistan/Sri Lanka) population but not many black people, when I moved to London it surprised me, but the first two people who befriended me at the new job I'd moved there to take, were two black guys (I'll call them Ken & Hassy coz that was their names LOL) and I pretty much hung about with then for the whole 5 years I lived there. I still see Ken when I go down there, though Hassy moved to Germany in 2010 and we lost touch.

                            The group I ended up being part of were very mixed - black girls with white boyfriends and visa versa and whilst there were racist comments occasionally on both sides most of it was in jest and based around stereotypes and stuff and alcohol!

                             There were a few ill mannered morons we came across that would do the monkey thing and a few resented white girls being with black guys - Ken was psychiatric nurse and his white girlfriend Karen, (wife now) was a doctor -  I found that the integration of the black kids and the white kids in Peckham was fine and most folk didn't even think about it. Initially, I'll admit to being a little uncomfortable walking about at night with Ken and Hassy in case anyone decided to have a go, but it never happened.

                            When I watch the news now about black gangs and territorial ghettos - that isn't the London I recognize or lived in. Things might have changed but there are people with  agendas out there that tend to overplay these things. 

                            Not sure this helps that much but hopefully the insights might help...

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                            • Thanks Danny, that was very helpful. It was set in 1995, so again attitudes were very different and I almost think people didn't realise they were being racist when they made assumptions. It is a tricky area but your experience was very useful, thank you.

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                            • Hi Georgina. In the context of the excerpt, I don't feel it is particularly racist. You tell us Cat is making assumptions based on her unfamiliarity with the not-so-glossy parts of the capital - probably from what she's seen on TV or in newspapers. But, having said that, the word black is a difficult one.

                              I wonder if, as it's dark in the park and, I assume not daylight bright, could you describe his build first? Along with the dog, that could feel very threatening for a woman alone and already in a stressed and nervous state. Then, when they're introducing themselves and making their apologies, you could describe his colouring (some other way) as a secondary issue. Then you'd take the emphasis off Anthony being black. 

                              If, as you say, he's a friend, his colour shouldn't matter.

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                              • Hi everyone, whilst we encourage these discussions and feedback on manuscripts, please can I remind you all to be mindful of the topic and be thoughtful with what you say. 

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                                • Hi Emily, was there something that stimulated you to write this? I think everybody has been extremely kind and measured in their feedback to what is a very tricky subject. Let me know if the post worried you and we can discuss it. To me it is always important to talk about things and find out what worries people. Only then can you get rid of problems.

                                  Best wishes, Georgina

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                                  • I'm confused as to the problem.

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                                  • Hi Emily, Did you see something untoward in some of the comments?

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                                    • Hi Georgina. I'm white but I work with indigenous people from the Amazon and I have friends of all nationalities and races. I'm not going to comment on the writing because others have done that very adequately, but I would totally encourage you to use your writing to explore racism, both overt and subconscious. Replacing your social worker of colour with a white person would be completely wrong. I think your exposure of the subconscious racism which was almost universal in rural England at that time, even amongst liberal-minded and consciously anti-racist people, just because of the environment they grew up in, is very accurate. Certainly you could do it with a little more finesse in the writing, having read the comments of others here. The more you can do it in a way which is just part of the story rather than sounding like an 'issue' that you want to include for ideological reasons the better.

                                      Non-white friends criticise writers for adopting a colour-blind approach; they want racism to be discussed, to be exposed, because that is the way it will eventually be consigned to history.

                                      Do find some people of colour to beta read for you, and listen carefully to them.

                                      Including racist characters in your writing is not racist. It is what you do with them that matters.

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                                      • Thank you, again that is very helpful. I quite understand that colour-blind versus reality issue and I think like most issues it is will be helped by discussing/writing. That is a very good idea to get some beta readers who have an actual depth on the subject rather than just a think -as-I-ought-to approach. I will do it.

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                                        • Hello Georgina. As a 6' 2" black man, I can relate to how both parties would feel in this situation. I keep distance and sometimes even cross roads when passing women at night. I notice discomfort in body language: Taking phones out of pockets, moving handbags or holding them more secure etc.

                                          I myself don't shy away from writing about sensitive issues. Some have of which people have helped me with here before. I believe anything should be allowed to be written about. But his is a tricky one to judge without reading the rest of the manuscript and knowing your character. If other scenes show her in this kind of light, this scene gives more insight into confirming her character. Otherwise, having the colour at the forefront of the description could be a red flag to some readers and possibly alienate them. Similarly to describing a council estate's tenants as, lets say, probably looking at newspaper pictures because they're unable to read them. (May be a bad example but I'm sure you get the drift).

                                          When I hear people talking and hear them say, This black bloke came over, or A black woman said this or that, I think to myself, you didn't really need to mention the colour of their skin. But I suppose it is the same with any majority race speaking about a minority.

                                          Basically what I'm trying to say is, I think this passage would work if it serves a purpose later, but if it stands alone it might unnecessarily take the focus away from your story.

                                          I hope this helps. Good luck with it.

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                                          • Thanks Jimmy, that is really helpful. I did want to show that Cat was not a bad person but did indeed have in the ingrained assumptions of the time. She has a learning period to go through, not least because in Book Five of the series her daughter by then a mother herself divorces her husband and marries Anthony.

                                             Interesting what you say about labels… viz ‘hey you know the gay guy who works in the clinic’ or ‘the black woman who lives three doors down’. These days it strikes an odd note but in the past it used to be taken for granted that people were described by their skin colour or sexuality. I think that is because we have become much more sensitive to how we treat others and that is a good thing but it is also interesting how frightening it is to discuss the subject.

                                            Good that you also discuss anxiety producing problems, it is worth it but it can be very difficult to get right. I have just been reading Burnt Shadows and Kamila deals brilliantly with very sensitive issues.

                                            Thank you.



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                                            • As a 6' 2" black man, I can relate to how both parties would feel in this situation. I keep distance and sometimes even cross roads when passing women at night. I notice discomfort in body language

                                              I've done that a few times - and I'm white, but 6' 3".

                                              in the past it used to be taken for granted that people were described by their skin colour or sexuality 

                                              Ah yes, but only of they weren't white and heterosexual!

                                              But that's flippant. The casual use of 'gay', or 'black' as a first point of call to identify who someone is can betray latent racism, but too many people (mostly white) are so terrified of being perceived as racist that they can't bring themselves to use skin colour as one of a variety of defining features to identify someone; 'that guy over there, the one in the corner' 'what, the guy with the long hair?' 'no, the other one, the one with his side to us, the one who's a bit taller' when 'no, the asian guy standing next to the black guy' is more appropriate, obvious and straightforward, and could just as easily have been 'no, the white guy next to the group of black guys'. All a bit clumsy, but you get what I mean?

                                              I love to know about people, about their backgrounds. My family are pretty mixed, though European (Irish, English, German, Hungarian Jewish, a bit of Huguenot) so when I come across someone casually who looks or sounds like they are from interesting origins I'm quite happy to open up a conversation about that. But my son once called me out on it as being unacceptably intrusive. Maybe he's right, but after sometimes a bit of initial reticence - understandable if they've previously had that 'where are you from?' 'Bulgaria' 'why don't you go home' conversation, pretty much everyone is happy that you are interested in them.

                                              What I want to say is that if what is perceived as 'acceptable' gets in the way of straightforward human communication, then in my book it is unacceptable.

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                                            • Hi Georgina, you have already had a mass of comment and advice, so just one thought from me. it's tricky to find the balance between showing a character as racist and being accused of being a racist writer. its a very sensitive area.

                                              i wonder if the probelm here is the description of Anthony? Cat's reaction would be the same, very likely, if Anthony was white, but still 'enourmous' and still with a large dog. But if he was black, but a bit shorter than her, and carrying a cat basket (no pun intended) then her reaction is over the top and can be seen as racist. 

                                              Would a woman alone in a dark park be terrified by any man approaching her? if you tone down the stereotypical description, that might sharpen the focus on her response, then you could give her generic panic thoughts, or race-based assumptions, to suit your purpose with this scene.

                                              i hope this helps

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                                              • Thank you. After a few of the comments here I think I’m going to loose the dog, who doesn’t seem to add anyone anyway but I hadn’t yet considered a cat, perhaps on a lead!

                                                You are right about the frighteningness of any approaching man or groups of men. If I see a couple approaching and then realize women are there i immediately feel it will be safe. That this is in fact wrong we know from seeing many of the stabbing incidents. So yes stereotypes still have their sway.

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                                              • OK, while we're on this topic I'm going to dive in a make a new post in P2PC, with a short story that some might say is problematic.

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                                                • Ooooh. One of yours?

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                                                  • Yup.

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                                                    • Yaldi! :)

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                                                    • Just read your story and I have to agree with the above comments. Sorry if the I am being too straight forward, but right now, unfortunately, it is coming across as preachy. Telling, as well as emotional distancing, such as "She felt her heart pounding in her chest as it tightened so she could hardly breathe," for instance could be "It was getting hard to breathe, what with her heart pounding so hard and her chest tightening in a vice-grip of fear." (Not great but just for example.) In short, I was not able to lose sight of the fact that I was reading, as opposed to becoming immersed in the events. No emotional involvement for me.

                                                      No one else mentioned the first lines, but I had to take a second read because I thought the story was about Caroline, then it turned out to be about Cat. 

                                                      Honestly, I think Anthony would have been a bit offended, or hurt, by her attitude. Understanding, maybe, but also hurt. Possibly even angry. Or, conversely, he may have wanted to reassure or soothe.  But I did not believe this story in my heart, the way it is currently written. Although I can definitely relate to taking the wrong trains (or whatever) and getting hopelessly lost in a big city. That is me, all over! THAT would send me into a near-panic reaction (and has, in the past.) That, combined with Cat's knee-jerk racism could indeed combine to reach a light-headed fever-pitch of emotion. So I know this story can work, with a little more work. I'd love it if, once she realized her overreaction, Cat could laugh at herself or chide herself for being silly. I'd  be kicking myself, having considered myself a liberal and then seeing how I reacted in real life. And I'd know I had a lot of soul-searching to do.

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                                                      • Thanks Cathy, that is very helpful. I have been rewriting the piece and your opinion added to the general feeling that it was too ‘telly’, so I’ve been working on trying to show her reactions and general fear of this big city she hardly knows. It should be a much better piece when I’ve finished. Thanks.

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                                                        • I want to take up earlier comments that there were no black people in the countryside in 1961.  This is not the case at all.  I was born in 1951 to a white mum and black dad and we lived in the country with my two sisters.  

                                                          All my life I have found it annoying that I am always thought of as a foreigner or part of the Windrush generation when my dad from Cuba came to Britain in 1947 and was conscripted into National Service, where he enlist for another three years.  I lived in the same house as my grandfather and aunt and my great grandmother, who moved into the rented house in 1910....

                                                          There are many people of similar background who lived in the English countryside.





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                                                          • Yes, I have mixed race family members and in the 1960s onwards we all lived in English villages, sometimes the same village and sometimes different places. 

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                                                            • Thanks Julia, that is very helpful. It would be interesting to know what percentage of black people lived in villages compared to living in big urban areas. 

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                                                            • Hi Georgina, I've just read your excerpt. I don't think it comes across as being particularly racist, but perhaps a rethink on the way it's worded might help.  We are all especially sensitive about giving offence these days, but in my view, if the encounter is sensitively portrayed so that there are no misunderstandings, I see no problem. These things need to be discussed openly, but with care. I was born in Paddington - a long, long time ago! - and there was a lot of racism then, not only people with dark skins, but Jews and foreigners from all over (even Scots ;-) ) but there were also some really nice people form all backgrounds. 

                                                              Mistakes happen, even when "colour" doesn't come into it. What's important is how they're dealt with. Try to see things from both sides. I'm sure you'll work it out!

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                                                              • Yes, I definitely think you are right and I am rewriting the piece to make it more… well sensible and sensitive. Thank you.

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