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June 26, 2013

After the recent public meltdown of southern chef Paula Deen, I figured it was time to talk about a subject I’ve had brewing for a while. My first thought was to slam you, the reader, with a bunch of racially offensive stereotypes including the one that got her in so much trouble. In my case, it was to make a point. Now that you have the image in your head and can pick your offensive phrase, let’s get to the real subject of this article.

It doesn’t take much to slap someone in the face with a blatant stereotype, either for comical or hurtful effect. In this increasingly politically correct world, it is easy to offend. It used to be stand-up comics threw offensive stereotypes around with abandon and people laughed and had a great time (or didn’t). However, times have changed. You can’t do that anymore unless you are making fun of your own race and even then, because of that politically correct climate dominating us, it’s probably not such a great idea. On the other hand, there’s no shortage of ignorant or just plain hateful bigots that’ll not hesitate to use stereotypes at every opportunity to show their supposed superiority to someone else, failing to note that they’re really no better. In fact, they show their inferiority by acting in such fashion.

Using stereotypes for effect in a story can be a dicey path, and must be done with care and sensitivity to those who are the targets. Context.

Notice how I’m dancing around and not actually describing any of the biggies. My point is that I don’t need to, as you all know them, or should. What you may not know are many stereotypes that people take for granted in everyday life. As a writer, these subtle things must be thought about before you go and put them into words and offend people without even knowing you’ve done so.

A glaring example I’ve seen time and time again, less in the past few years, is assuming Witches (Wiccans) and most other Pagans worship the Devil. Many, especially devout Christians assume these groups worship old Set because they use pentacles (pentagrams) in their symbology. Wrong answer! To most Pagan religions, the Devil is a Christian thing and doesn’t even exist.

Another more subtle stereotype, and one of my favorites, is that all musicians are addicted to some form of drugs or alcohol. It’s bad enough when I see actors pretending to be musicians on TV and in film. They act so embarrassing mock-playing a guitar or drums or some other instrument and it makes all real musicians look bad. Then they drop the instrument, smoke a joint, guzzle a bottle of booze, or shoot up and grab that hot chick. Let me tell you something. In the real world, it doesn’t always work that way. Trust me!

Here’s another one for you, except this is a twist. How many times have you seen male writer’s depicted as wearing a smoking jacket and having a pipe in their mouth? How about having a huge crowd at a book signing? Hah!

Then there are the usual all fat people have high-pitched voices (or deep voices) to all convenience store clerks are from the Middle East. All little people are angry.

From blatant and hurtful ethnic stereotypes to the subtle ones in a flash. It’s very easy to see the biggies but easy to slip right over the subtle ones and never know you’ve offended someone. This isn’t about going overboard with political correctness. It’s about doing the research and being sure about what you are writing. Even playing with stereotypes can be used for fun, or tossing them upside down.

How about an Hispanic man who only speaks Gaelic? An obese long-distance runner? Think outside the box.

If you don’t know the group of people you’re writing about, research is the key. Something we all should already know, right?

Happy writing!

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