Recently I submitted a chapter of Misappear, Book 2 to my critiquing group for feedback. The chapter featured an elderly white woman speaking with a young black man. In several instances, she thinks about him as a boy. I found it interesting that the younger members of the group interpreted the reference as racism, while some of the older members considered it ageism. Others didn’t think anything of it at all.
True to the character, the use of boy was ageism, not that she thought of it that way. I will add a blurb in the chapter where the woman chides herself for thinking of all people as youngster until they hit age fifty or so for the benefit of the reader.
As Ferris Bueller once said, “Not that I condone fascism, or any -ism for that matter. -Ism’s in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself.” Isms often are not good, but they are realistic. A writer is more apt to take flak for a racist comment than an ageist comment, but that doesn’t make it right to classify people based on their age. When you do, you set yourself apart and color your perception.
In the case of my critiquing group, the younger members are bright, articulate and courteous. I value their feedback just as much as the older members. On the other hand, I know people of a similar age to them, and older actually, that I would not value as a highly because they lack maturity in their thought processes. I can see where referring to either of the members as a boy or a girl could be construed as ageism. On the other hand, I hear older adults refer to each other as boy or girl, and on the dating scene, people are still looking for a boyfriend or a girlfriend long after their intended aged out of the youth category.
At what point do –isms, that we know are bad because they define our colored perspective, take over our thinking to the point we are afraid to speak without offending someone? Think about all the –isms out there. Racism, ageism, sexism, classism, able-bodyism—the list goes on. Kenneth Quinnell wrote an excellent article on the topic and provided a bullet list of questions you should consider when determining if your –isms may be harming someone else.
- Directing physical or emotional harm or wishing harm upon the group
- Saying or acting as if you hate, dislike or fear the group
- Denying rights to members of the group
- Refusing to hire, associate with or otherwise interact with members of the group, including segregating the group in society
Read the entire list at Your Handy Guide To -Isms (Racism, Sexism, Etc.)
I don’t think avoiding –isms altogether is possible, or even healthy in some regards, but it is worth noting how words may be interpreted by others. Practice communication habits that most effectively communicate the message without slighting others, but cut yourself some slack as well. It is virtually impossible to have a normal conversation without saying something that someone may find offensive.
As a writer, keep in mind that you need to be true to your characters as well. If the character has an –ism, failing to include that characteristic means you have failed to clearly describe the character, how he thinks, why he may have an aversion to one group over another, what obstacles he has to overcome in his own thought processes just to fit into society.