Racial Inversions - Expectations & Character Development

Just finished reading a great article in Mic by Sarah A. Harvard titled “These Three Pictures Make a Powerful Statement About Race and Power Among Women.” A discussion about a photo spread that appeared in a recent issue of O Magazine (thank you, Oprah!).

The spread consisted of three photographs taken by photographer Chris Buck. In all three photographs, characters (representative of real life people) are depicted with societally expected racial roles either reversed or in some way ambiguous.

The first image shows a line-up of Asian women receiving pedicures from a line-up of white women in uniforms:

A nail salon where Asian women are having their pedicures done by white women. Source: Chris Buck/O, the Oprah Magazine

A nail salon where Asian women are having their pedicures done by white women.
Source: Chris Buck/O, the Oprah Magazine

The next photo shows a white girl, facing away from the photographer, looking up at a wall of Black dolls:

A young white girl looking up at shelves upon shelves of black dolls. Source: Chris Buck/O, the Oprah Magazine

A young white girl looking up at shelves upon shelves of black dolls.
Source: Chris Buck/O, the Oprah Magazine

The final image shows a Hispanic woman sitting in a luxurious apartment talking on her phone, while a white woman pours her tea or coffee:

The young woman is on the phone and not acknowledging the presence of the maid. Source: Chris Buck/O, the Oprah Magazine

The young woman is on the phone and not acknowledging the presence of the maid.
Source: Chris Buck/O, the Oprah Magazine

Aren’t these images amazingly powerful?  How do you feel looking at them -- regardless of your own race?  Don’t they defy the societal expectations ingrained within us?  Even if we see ourselves as enlightened don’t we feel the frisson of these images? 

This is the power of roles reversal, and whether you are Latina, White, African American or Asian, you are subject to it, just as I am.

Because really: do you think Asian women never go to get their nails done? Or that white girls never look at Black dolls? And I have to tell you there are a hell of lot of Hispanic women who live in luxurious apartments and have housekeepers.

But the truth remains that these three images, each with its racial “flip-flop,” creates a story – one we really want to know more about.  It’s the kind of story that reveals life to us in a way we might not have taken note of before.  This is the kind of story that can change lives.

As you know, people of color often speak of the lack of representation for non-whites in media. Many of us have grown up seeing white people depicted in positions of power while people of color are relegated to secondary or service-oriented roles – so much so that we absorb this dynamic into our definition of self.  But the fact is, it’s just a storyline.

Story telling is what I do, so I think there’s something I can learn from this even beyond examining the racism that exits in me and in all of us.  Most of my characters are white because I’m most comfortable writing about them, I know their language intimately, have a sense of their history, desires, and faults.  And generally I feel I would be appropriating someone else’s story by exploring Black, Latino or Asian characters in depth.  But maybe I’m wrong about that. 

By shifting the perspective, and changing the distribution of roles of power the photos we’ve been looking at are imbued with a layer of depth we rarely see. Personally, I want to know what is going on in all of these women's lives. I want to know who they are and hear their stories. I’m intrigued to know more.

This is the essence of creating a character with depth. By utilizing unexpected circumstances and subverting our subconscious expectations, a character not only becomes alive, she or he becomes interesting. And once you break into the territory of the unexpected, the possibilities of story are, well, endless.  Perhaps the same is true in real life?

Kudos to Sarah Harvard and Chris Buck – thanks for making us think.