Beyond Terminology: Zooming Out to Focus on Bias
Remarks from “Is This Racist? How Editors Can Identify Hidden Bias” at the 2017 ACES: The Society for Editing conference.
By Karen Yin • September 19, 2017
Simply knowing the appropriate terminology for talking about race, ethnicity, and nationality doesn’t mean that our work is automatically free of unnecessary bias. None of us can be fully aware of how our beliefs and behavior are being affected by a lifetime of direct and indirect messages about one another. We’ve been conditioned to draw conclusions based on how someone looks, the way they talk, what they have. The knee-jerk assumptions are endless.
Unconscious biases . . .
- are unconscious.
- can be activated outside of our control and without our consent.
- don’t necessarily align with our declared beliefs.
- can be held against the groups we belong to.
- infiltrate everything.
Before I share my tips for detecting unconscious racial bias, I would like to make an observation about our jobs as editors.
When we edit or proofread, it is common to make several passes of the same material so we have another chance to catch something, to see something that wasn’t apparent before. Sometimes we edit on screen and then print a hard copy for the second pass. Sometimes we edit the hard copy first and then rethink the edits when we mark up the PDF. On our own, we develop ways to trick the brain into thinking we haven’t seen this before. We understand the importance of editing with a fresh mind. Likewise, when we check copy, headlines, photos, and illustrations for hidden bias, it helps to examine the same piece from different angles.
Avoiding bias isn’t incidental to an editor’s job but central. Bias can appear in a single word or become evident only when we zoom out and notice problems with a portrayal. We can zoom out even more and check the overall narrative. Zoom out again, and we can analyze the pattern of reporting for a specific community, region, or country. Once we think, “Oh, this story sounds right, so it probably is right,” then we’re in trouble. We’re not doing our jobs when we’ve stopped critiquing something old with a fresh mind.
From close-up details to the big picture, here are the “zoom levels” for detecting hidden bias.
Detecting Hidden Bias: Zoom Levels
- At the word level, we check parity.
- At the sentence level, we check portrayal.
- At the story level, we check framing.
- And at the series level, we check representation.
#1: Parity: How We Treat People in Parallel Contexts
Reducing an Individual to a Detail or Stereotype
- Original headline: Olympics: Michael Phelps shares historic night with African-American
- Revised headline: Olympics: Stanford’s Simone Manuel and Michael Phelps make history
If you’re going to make one person’s race relevant, make everyone’s race relevant, equally. When we reduce someone to race, it strips them of their individuality and personal accomplishments. In this example, focusing on Simone Manuel’s blackness reveals a common unconscious bias, which is seeing a White person as an individual but a non-White person as part of a faceless, monolithic racial group.
Detecting bias is tricky because we confuse our initial reaction with insight—I’m scared of that person; therefore, they must be scary. But gut reactions are a poor gauge, because we’ve been tampered with. We cannot easily shed the layers of targeted messaging from family and society that tell us what conclusions to draw. However, we can work on changing our subsequent reactions.
For instance . . .
Is she the wife or the nanny? If your first reactions tend to be limiting or unkind, let your subsequent reaction be one of observation. Observe your first reaction and ask what led you there. Othering thrives on the exaggeration of differences and the encouragement of indifference to one another’s humanity.
Expectation of Assimilation or Adaptation
Avoiding racial bias includes respecting people’s names and using the proper diacritical marks, such as the accent on Córdova and the tilde on Núñez. Unless it is technologically impossible, make the effort to get names right.
“Stripped of its accent mark, Bartolo Colón’s surname is not Spanish for Columbus; it becomes the name of a part of the large intestine. Stripped of its tilde, peña, which means rock, becomes pena, which is Spanish for pity or pain.”
—Jonathan Blitzer in “Baseball Campaign Puts the Accent on Spanish Names“ (The New York Times, August 6, 2016)
And please: Don’t just get the name right; check that you have the right person and you’re not confusing them with someone of the same race. People are not interchangeable.
Rolling Stone mixed up the only two Asian American characters on Orange Is the New Black, played by Kimiko Glenn (on the left) and Lori Tan Chinn.
The Wall Street Journal gave actor Dev Patel (on the right) a sparkling review, though he wasn’t even in the film The Namesake. The review was meant for Kal Penn.
People magazine used a stock photo of an Asian American woman and accused her of dating Google founder Sergey Brin when it was another Asian American woman, Amanda Rosenberg (on the right).
(Hat tip for those examples to Angry Asian Man.)
We try to laugh about it . . .
. . . but the joke is on people of color, yet again.
#2: Portrayal: How We Present and Describe People
If people of a certain race or ethnicity consistently look kind of blurry, get closer. It means we’re keeping them at a distance. Defaulting to stock descriptions is like citing Wikipedia: You haven’t even begun to do your research.
Don’t buy the myth of the single story. If we believe that no two snowflakes are alike, then why do we believe entire groups of people are?
“A critic’s condemnation of an author’s cartoonish or fetishized portrayal of a specific ethnic group is no more an infringement upon the author’s right to write than a critic’s disapproval of a book’s flimsy plot, plodding pace or cliché prose.”
—Anjali Enjeti, “White Authors Are Still Writing Racist Books Because White Critics Won’t Call Them Out” (Quartz, November 15, 2016)
#3: Framing: How We Assign Interpretations and Conclusions
Consider these words. Sound vs. noise. Plant vs. weed. Religion vs. cult. We can infuse judgment into any description by selecting judge-y words, but often, judge-y words were selected due to an underlying racial bias about people’s nature and their motivations, and this affects how the whole event is framed. So, when a Black person is called a rioter but a White person is called a protester, and when a Brown shooter is a terrorist but a White shooter is mentally ill, we’ve already reached a conclusion.
By using racially charged language—that is, language that has become racialized through repeated association—we’ve stepped away from objectivity. This and other coded language interprets the behavior of people of color as criminal while excusing White people for the same actions.
Framing also occurs with photos.
White suspects are often pictured wearing shirts and ties, looking their best, while mugshots are used for Black and Brown suspects. The reason often given is that no other photos were available, but this pattern strengthens our unconscious bias that Black and Brown people are more threatening than White people.
#4: Representation: How We Balance Population, Proportion, and Perception
The final zoom level is really the first step in creating content: selection. How are stories chosen? How often do people of color overrepresent perpetrators and White people overrepresent victims? Do you provide the larger context when citing statistics on crime, poverty, or unemployment? And have you brought attention to communities experiencing disproportionate levels of hate violence and sexual assault?
Instead of returning to the same stories, casting the same characters, recreating the same associations, tell a different story. One way is by putting a spotlight on subgroups that experience erasure within communities already marginalized. The most visible are not representative of the community.
- Fact: The 19th Amendment did not grant American women the right to vote in 1920—only American women who were White. Any discussion of women’s suffrage is flawed unless it includes the women of color who were leaders of the movement and the intense discrimination from White feminists.
- Fact: The Stonewall Riot of ’69 wasn’t led by a gay White man, as the film version would have you believe, but by queer people of color, and not just queer people of color, but gender-fluid drag queens, including Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.
- Fact: “Asian American” includes more than three ethnicities. Filipino Americans are the second largest Asian American group in the U.S., but you wouldn’t know this from mass media. They and other Brown Asian Americans, including South Asian Americans and Vietnamese Americans, are grossly underrepresented as Asian Americans, while pale Asian Americans, such as Americans of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese descent, experience disproportionately high rates of representation.
Racial Stereotypes, Clichés, and Tropes
- Learn what they are. The opposite of ignorance is knowledge. We can’t avoid racial stereotypes if we can’t identify them.
- Recognize them as bad writing at best. Racial clichés insult both subject and audience.
- Don’t shy from using them for good. Ultimately, stereotypes, clichés, and tropes are just devices, ones we can use to great effect. Deflate stereotypes by complicating them. Break a cliché in half. Turn a trope on its head. It isn’t hard to teach by poking fun at racism.
So, Is This Racist? Do the Work.
Don’t expect people of color to give you all the answers. We’re busy. You need to do the work, do your part in answering this question.
Two resources that I highly recommend:
- Writing with Color: @writingwcolor, writingwithcolor.tumblr.com
- TV Tropes: @tvtropes, tvtropes.org (read: National Stereotypes and Race Tropes)
In different ways, they analyze the caricatures and storylines that have been done to death. Studying them will increase your awareness of race and history, which leads to making better decisions, which means becoming a better editor.
- Write to people of color, not just about people of color. It’s about respect.
- Cast different people. Change the script. Bad writing can harm.
- Once in a while, see yourself as the villain. Nothing changes if we all think we’re the good guy.
Karen Yin is the founder of Conscious Style Guide, a resource for inclusive, empowering, and respectful language, Editors of Color, tools for diversifying your staff and sources, and AP vs. Chicago, an irreverent language blog for anyone who “gives a dollar sign, ampersand, exclamation point, and pound sign about style.” She received the 2017 Robinson Prize for furthering the craft of professional editing.