He is one of two supporting characters that die in my screenplay.
My wife says I shouldn’t make him black if he’s going to die.
Would it be politically incorrect?
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Killing a minority character isn't a problem in itself. The problem is that western media (particularly film) has a long tradition of killing of minority characters and leaving white protagonists to complete the plot. It is a habit that is rooted in racism, and not one that you want to add weight to without due consideration.
Now, if this character's ethnicity is an important part of their character, and their death is an important part of the plot then by all means continue. Just last week I read a story by Seanan McGuire (the story itself will remain nameless to avoid spoilers) where the first death was a minority character, and McGuire is extremely conscious of minority representation. But the character's minority status played an important part in shaping the part of her character that got her killed, and the story would not have worked quite right any other way.
On the other hand if the ethnicities of your characters are less deeply imbedded in their personalities then try switching them around a bit, and see what happens.
In Summary: Even if a plotting/character decision which is made completely isolated from any racist impulses it can still add weight to external racist trends. If you can avoid inadvertently supplementing racism this way without sacrificing your story, then definitely do so.
There are two simple rules when it comes to writing which trump all else:
The second rule is what we are dealing with. This rule follows the theory that you should never compromise your writing - even a little - to achieve some other goal. You write the best you can, and you don't let anything get in the way of it.
If your story is best served by killing off a black character, and if changing that character's skin color would harm the story even a little bit, you don't change it. Period. That holds true if the character is black, white, Asian, Caucasian, gay, straight, man, woman, or any other so called 'group'.
Now, will people take offense to it? Certainly. No matter what you do, someone somewhere will take offense to it. That's called writing for the general public. It is literally impossible to do something everyone agrees with. Especially these days.
Don't let those people dictate the quality of your writing. Write for the people who can see past the political haze they surround themselves with, and appreciate the story you are writing, for what it is. Unless you are writing a political story. Then you might need to consider things differently.
Now I understand where you are coming from. With the news the way its going, anyone can make literally anything be racist. You don't want people to miss your story because they're searching for a way to accuse you of being racist.
This is a gray area. You have to determine what community will be reading (or viewing) your screenplay. Are those people likely to see it for what it is? Or are they likely to be so obsessed with today's politics that they latch onto the word 'black' like an over-sized piranha and search desperately for anything they can interpret as racist overtones?
If the majority of your readers are politically-minded, then yes, it might be a good idea to change skin color. You have to balance lessening the power of your story against alienating your readers. If, however, your readers are not necessarily politically-minded, then simply write the strongest story you can.
That's really all there is to it. Best of luck in your endeavors!
I had the same dilemma recently with one of my older stories (i.e. 6-7 years old), which is in need of redrafting. One of the supporting characters, a black woman, dies halfway through; this is a pivotal moment in the plot, as it drives the (white male) protagonist to make a decision that drives the rest of the story.
I considered swapping some of the characters' races around, but the conclusion I've come to - and my answer to your question - is that it's perfectly fine as long as:
I'd also like to note that if this character is the only black person in your story, and you change them to be white, there are those who would consider that even worse.
This Wiki contains a chart, based on the US Census bureau and self-identified race, that shows 72.4% of Americans identify as White alone, and 12.6% of Americans identify as Black (or African American) alone. 4.8% identify as being of Asian descent. (In the US Census, one can check any race and then separately self-identify as Hispanic or Latino American. 16.3% do that.)
Only 1/8 of the population is black, Since most racism (by far) in the USA is against blacks, it is a pretty fair assumption by anyone (of any race) that feels this is wrong to assume that the author did not choose to kill a black first by accident, but because they are racist, overtly, covertly, consciously or unconsciously.
In fiction you don't get a jury trial, the audience decides whether they will endorse, ignore or vilify your work, and we make those decisions the way we make all decisions: We play the odds as if they were determinative.
Since the odds are 87.4% that the first character killed would not be black, the odds are that making them arbitrarily black is indicative of racial bias. I hate racism, so why should I spend my money on something I am pretty certain will benefit a racist, not only directly but by increasing their fame and acceptance in the world, perhaps as a role model?
The only caveat you get is if the skin color is determinative to the plot (e.g. my black character was killed by racists) or their race was historically inviolable; i.e. no other race could plausibly play the role. For example, you cannot write a story about American slavery without bringing up race. The same is true of modern racism or racial violence, the biography of a person harmed greatly by racism. Similarly, a WW II kamikaze pilot is going to be (and appear to be) Japanese, the leader of China is going to appear to be Chinese.
What these caveats tell you is that the only way to avoid a charge of racism in the writing is if you have a damn good racial reason the first person killed is black and not white. That is the political climate now (2017) and one I agree with very strongly.
Those reasons do not include bravery in battle, self-sacrifice, criminality, or anything that could have equally been done by a white man: You are still writing against odds.
There are very few plausible fictional reasons a black person is more likely to be killed first. The story can be about a black family or a black neighborhood where non-blacks are a distinct minority. But if blacks are a small minority of characters, then about the only plausible fictional reason is overt black racism. In that case, for a first-killed black person, racism against blacks better be your fictional reason for killing them first, and that racism can't be a one-off excuse in the story, it has to be central to the story. (For example, you can't cheat by making a walk-on bank robber character happen to be a murderous racist that is never seen again after the murder.)
That doesn't mean blacks (or other races) cannot be represented in your film.
Note that I stress fictional reason: Unlike real life, the audience is always aware that a human author thought up and wrote every line of the book or script. Those sensitive to racism against blacks (and the majority of Americans are) do not assume fictional deaths are randomly determined, they know these are intentionally determined by writers and others involved in the publication or production process. So IRL, the first person killed by a flood might indeed be a black man, even if they were the only black in the county. IRL we don't think floods are racist. But if that happens in a movie we know it was an intentional choice, and cannot help but think it was made by an author or casting director that values black lives less than white lives.
Of course both blacks and whites can be killed; if in your fiction a bomb goes off in a grocery store or law office, chances are about 1 in 8 of the victims are black. But when it comes to prominent deaths (the first killed, or only person killed in a crowd, or only soldier killed in a squad), much of the audience is not going to question why that was a white, but will question why they were black. This is not "reverse racism", it is about whether it fits the odds (as presented in the fiction) and the fact that the audience knows it was an authorial choice.
Some phenomena we see are statistical in nature, and racism is one of them. It isn't a single event, it is a tendency. There is a reason why it is so closely related to stereotyping.
Black people die in real life. One black guy dying in a story of fiction is just an isolated event, and not racist in itself. For me, it doesn't even matter if his race is integral to the story - killing the black guy is no meaner than killing the white guy or the Martian alien or whomever else you have introduced.
If you worry about racism in your stories, go through them all and look at all the black guys together. Do they die more often than the white guys, or do they eat fried chicken all the time, or are half of them basketball gods? Also, do they on average have less character depth and more single-track personalities than characters of a group you identify with? Do they get to be the cool guy or the protagonist as long as they also show beliefs and tastes congruent with those of a more socially dominant group? E.g. do you have both black protagonists and black minor villains, but the black protagonists just happen to play polo and mock Bob Marley for being a stoner, and the minor villains are all junkies who love hiphop?
If your writing has any of the featuers in the above paragraph, you might want to rethink how you handle characters and race. And by the way, positive stereotyping is also stereotyping. Avoid it for both literaty and social reasons.
It's a trope to kill of the black character first and perhaps that's racist of the writers in some cases (and satirical, or realistic, in others), but it's not unrealistic to have your American black characters die of murder more often.
According to the FBI, 3.021 white people vs. 2.451 black people were murdered in 2014, so it would be realistic in the case of murders to have approximately 3 white people be murdered for ever 2.5 black person, if you "correctly" represent US black people at around 1/8th of your cast.
So: a bit more white people "should" die in absolute numbers, when you have a setting in the US and blacks are represented at around 1/8th of the cast. If you have two deaths it's most plausible for one black person and one white person to die. That would slightly over-represent black people as homicide-victims, so you could choose to let them die last to "compensate" for that.
If you have higher black representation e.g. 50%, they would have to have a much higher share of victimhood to match reality. In the case of 50% black representation, assuming 1/8th black representation in the US population and the 2014 FBI homicide numbers: 15% white victims and 85% black victims, or 500% more black than white homicide deaths.
Here's the stats I used:
Make sure not to over-represent white people as murderers and murder victims, or you're a disgusting racist who's oppressing white people. If you're white and you do that it's even worse, that means you're self-hating and an "uncle Tyler", a Kit-Kat White.
... I'm kidding, but I'm also serious. It's the identity politics viewpoint. I think it's an unproductive and divisive oversimplification, one which is all too popular in "our" mainstream media. It seeks to reduce the true diversity of race, ethnicity, culture and religion to one big "melting pot", a divided and identity-less mass to be controlled through money and media.
I think you should not let statistics and political correctness influence your artistic decisions.
This is your work. This is your art. Make it yours.
You live in a free country: act like it! Be free and empower yourself.
If you bow to postmodern/neo-Marxist ideology, that reduces life to victimhood and oppression, you've already lost. You'll never completely satisfy that ideology; there is no "diverse enough". Nothing short of the complete destruction of the majority... and there's always a new majority.
P.S.: Although I think my back-of-the-envelope calculations are steady, suggestions for other data (or: interpretations of) are welcome, this isn't my doctoral thesis. To the author: if I'm mistaken in your locality let me know, it's a blind guess and I could add a section tailored to you.
The problem here isn't primarily either racism or political correctness, it's lazy and unoriginal storytelling. Especially for both writers and readers who lack much significant personal experience with people of a different race, giving a character a different skin color can be a shorthand way to add some "exotic flavor" to a story, while at the same signaling people to not become too emotionally invested. Like the old episodes of Star Trek where a new character wearing a red uniform was unlikely to survive the episode, the doomed black character can easily killed off without upsetting the writer or reader overly much. He or she is color-coded from the start as peripheral and expendable.
Of course, it feels very different for the black reader who sees versions of himself (or, more rarely, herself) killed off over and over again in story after story. It can seem annoying at best, or like a premonition of doom at the worst, especially when reflected by real life events. This is a specific reflection of the general principle that it is difficult to write for an audience that you don't understand --which is why, for example, the acclaimed new show This is Us has roughly the same proportion of black writers as black characters.
In summary the question you should ask is not "should I kill off my black character," but rather, "why am I considering killing off my black character?" If the reason you made the character black is because you needed someone who would be memorable and interesting, but still entirely expendable, then you might want to rethink how much originality you're putting into this project.
I agree with several of the other answers that we should not contribute to the huge amount of racism we already have in western media and should try to counterbalance that.
That said, I have this hypothethical solution if someone wants to create truly gender/race/sexuality/etc-neutral media by avoiding their own biases. I'm talking about technically gender/race/etc neutral writing as opposed to public perception which is a complicated and entirely different matter.
When having written the script on some level of detail (might be a rough sketch or more detailed), just random roll the gender and race and sexuality and such of each and every character. Best if you do it by assigning weights of probabilities based on census results of your story's location.
In my opinion this would technically absolve the writer of any possible racist/sexist/etc bias (really only in the case where all of the story was written before these characteristics were applied). In reality probably most readers would not even hear about this technique having been used and would develop opinions about the writing's racism/sexism/etc subjectively on their own. For those readers who would hear of this but desire proof - live-streaming the dice roll could potentially be used as a method of pre-committing to results before seeing them and proving that there indeed only one random rolling session.
Hope this helps someone. Criticism very welcome!
That's just like asking if it's wrong to kill off a white character, or an Asian character - it's no different. If it's part of the story, it is what it is. It's only racist if you are directly targeting that black character because they are black.
And hey, if your story is about a time when discrimination was really prevalent, which is not today contrary to popular belief, then that's fine too. Because it's a story.
A story is a story. Just do what you want. No one is going to kill you for writing a story, unless of course you are outright hating on them.