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Identifying and Rooting Out Racism in Writing

Adjunct Professor Madeleine Dresden highlights common racist tropes and stereotypes in writing and offers solutions and alternatives for more diverse and inclusive writing for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities.

Woman in yellow writing at a wooden desk

“We’re not writing diverse books for me; we’re writing them for all of the BIPOC kids out there,” said Adjunct Professor Madeleine Dresden (English). “Diverse kids who want to find books that help them through their journeys of what it’s like to be mixed race, or first-generation Asian American, African American—all of the Americans. This is why we need to tell these stories.”

Dresden presented her lecture, titled “Rooting Out Racism: How to Identify and Eradicate Racist Tropes,” at the 2021 Latter-day Saint Publishing and Media Association Conference on October 9th, 2021.

Dresden began by identifying harmful BIPOC tropes and stereotypes of commonly used in books and movies today. Some of the tropes and stereotypes included associating “dark” with “evil”; superimposing Eurocentric features or cultures on BIPOC characters; utilizing caricatures of BIPOC characters (the “strict Asian mom” character, the “Black athlete,” etc.); making minority characters disposable, shallow, or forgettable—or even writing them out entirely and having no diverse characters. Dresden showed many examples from pop culture, and she admitted, “Most of the [examples] are things I adore. But that doesn’t mean that they are not perpetuating harmful ideas when it comes to BIPOC creators and consumers.”

Dresden encouraged writers to consider the impact of their writing decisions on minority readers, to think about what their messages “teach people of color who are watching or reading [their work].” She invited authors to be aware of the tropes they are using, even subliminally or subtly, and to understand why the tropes are problematic. Many tropes teach BIPOC audiences that they “can’t be heroic or can’t end up winning;” these tropes negatively impact “a BIPOC kid’s mentality about themselves.”

To help authors avoid tropes and create more positive representation, Dresden offered some helpful tips. First, “read diverse books. . . If you want to tell a diverse story, read at least 100 books that come from that perspective.”

She also urged authors to be honest about their motivation for including BIPOC representation in their stories and to make sure it is for a good reason, one that doesn’t allow for any racism or offensive bias. To have unbiased, strong representation of minority characters, Dresden recommended having a plan for implementing authentic representation, and she advised authors to “diversify [their] own world: get sensitivity readers, and network with people of color.” Finally, she said, “Do what you can to empower diverse creators. That is how we’re going to change the culture, the social climate surrounding these issues, so we can get to a point of building a community together. So, empower those who still need to tell their stories.”