Chatty Cathys

Talk Amongst Yourselves: Racial Stereotypes in Literature

This discussion stems from a few scenes in The Red Pyramid  by Rick Riordan that didn’t quite sit well with me and made me a little squeemy feeling. You know, that feeling you get when someone states something that you know is kinda true but you hate the fact that it is true? I should give a real-world example of a situation that actually happened the other day so you’ll know what I’m getting at:

I am an event coordinator and had sent a menu proposal to a client who was planning an event for a traditionally black fraternity alumni group. The client came back and said that the menu looked great except for one of the items on it. He wanted to substitute something for it, so I told him the items we had that were similar. One of the items I mentioned wasn’t really a good substitute – it was more of a casual food item than a nicer food item – but the client made the comment that the guests were all African-American and wouldn’t be familiar with the first item as they would the second. I understood what he meant and where he was coming from, but I hated that that was the truth of the situation.

So that’s what I mean by that squeemy feeling.

In The Red Pyramid, the Kane children, Carter and Sadie, are the children of an interracial marriage, their father is black and their mother is white. While Sadie goes to live with her white grandparents after their mom’s death, Carter remains with his father. There are several instances that are mentioned by Carter that his father told him he had to dress a certain way because they were black. His father told him he always had to look nice and clean-cut so he would be taken seriously as a black man. Personally, I think you should always look nice  so you’ll be taken seriously, but it has nothing to do with race. There are also a few scenes where Carter seems to be aware that he’ll be judged because he’s black. One example:

I walked to the elevator. A business man with a rolling suitcase was waiting by the doors. His eyes widened as he saw me. I must’ve looked pretty strange—a tall black kid in dirty, ragged Egyptian clothes, with a weird box tucked under one arm and a bird of prey perched on the other.

(this isn’t the BEST example… because honestly I’d question anyone wearing ragged clothes holding a weird box and a bird of prey, but the fact that he first mentions that he’s tall and black is an example of my point)

With both of these instances I feel like, while I want to commend Rick Riordan for mentioning the elephant in the room, I can’t help but wonder if by mentioning these stereotypes – that members of different races, ethnic groups, or cultures have to strive harder – he’s not doing much to suggest moving past our already formed stereotypes.

I feel like I can understand Carter’s father telling him that in order to be taken seriously he needs to dress a certain way. My parents told me and my siblings that all the time, but it was never because of our race (although they did tell my sister and me to dress respectively so we wouldn’t look easy… haha). Although I know it’s sadly true, it still hurts my heart to know that there are still races that are raised (and have been raised) to think “I have to look a certain way in order to be considered an equal.”

Maybe I’m just hesitant to embrace the reality of the world and think that because I don’t think like that it must not be true, but in our ever-changing world are these stereotypes and the acceptance of them holding us back as a society?

I think had Carter’s dad’s warnings not been mentioned, or Carter failing to recognize when his skin-tone made others uncomfortable or prejudiced not been mentioned, nothing would have been lost from the plot. But would it have made the characters less realistic not having to deal with these elements? While I was reading it didn’t make much difference to me what color he was; I knew he was black but my perception of him was here is a smart, well-educated kid who is having an adventure. I felt that by having the stereotypes in there it sort of took away from that in that it was kind of a jolt out of the adventure and back into the real world.

On the other hand, it made me look at issues other races face, such as prejudice, regardless of their place in society – Carter’s dad was a respected Egyptoligist and was renowned within his circles. But yet he still instilled in his son the idea that since they are black, they have to try harder to gain respect. This concept is a little foreign to me so to read about it and see that there are those who have made something of themselves and striven to be successful still feel held back (if that’s the right term) by their race or ethnic group, I find that I have a new respect for them and their struggles.

What do you think? Do racial stereotypes add to or take away from main characters?

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3 thoughts on “Talk Amongst Yourselves: Racial Stereotypes in Literature”

  1. I don’t think it’s racial stereotypes you’re having an issue with in this book so much as the racial prejudice of other characters/the world. I think the fact that Riordan makes a point of showing this perspective is really good because it’s very true that people will judge others based on what they can see, and unfortunately one of the first things people see is skin colour.

    As a woman, I know that the way I dress will affect how other’s view me. Because I’m larger breasted, I have to dress more conservatively in order to be taken seriously. I know this isn’t an exact comparison, but it’s similar in a way. People judge on appearance, and I think ignoring that will not fix the problem.

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    1. I think you’re probably right. I brought up stereotypes because – and I didn’t really mention this in the post – it was mentioned throughout the book that if Carter dressed a certain way, say in jeans and a hoodie, others would thing he was a thug or something (not the book’s wording, but you get my drift). I think that’s the stereotype I had a problem with. But I do feel that my problem with it even being mentioned is the prejudice that’s actually in the world. After thinking about the post and my feelings towards this issue, I agree that Riordan did a good thing by mentioning it, if only to make us better see the issues.

      I tried not to bring up the girl stereotypes out there – figured I’d save those for another discussion – because I was afraid people would think “Well that’s not the same thing at all!” But I totally get what you’re saying. 🙂

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  2. Funny that you brought this up as I was having similar reactions to an audiobook I’ve been listening to, Unwind. There is a minor character who is black and the voice actor voices him in what I consider to be a very stereotypical old black man from the South voice. Now, the character claims to speak the way he does to pay homage to his ancestry, but that stereotypical voice made me really uncomfortable and I thought it was inappropriate for a white actor to affect that accent. I’m not sure that there is a correct answer as to what is the right thing to do in that situation, but it certainly challenged me. Perhaps that was the intent?

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