Us and Them
“You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, before you are six or seven or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate . . .”
- Oscar Hammerstein, South Pacific, 1949
Peanuts creator Charles Schulz showed new kid Franklin in a schoolroom with white kids in 1968. Fred Rogers shared a foot bath with Officer Francois Clemmons in 1969. Hammerstein, Schulz, and Rogers withstood pushback for messages on race that were daring for their times. Having grown up on “You’ve got to be taught,” I’ve been jolted to read of research suggesting infants a few months old prefer their own race.
Is bias innate or does it have to be taught? I’d guess preference for people who look familiar is innate, especially those who resemble one’s primary caregivers. Pale-skinned babies raised by pale-skinned parents prefer pale skin. Babies raised primarily by mothers prefer women. My infant long ago, in a household of nearsighted adults, was fretful around people who didn’t wear glasses.
Some babies are more timid by temperament, others more drawn to novelty. While I no longer believe humans are born a blank slate, it matters what they’re taught. We can encourage safe exploration to cultivate curiosity and stretch tolerance for the unfamiliar. We can expose children to safe people of various shapes and colors, with and without glasses.
Pick an Era
I’m reading my way through Fiona Buckley’s historical mysteries featuring Ursula Blanchard, fictitious half-sister to Queen Elizabeth I. Ursula strives to save her Protestant queen from Catholic threats to seize control and resume burning heretics, as happened under Elizabeth’s Catholic real half-sister Queen Mary.
Ursula hates the Inquisition, not the papacy, making the series palatable for readers of any faith or none. Mysteries set a few centuries back can't disregard religious conflict, but they rarely take sides except against cruelty and fanaticism. Still, readers may look in vain for light fiction about a gentle Jesuit priest trying to avoid capture and execution by Queen Elizabeth’s minions. Catholic protagonists emerge in novels set a bit later in Ireland or the Scottish highlands, fighting to preserve their independence and traditions from heartless English conquerors.
I'd guess readers of historical fiction today, at least while they’re reading, don’t much care about theology or ecclesiastical politics or seeking martyrdom or saving immortal souls. We do care about human decency, safety, autonomy, heritage, success for the underdog, and the freedom to shape our own lives. For leisure reading, if your historical sympathies lean toward one religious party more than another, pick an era where that’s the party fighting for survival, independence, or other secular values that resonate today.
“If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”
- Orson Welles, screenplay for “The Big Brass Ring”
As any photographer might tell us, even the most representational art can change meaning with the placement of the frame. Picture a sweet, domestic snapshot of two children playing with a teddy bear on the bedroom floor. If you widen the frame to show the window with a stranger at the top of a ladder peering in, you hint at a far spookier story.
Every story, fact or fiction, requires the storyteller to choose where to start and stop. Reality is never done; as my mother used to say, “This too shall pass.” The artist—or journalist, or historian, or documentarian—must set the frame. Life is full of successes and failures, joys and sorrows, interwoven and each leading to the next. Comedy? Tragedy? It depends where you stop your story.
It’s one of my favorite words, an antidote to perfectionism, envy, or feelings of inadequacy. There’s comfort in the mantra, “I have enough. I do enough. I am enough.”
Enough is deliciously versatile, equally expressive of satisfaction or impatience. “Enough already! That's enough!” It can emphasize the word it follows (“sure enough,” “fair enough”) or weaken it (“good enough but not great”).
Writers face questions of “enough” all the time. How much backstory is enough to give readers context without pulling them out of the action? How serious a flaw is enough to make a character relatable without losing readers’ sympathy? How many rounds of revision are enough before you send work off to a client, agent, or editor?
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.