Recognizing Biases in Writing

by Jackie Mohan

In my American Literature (1810-1870) class, we recently picked apart Hope Leslie to examine its prejudices against Native Americans and what these prejudices said about nineteenth century society. Although it’s unfair to generalize the opinions of an entire society based on one book, often the written word is much of what we have to go on when we learn about the past. Twenty, fifty, one hundred years from now, what preconceptions will be detected in the literature of today?

In writing, we don’t often consider that our own cultural and personal opinions, beliefs, and biases sink into our writing, but they do, often unconsciously. I recently read a story in which the author spoke of “restless women” as an entire category, which came off to me as sexist. How dare the author ascribe a single word to describe an entire group of vastly different individuals? How dare he brush them aside with one adjective? Although the author probably didn’t intend to be offensive, that single line permeated the story and spoke volumes to me about the author’s views and opinions.

What preconceptions will be detected at any given point in the future will depend on the culture of that given point. We see biases against Native Americans in Hope Leslie because society now recognizes that racism as wrong (even though it’s more in theory than action–I’m looking at you, Dakota Access Pipeline). I would hazard a guess that future generations will look back on literature of today and see our culture’s whitewashing, heteronormativity (or acceptance of heterosexuality as the default orientation), and criminalization of African Americans, to name a few.

For example, when most readers begin reading a story and the character is female, they assume that her love interest will be male. And it’s usually true. But if society continues to progress to accept non-heterosexual orientations, one day readers might look back and comment on how narrow-minded early twenty-first century writers were in considering relationships. In fact, some critics are already beginning to do so.

Since we are a product of our time and culture, it’s almost impossible to keep preconceptions from tainting our writing. The question of culture and literature is like the old question of the chicken or the egg. Writers are products of their culture, but culture is also a product of its literature. Writers should strive to recognize and counteract their own preconceptions in their writing because it is a message put forth into the world, for the world to do with what it will.

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