Leave it to sarcastic, satirical Broadway puppet productions to make complex issues seem less murky. Case in point: Avenue Q, specifically, the song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” (see below). This number says a lot. We’re human beings. We’re (often) colossal jerks to one another. We say incredibly inappropriate things to one another, but as far as discrimination is concerned, maybe it’s preferable that we just fess up, get it all out on the table, and deal with it. Better out than in, as the saying goes.
I have to agree that we’re all a little bit racist (and sexist, classist, ableist, ageist…oh brother) and I’m also on board with the notion that holding it in and pretending it doesn’t exist serves no one. I do, however, think there’s another step to be taken in our efforts to be better human beings, and it can be described with an analogy (sorry, I’m a writer. It’s how we function).
Aspiring to be less of a racist jerk (or a prejudiced jerk, in general) is kind of like being a good editor. Editors, like everyone else, make grammar errors, spelling mistakes, and typos. Even after years of practice, digging into the inner workings of language, they still screw up from time to time, and things get missed. The difference is that they’ve developed a kind of instinct for recognizing screw-ups, a type of muscle memory, if you will. They not only spot their own mistakes, but they know how to fix them. They know why this verb doesn’t agree with this subject, why they need to use an adverb instead of an adjective, why it’s inappropriate to use slang in some situations. They know why it’s an error. It’s this constant diving into the why of it all that helps them to develop their editorial Spidey Sense in the first place.
I’m a human being, and every so often, stupid thoughts about other human beings ping-pong around in my head. Honestly, I don’t even believe these things are actually true. These thoughts are basically echoes of historical and cultural “bad grammar”, bits of misinformation or ignorance that I’ve heard often enough to have them lodge themselves into the dark corners of my brain. For some reason, they’ve been allowed to stay on the page when they should have been run through with a line of angry red pen. Every so often, probably more often than I’d like to admit, these nasty little “grammar errors” pop up again, messing up the nice, neat, enlightened narratives I’m trying to construct about life. They’re misplaced modifiers, verbs that don’t agree with their subjects, adjectives that should be adverbs. I get that they’re not logical, not supposed to be there. I know why they don’t fit. Moreover, I want what I put out into the universe to be right. I really do, from the bottom of my heart, want to do better.
In a sense, we’re all writing narratives like this, and the trick isn’t to hope we’ll never make mistakes, but rather to develop a sense that something about them just isn’t right, that they’re the result of sloppy thinking, fatigue, or frustration. If we hope to be less discriminatory, we need to start thinking like editors. No editor has ever written something of their own that was spotless and perfect, but they do force themselves go back and figure out why they’re making mistakes in the first place, why it needs to be this way instead of that way.
When it comes to catching discrimination, there is no “spell check” option. We can’t rely on mechanical, one-size-fits-all solutions. Every form of discrimination has its own ethos, it’s own aesthetic, it’s own history and evolution, as does every individual who willfully perpetuates it. Every story has to be edited as a living thing, by another living thing. Even the most enlightened, tolerant, free-thinking soul will spend his or her entire existence going over their worldview with a fine-tooth comb, looking for slip-ups. The style guide with which they edit will change over time.
You’ve had the sensation of looking at a word or a phrase you’ve written and thinking “What am I missing? Why doesn’t that seem as it should?” The fact that you’ve had alarms go off is good, right? What do you do next? You take another look, show it to someone else, look it up, try writing it another way. You do this enough times, and it becomes instinct, at least the drive to look at it again, to revise, becomes instinct. Most importantly, you know you want to do it properly, to fix what’s askew. When you want to be less racist, sexist, any-ist, you do the same thing. You accept that the mistakes will be there, and the only crime is in not wanting to catch them.
You heard it from your grade 9 English teacher, and now you’re hearing it again: In writing, and in the pursuit of being a better human being, you need to proofread. We all do.