Pete Kalu on stereotypes: ‘I do not represent the whole of the deaf or black experience’
Published on: 22 May 2019 Author: Pete Kalu
Author Pete Kalu touches on race and disability in his books for teenagers. Here, he talks through the harm of stereotypes and speaking on behalf of everyone – and why honesty and individuality are so important to his writing.
Pete Kalu, author of Being Me
There are a stock set of stereotypes in public circulation when writing about black male youth. The ‘bad boy’. The knife or gun wielder. The physically talented.
What they all have in common is an attempt to simplify, flatten and make people into an ‘Other’: to keep certain groups in the margins. We black people get flattened as part of that.
The pressures to adopt stereotypes come from many forces within culture. Newspaper headlines, advertising, even artists. These stereotypes get into the circulation of everyday life and they are often where we go to instinctively: you bump into somebody on a dark street and “type” them instantly.
Stereotypes reduce and diminish. Even black people are not immune from stereotypes for black people. We can internalise our own reduction. We can self-objectify.
Many ways to tell a story
One place I go to when I want to lower the odds of that happening is the autobiographical. I try to be as honest with myself as I possibly can, and I write from that subjectivity. That was how I came to write The Silent Striker.
The Silent Striker is about a black boy who finds himself going deaf. This happened to me and I wanted to recall the stages. The novel is not an attempt to write the entire deaf experience. There are many types of deafness and many experiences of it. Deaf communities have even brought some nuance to the word. Being deaf is not the same as being Deaf.
There are equally many types of blackness. With The Silent Striker, I tried to tell a story. I did not aspire to represent the whole of the deaf or black experience. Just me. One voice. With the hope that others add their voices to this by writing their books and that cumulatively, collectively, we not only reflect but stimulate progressive change.
Always an individual
Let’s turn to the “black girl magic” that is Being Me. There is a scratchy black-and-white photograph that my mum took back-in-the-days of me and my brother and about seven other black boys from the Avenue where we all lived in Manchester.
I look about six and I’m a scrawny thing in a white vest and shorts, my brother a bit older. But we both beam with happiness. And we’re kneeling in the classic “one knee on tarmac, both hands resting on other knee” football team players’ pose. When I one day slipped the photo from the frame, I saw, having been hidden for five decades, the face of my little sister. That picture sums up one aspect of her life when she was younger – trying to squeeze into her older brothers’ events and them shooing her out of the picture. Being Me, I guess, is my apology to her. Us boys locked her out of the frame.
So on to Adele, the central character of Being Me. Much of her nature was laid out in The Silent Striker, where she first appears: she’s quick, witty, amusing, kind in her own way, and transgressive. I had two catchphrases for her. The first was: ‘I’m not a boy, I’m not a girl, I’m me.’ And the other one was: ‘There’s never a dull day with Adele.”
There are cross-currents of race within Adele’s family. It’s a dysfunctional family and part of that dysfunction is race-based. And both parents lavish attention on Adele’s Talented Brother at the expense of her. What’s a girl to do? What I’m doing here is individualising her. So, the description “black girl footballer” applied to Adele is accurate, but doesn’t catch the half of her...
Subverting the stereotype
The cultural studies expert Stuart Hall is an interesting writer to read on this subject. He talks about ‘regimes of representation’ and how you can escape from one stereotype only to run into another one. Stereotypes often come in twos like a tag team, so if one doesn’t get you, the other does!
Stuart Hall maps out some “escapes routes”, such as reversal, broadening the regime of representation, and subverting the form that holds the stereotype.
I’m sure this applies to YA books too. Angie Thomas’s main character has a line in The Hate U Give (T.H.U.G.): ‘I can’t go all angry black girl on her.’ So that is Angie Thomas’s awareness of a stereotype, as she’s writing her character. The title T.H.U.G., drawn from the tattoo on the body of the rapper 2Pac, is arguably a subversion of the black thug (or “black buck”) stereotype that is prevalent in much of (particularly US) culture.
My own character Adele shoplifts. Should I have made her a more upstanding person? The representation question was extensively debated in black circles in the 80s. Hanif Kureishi talked dismissively of “cheering fictions”, featuring only laundered and super-clean black characters. Stuart Hall wrote about the general realisation that merely to have a book written by a black writer was not enough.
Imbalance between black and white
The flipside of the representation of BAME (black and minority ethnic) characters is whether any conversation is being held about white characters.
Maureen Reddy has written well about his. When do white characters stop being representative of universal experiences? When do they stop being the default? It’s only at that point that we can erase the burden of representation on black writers and break the binary lock of black stereotypes.
It is white characters’ universality that brings forth black characters’ otherness. And it is the power imbalance between black and white in wider society that maintains it.