This is a reaction of a sort to this story by Lisa Mantchev. If you haven’t read it yet, go ahead and do so, then briefly peruse the comments.
The comments section is the really interesting thing. (Unlike most of the commenters there, I didn’t like the story itself that much–it was cute but not all that memorable, and I couldn’t figure out what the point was of making the horrible, spiteful little girl grow up into a horrible, spiteful adult.) The entire argument in the comment thread revolved around whether the story was racist for including the idea of “peddlers” (i.e. gypsies or Romani) buying a child. There were a few commenters of Romani ancestry complaining that it was, along with a group of like-minded supporters. Across the aisle were others that thought the story was fine and leapt to its defense with a variety of arguments. Some of these arguments were pretty stupid (“it’s a free country!”), while some were legitimate (“nothing in the story suggests that the peddlers are gypsies”).
It’s this last argument that I’m interested in pursuing. Nothing identifies the peddlers as gypsies except for the fact that they’re peddlers, and the child-buying is not what the story was about. The author herself appears in the comments and explains the explicit efforts she made to dissociate the peddlers from the stereotypes about Romani. This seems like a good-faith attempt to avoid perpetuating destructive stereotypes without gutting the story, so my sympathies lie with the author. What else is she supposed to do?
“Don’t write stories about selling children,” one commenter suggested with a straight face. This makes an extraordinary claim about the responsibilities of an author when dealing with racial stereotypes: the author can never mention them or even use things that resemble them at all unless specifically to repudiate them. The appearance of any character or situation that smacks of stereotype is automatically disallowed.
I find this alarming, and not just because it limits the sorts of stories that authors are “allowed” to tell. The real problem is that this discourages authors from using non-mainstream non-privileged characters at all. In this case the author explicitly tried to remove the racial implications, and still fell under the opprobrium of the offended. What option is there but to avoid the non-mainstream entirely? I don’t just say this hypothetically: I’ve had stories that I wanted to write, but hesitated because I was afraid of potentially racist interpretations. The solution is often to make the character white, or male, or mainstream, because at least no one can then accuse you of stereotype.
This hardly seems like a victory. For anyone.