Imagining Otherwise While Reading

The Default

In social sciences, there’s a concept called “the default,” in which it is widely understood as a given that white straight men are the default person considered in almost every aspect of society. White straight men are the default in medical studies, which is why most people don’t know the symptoms of a heart attack in women, among other things. They’re the prime people considered in technology, which is why crash test dummies are shaped to be like white men between a certain age and height (crash test dummies were created in the 1960s, so while I can’t find definitive data that white men were the default models for them, I’m sure it’s safe to assume so, and if I’m wrong, lemme know), when women on average tend to be shorter and sit closer to the steering wheel – this increases the likelihood of death for women involved in car crashes.

In media and art, especially, white straight men are considered the default protagonists of life.

Like I said, this is considered a social fact. Like “the sky is blue” for social scientists (especially those in the Americas and Europe). You too might accept this as fact, for example, when reading the sentence, “He went to the store,” are you imagining a white straight man, or someone else?

I noticed that I do this frequently, and I want to break out of the habit and imagine otherwise. For example, while reading Dark Matter for Fluent Summer, I tried to imagine a black man as the main character. Jason Dessen, the main character of the story, is not explicitly coded as a straight white man, so why was I imagining him that way? My brain settled on Lakeith Stanfield, but even then, I would forget that I was imagining him this way, and revert to some generic blob of a straight white man. I had to actively imagine this character this way, and it took effort!

So I challenge you, next time you’re reading some fiction, to imagine the main character otherwise. Why not an Asian woman, why not a Native American man, why not a black guy who’s really cute? Imagine otherwise, and see how you experience literature differently.

Happy Reading!


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