How do I….not be racist? As a writer? As a person?
I’m a grad student attending a university on the east coast, and I am… struggling with my faith in social justice and liberalism in general, just because the things I see people doing don’t line up with what they say they’re about. I think that some of it is the shock of returning to school during the Trump era, when people are naturally on edge and pessimistic. It might also be the school itself, which is a blue dot the middle of a purple state. Most of the students are white, and straight and so I think for queer people and minorities, it feels like the university says a lot about tolerance and inclusion, but the culture here is not that welcoming (I’ve felt that myself) Maybe I’m just getting old and in shock about changes in campus culture. And I might just be projecting. But I feel like there’s a general air of hypocrisy, blame, intolerance, constant criticism of everything and an inability to accept criticism themselves. Overall, it just seems like there’s a tendency to invert the social heirarchy that’s suffocating us, rather than subverting it, and it seems like less and less like what people are describing lines up with reality I’ve experienced. It’s really hard for me to pinpoint- and I can’t tell if it’s all in my head, or if I’m doing the nitpicking I’m accusing other people of.
I’ve been troubled for a while, but it came to a head when I showed some of my writing in class, which features an asian protagonist. I was basically told by one undergraduate that it was a ‘racist portrayal.’ She’s based on a couple of friends of mine, and while I have heard arguments against writing white people writing people of color, I’ve also heard a lot of people of color arguing against that argument. My nonwhite friends told me to go for it and my advisor (who’s half asian) seemed to have no problem with the story thus far. The publishing industry is still hella white, and I wanted to do my part in at least helping diversify fiction. As far as I can tell, the only reason they thought is that I’m white and she’s asian (they didn’t get to see much.) This student has also called out a lot of things, including one character who he identified as a racist Asian stereotype who’s actually a racist Irish sterotype (it’s moot point I suppose- that particular 19th century work has plenty of racism to go around.)
I’ve thought long and hard, and I can’t think of a worse thing I can be called than’ racist’ and having my work called that is no better. it’s like a gunshot wound to the chest- it literally hurts. And I don’t know what to say to them. I don’t feel like I can go against their worldview, having never lived it myself.
I have a lot more sympathy with all those religious people questioning their faith now. This is one of the worst things I have ever felt- worse than breaking up with a partner. My heart literally hurts, and I don’t think there’s any good answer. Either there is something horrible, horribly wrong with me, or there is something wrong with something I thought was right (at least here). Either way, I feel very very alone.
Dear Brave Correspondent,
I am going to work on answering this question, as a white person and as a writer (and also as a queer and transgender person who is regularly aggravated by straight and cisgender people’s portrayals of my community, as you mention) and then at the end I am going to recommend some work by Black, Indigenous and People of Color for reading and education beyond what I can offer as a white person. But I’m making a decision here that helping a fellow white writer find their way to right action is part of my responsibility as a white person who wants to work toward a just world.
The first thing I want to say is that, honestly, we live in a racist world and we’ve all been inculcated and trained in a racist system. Brave Correspondent, that system trains all of us toward white supremacy – and heteronormativity, and misogyny, and ableism, and all the other stations on the Kyriarchy Express. Which means that the racism (and all the rest of it, but you asked about racism so we’ll focus there) is baked right in to all of us, and learning to be in resistance to it is work. Kyriarchy is a swift and unforgiving current that we have to paddle against every day. It rushed toward us in popular culture and media, in systems of government and education and policing, and it doesn’t remotely require a racist intention for a person to do racist or other oppressive things. It just requires that you pause in paddling as hard as you can even for a minute. What’s worse is that sometimes we, I, any of us have been paddling to the best of our ability and we still manage to mess up. My friend and colleague Angel Adeyoha once said to me, quite matter-of-factly, that the question for her isn’t whether a white person is going to do or say something racist, but when. In the words of Madge from the Palmolive commercials, we’re soaking in it.
I am not telling you that to let you off the hook. It’s not “oh, everybody’s racist, so you’re not so bad.” It’s: “okay, resistance to white supremacy is an ongoing struggle, so as a white person our job is to take right actions and not get stuck in our big feelings, even when we fuck it up.” The pain you feel upon being called racist is incredibly valuable if you look at it in the right way. Wrong way: “Ouch, this really hurts and now I need my friends of color to reassure me that I’m not an awful person.” Right way: “The pain of this incident must spur me to work harder to relieve the pain of white supremacy as it impacts my friends of color every day.” This is part of the experience you are having in graduate school: you, a white person, are being rigorously questioned and held to account about race, gender, sexuality and class. What’s more, the conversations can’t end because you feel hurt – that sense of hurt has got to be the beginning; the door you walk through on the way to doing better next time.
So what does this “paddling against” look like? To me, it requires a constant evaluation of messages, systems, ideas and experiences. To ask, at every turn: “who does this help and who does it harm? Who is centered here and who is pushed further to the margins? What is erased? Whose experience or voice isn’t present? Why was this created in the way that it was, and by whom?” Sometimes these things are incredibly obvious (is this a panel of all white people? WHY?) and sometimes they require more analysis, like my husband’s recent observation (about which he drew this comic) that showing a movie in class without captions specifically advantages people for whom English is a fluent language. Which means, by default, it disadvantages students whose fluent language(s) are not English. The comic contains a beginning of the solution: turn on the captions to allow greater language access. That’s an example of paddling against the rush of kyriarchy.
Another important piece is what we actualize in our language. When you say “there’s a tendency to invert the social hierarchy that’s suffocating us, rather than subverting it” I wonder what that means to you? To me, it sounds like you may also be struggling with what some people have termed “privilege drop,” (I cannot find a solid citation for who coined this phrase but it seems to have been popularized in the work of Dr. Tolonda M. Tolbert) – it’s the disconcerting feeling we experience when our needs and experiences have always been centered and catered to and then some of that energy gets put toward something else, so we get less and we don’t like it. People can feel that sense of loss quite acutely, as in the much trumpeted “War On Christmas.” The majority is really really mad because they used to get all the airtime around the holiday season. They still get most of it, and a ton of consideration and privilege around their holiday (including school breaks based on them, &c) but it’s not quite as much as it used to be. Australian researcher Dale Spender showed in her research during the 1980s that if women speak in a meeting 15% of the time men think they are speaking an equal amount of time, and if they speak 30% of the time men perceive them as dominating the conversation. In both cases, the person who is losing a part of their privilege has an understanding of the situation that’s loss-based, and your comment makes me wonder whether this is also you?
Now, does being called out/called in about having done something racist really suck? Oh, yes. No one decent wants to have done something harmful. AND, when a BIPOC person calls out something you’ve done that’s racist, there’s a valuable opportunity. Now you can learn and grow and not do that thing anymore. While it’s true that there are the occasional people who call-out for social power, that’s by far the exception rather than the rule. So the work here is to move past your feeling of “I did something wrong and I’m awful,” and into the space of “I did something wrong and this person has invested time in me to help me learn to do better next time.”
In writing-specific terms, my first thing is that you say you want to do your part to diversify publishing, and while I share that goal I am not certain writing an Asian (and it’s a little weird to me that in all you say about this work you don’t say from where) main character is going to most usefully accomplish that. I would rather see you work to diversify publishing by amplifying Black, Indigenous, and writer of color voices, citing and quoting and recommending BIPOC writers, using whatever privilege you have as a white person to make introductions; if you get the power to hire or choose people hiring or choosing BIPOC writers.
Beyond that, there’s a complicated calculus about writing the experiences of people you don’t share. Part of it is about money and power – white writers are so much more likely to have books acquired that when those representations vastly outnumber the representations of people writing about their own culture, community or experience it leaves a lot of BIPOC writers feeling (reasonably) upset. For queer and trans writers, it can be exhausting to watch straight, cisgender people write extremely questionable representations of our experiences for big money and recognition while actual queer and trans people get told our work is “too niche.” Disabled and D/deaf writers experience the same thing, and the list goes on. This is where the #ownvoices movement was born – to encourage publishers to acquire and publish work by BIPOC, LGBT2Q, disabled and other marginalized writers. So should you write characters beyond your own experience? Answers will definitely vary, and I understand that there’s a tough balance around not wanting to write only white characters and be thought not-inclusive v. writing characters who are marginalized and take up that space. It can definitely be a hard needle to thread, that’s real. The question for me is: what work are you doing about this? If you are trying to write a character who is other-than-your-experiences, how are you preparing to do this in a way that’s responsible and accountable rather than casual or thoughtless?
There’s a wonderful book called Writing The Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward about this very topic, with extensive education and specific advice about this, as well as a constellation of workshops available on-demand through Shawl’s online project with writer K. Tempest Bradford. I also highly recommend this article from NYT bestselling-author Daniel José Older, 12 Fundamentals Of Writing “The Other” (And The Self). Older digests some crucial points and gives white writers a good place to start decolonizing our process. Last, let me recommend Dartmouth professor of creative writing Alexander Chee’s article How to Unlearn EverythingWhen it comes to writing the “other,” what questions are we not asking? and this article by author Mikki Kendall, Diversity, Political Correctness and The Power of Language. If I were your writing professor, I would ask you to start with this work and grapple with these questions.
Beyond that, Brave Correspondent, I want to recommend some books by BIPOC writers and thinkers who have done a lot of work about justice that I think you should read: The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander; Care Work by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, and Stamped from The Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi for a start. It’s my hope that getting a sense of how pervasive and intense the systems of racism and disenfranchisement are might help you move through this stuck space of big feelings about your own points of complicity and find yourself on the other side with new tools to assess harm, responsibility, and your own position in the world. I strongly suspect you’ll find a renewed vigor in both your writing projects and for the work of resistance, both of which are of incalculable value.
love and courage,
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