On Writing Race While White

alloppressionisconnectedIn my corner of the internet, there is a sense among some that it can be hard out there for a white writer.1 My corner of the internet is one concerned with diversity in publishing, oppression in publishing, and how to dismantle white supremacy in both the structure of publishing as an industry and in literature through characters as representations. The focus is not on race exclusively–race is one axis of oppression, one that intersects with other axes of oppression (gender, sexuality, dis/ability, class, citizenship status, language, size). Shit is complicated, is what I’m saying. But for the purposes of this this post, I’m locating myself as a white person interested in issues of race in publishing, which puts me in a position of privilege for this discussion.2

I’m not writing this post as a how-to for others, but I am articulating this for my own clarity. Take from it what you will.

So. I am a white writer that looks at publishing and sees yet another institution rife with racism. I see writers of color, and I want to support them how and when I can. I listen to the laments of my partner, a woman of color, as she talks to me about how she can’t find any good representation of herself in the books she wants to read, and never could as a kid, and what a weight that is on her.

I am a white writer who, once upon a time, did academic research on racial identity theory, power, and privilege.

I am a white writer who is raising a white child with a woman of color and a white man. That is tricky water to navigate.

I am a white writer who thinks about whiteness a lot. I am a white writer who wants to interrogate whiteness in fiction and in the publishing industry.

But in this conversation, I am still a white writer.

I’ve come to realize in working through my white privilege–which is an ever-evolving thing, a continual thing, you never finish that process–that much of the work on my end is learning to shut up. To stop talking. To be quiet. To give space. To listen.

I forgot to do that when it came to writing. I got arrogant, I think, like a lot of white writers do, and I dove into the diversity thing with both feet. I have one published story out already written from the perspective of a South Asian girl–it’s called “Beneath the Dane Hills”, and you can read it for free here. I’m not a widely read author, and I doubt more than a dozen of people have read it. I haven’t gotten pushback for it, but that doesn’t mean I got it right. That doesn’t mean that was my story to tell. I’m copping to that here. I’m linking to the story here not for cookies but for call-outs; this is an invitation for people to read it and tell me what I did wrong, where I overstepped, if they feel up to it. Because in hindsight, I don’t think I should have written that story from that perspective.

My thinking was this as I wrote “Beneath the Dane Hills”: why couldn’t the MC be a POC? There wasn’t any reason why not–except that I actually don’t know shit about that lived experience. Oops. And as I drafted the story, Pooja’s ethnicity became part of the story. The racism she experienced wove into the meat of the story. Of course it did–that’s part of her everyday life. But it’s not part of my everyday life, and there’s no way I got the specifics right. It’s just a guess. Pooja is queer, and a baby butch, and from a low class background; for those pieces I could draw on my own experiences. For those parts I know I’m tapping into something real. But her racialized experiences? All I’ve got to go one is research (I did do research) and hearsay. But that’s not enough. Not if someone actually like Pooja reads it and it rankles her because of course that’s how a white writer would write it.

That’s how we get it wrong. We think we know, but we don’t. Even when we really, really

I have social power over writers of color. Me publishing inauthentic MC of color contributes to a white supremacist publishing industry. :(

I have social power over writers of color. Me publishing inauthentic MC of color contributes to a white supremacist publishing industry. 😦

pay attention, we don’t know. We don’t know the specificities, the actual wounds that are dealt from living in racism. We’ll never write it authentically; it’ll only ever be an approximation. Do I want to add to the tidal wave of ‘just approximations’ that people of color have vomited back to them over and over again on the daily? I…don’t think I do.

I have three other stories on the market right now that do the same thing that “Beneath the Dane Hills” does. See? I kept doing it. I’m trying to decide what to do with them. Do I wait until they’re rejected, then quietly file them in a drawer? Do I pull them from consideration? Likely they will be rejected anyway. Once they are rejected, then what do I do with them? I had a thought to self-publish them, post them for free, make them available to be read, but at no cost so that they are not taking any spaces from writers of color or profits. But they are still out there, proof that I did do this and available for critique.

There are still ways for me to write about race. And I still should. I tackled issues of race, for example, in Ariah. It was a central theme throughout–Ariah experience racism fairly constantly. Many of the elves are coded as Black (dark-skinned, kinky hair). This is a different way to handle race, though. Its what I think of as the Ursula K. Le Guin spec fic sidestep:

As a young, White, upper-middle-class writer, I chose, in Jennifer’s terms, to play safe. Most of my characters in fantasy and sf are people of color, but they’re in the “future,” or on another planet. Heather in Lathe of Heaven is Black, but it’s in the “future.” Genly Ai in Left Hand of Darkness is a Black man from a future Earth, nobody in the story has white skin, everybody is definitely Other — but “alien” in the sf sense, not in the sense of cultural alienation.

black elves fighting racism! similar to but not the same as Black people's experience of real-world racism

black elves fighting racism! similar to but not the same as Black people’s experience of real-world racism

So, I do this in my Aerdh universe books and stories, and I feel comfortable interrogating racism and its devastating effects through this distanced lens I’m running less of a chance that I’ll step on readers’ toes by getting specifics wrongs like I will in something like “Beneath the Dane Hills” where I’m drawing on real people’s real lived experiences of oppression. The Aerdh universe is drawing parallels with those lived experiences, but there’s not an expectation of a one-to-one match, so there’s less of a chance of a reader wanting to throw the book across the room (i.e. getting seriously microaggressed) when their direct experience isn’t precisely/completely represented.

Note that to do this sidestep well I still have to do my dang research. I still have to read a ton about power structures, how racism develops, how it functions, how its nasty tendrils seep into everything around us. How it manifests in a thousand different ways. I still have to listen and learn from my friends of color. And I still may get it wrong. And if I do I have to take the criticism and absorb it thoughtfully.

I guess, in sum, I can write whatever I want. No one is going to stop me but me. I am trying to write well–both in terms of quality and in terms of ethics. I’ve been asking myself, of my pieces, what space is this taking up? How will a reader of color react to this on finding out that a white writer wrote it? What don’t I know? Given how much, of late, I’ve been rubbed wrong by straight writers writing Tragic Queers what am I writing wrong about race without even knowing it?

I should just…stop. Unless I’m 100% comfortable, I should stop. There are places to push yourself as a writer, and there are places to stay comfortable. This is a place, I think, where I should stay comfortable, because to write into narratives of real, existing people of color about their own experiences with race3 is to write past those actual people. It’s an intrusion.

I’ll keep reading and promoting the work of writers of color writing their own experiences. I’ll keep addressing it sideways. I’ll keep writing white characters interrogating whiteness. I’ll keep speaking up, personally, about whiteness. But I don’t think I should keep writing stories like “Beneath the Dane Hills.”

~

1The internet is a many-cornered place. There are plenty of white writers out there utterly uninterested in this discussion and/or unaware it’s taking place. But many white writers are thinking through these issues. Kayla Whaley has a really good post about these issues. The blog Reading While White is excellent. My take on this is that it isn’t actually hard out there for us because it isn’t about us. If we’re uncomfortable, it’s because we’re centering conversations on ourselves that shouldn’t be centered on us in the first place.

2Not At All Interested in denials of white privilege in this space. Just, nope. Not At All Interested in that. Comments are moderated on my blog, and comments contesting that white people have privilege over people of color will never see the light of day.

3That doesn’t mean people of color will never, ever appear in my fiction that is set in the real world. Or that they will be the main characters. I don’t think I should whitewash my fiction; that’s not the answer either. But it does mean that I really shouldn’t write stories about real-world racism when I don’t experience it. I just…I’m never going to get that right, and trying to write that, and then having the audacity to try and sell it when there are writers of color out there doing it a million times better. Fuck. I am so white and entitled and I am sorry.


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5 thoughts on “On Writing Race While White

  1. My random thoughts:

    Because it’s so hard for a POC to get published, the white authors have an easier route for publication. Sometimes it’s easier for a POC to find a book featuring a POC. Justine Labelastier and Lauren Beukes are white with books with great diverse/black/brown characters and I love them for it.

    I do feel a tinge resentement when I see white authors publishing books with POC as main characters, but I have to check myself.

    Heather from THE LATHE OF HEAVEN was the first black woman in a spec fiction novel that I ever read. I so love Ursula for this.

    So I said all of that to say this… Maybe you should still publish. maybe.

    Like

    • Right! That’s the thing! Representation matters, so much. And I started writing POC main characters because of my partner and other POCs who I love who crave representation…but in the doing am I taking up space that, say, YOU should have? Shit it complicated. It’s all just so complicated.

      I can write about race, still. Heather in LATHE OF HEAVEN is a good example of how. That story isn’t about her blackness. I just don’t want to trespass and get it wrong, because white authors are rewarded for getting it wrong all too often, and that is then used to still keep authors of color out of the room.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. As a writer and POC it’s reassuring to read things like this sometimes, the issue of privilege should always be approached as a conversation start point, not end. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts and considerations!

    Liked by 1 person

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