A self-indulgent ramble on anti-racism, writing, and reviewing
I’m about to review a book that has raised my hackles about how the author has written about two Black characters, which has raised a big question for me. How do I, a white woman, critique another white woman’s depiction of these characters. (And what am I going to do about the capitalization of white/White?)
As usual, I start with research, and started Googling the issue. Laura Lipman’s article in the Washington Post basically told me not to ask any Black acquaintances, and I get her point, but that’s not helping me decide what to do or say.
This article from Writer Unboxed was great, but, again, didn’t really help me from a reviewer’s point of view. Additionally, the specifics she raises doesn’t really address the particular situation.
The thoughtful article by Sarah Schulman, White Writer, gave a better theoretical framework for considering the issue. To oversimplify, the idea is that white writers addressing Black characters should make sure they are not reinforcing privilege and “cultural dominance.”
I’m going to digress for a moment and talk about my own evolution in the struggle for anti-racism. I grew up as a military brat, and, although I can’t say there wasn’t racism, there was at least a good faith effort (well, I perceived it as good faith) to create a more equal environment. My first experience of the N-word was on a school bus on the way to Hamura Elementary, a DoD school that occupied a former Japanese POW camp sometime in the late 60s. (Take a second and unpack that. I’ve tried to find more info about it as an adult, but no joy yet.)
Some kid yelled the word at another kid, and a chorus welled up from listeners. “OOoooh, your dad is gonna get in trouble for that,” was the main version, although the phrase “court martial” was also thrown around. I was in second grade.
My next memory of awareness was in recess at the same school, a year or so later, when I was confronted with the choice of playing with a Black girl. I didn’t like her, but I remember thinking that I couldn’t dislike her because she was Black regardless of her character. I played with her, begrudgingly.
Makes me think of this bit from 30 Rock, particularly the interplay between Tina Fey and Wayne Brady:
Fast forward to the 90s (I’ll omit the rather long story of moving to Alabama in 1972). For various reasons in my life and surroundings, I had few Black acquaintances until my thirties. First was my husband’s work friend, another military brat with whom I had more in common with as a result of that shared experience than with many white friends. The second shaping experience was a multitude of interactions with my students when I started teaching at the local community college.
At that point, I was consciously raising racial issues in classes. I’d learned late about white privilege, and was determined to get that out there, as well as historical perspectives on how we got to where we are. This forced me to really think hard about how to talk about difference.
I realized that I had originally thought anti-racism was just pretending nonwhites were white. I had trouble identifying someone as Black or Mexican American (San Antonio, remember) for a long time, as though it might embarrass them somehow–as if it were a social disease.
But I realized that was a paternalistic racism, an attempt to erase difference in favor of the white version of reality. So I started facing the issue head-on, asking questions in classes made up of Black, hispanic, and white kids. I found that there was often ignorance of each other all the way around, and the conversations were useful. (I still remember a Mexican-American kid saying after one of the movies I showed (I want to say Mississippi Burning) that he didn’t realize how bad it had been for Blacks. My jaw about dropped.)
One consistent reaction was to my presentation on white privilege. The white kids usually were unaware of the concept, and the Brown and Black kids had a hard time understanding how they couldn’t be. That blindness, the inability to see the food sticking in our teeth and swiped across our faces, is what makes us ask the dumb questions about “is this racist?” to friends and acquaintances of color. (My favorite comment in response to something I’d said and then questioned was, “Probably, but you mean well.”)
So in the current climate, where we are elevating the discussion of anti-racism and looking at our issues, it seems remiss not to discuss what I find to be insensitive handling of race in a book I’m reviewing. On the other hand, it’s so charged that I anticipate an overreaction if I raise it.
In this case, I wouldn’t say that you could simply omit the Black characters. It’s set in North Carolina, and the two Black characters are the housekeeper and a cook/chef. This is a reflection of a reality that still exists, so to pretend that it’s otherwise would be inauthentic.
But it seems like the writer is trying to dodge around their Blackness, which seems to me to be as big a problem as caricaturing them. It triggers my judged past of treating Blackness as a social disease. But i’m not sure how I’d tell her to fix it beyond not ignoring it and them making those characters fully rounded individuals, not just place holders. To be fair, I haven’t finished the book yet, but that’s where I am in the process.
I understand that there’s a problem inherent in this situation for the white writer: how do you write the Black characters in a way that doesn’t exclude them, but doesn’t pretend you know something that you don’t, nor does it whitewash them? (Guys, really, read Sarah Schulman’s White Writer,)
And then another thorny bit: there’s a reference to a joke about the protagonist inheriting the housekeeper with the house. I didn’t realize until that point that the housekeeper was supposed to be Black, and it was only because of a clumsy attempt to distance the protagonist (it’s first person) from the joke which more clearly references slavery. It could be argued that it’s a way to get the protagonist, that you need to see her flaws, but it doesn’t feel like a conscious choice to me for that—more that the author doesn’t even realize it’s problematic.
What’s a reviewer who wants to be sensitive to both the race issues and to the writer do? Truly. I’m asking. What do y’all think?