A reviewer’s dilemma

A self-indulgent ramble on anti-racism, writing, and reviewing

Brandon deWilde, Ethel Waters, and Julie Harris in Member of the Wedding, from the novel by Carson McCullers, a novelist noted for groundbreaking portrayals of Black characters.

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?

5 thoughts on “A reviewer’s dilemma

  1. Arina

    Ah, I see your point here and recognize your indecision. Ultimately though, I see it as an issue that should be treated as any fault with writing; like a faulty plotline that fails to be addressed right.

    I obviously can’t give an anwer to the points you raise, I’m not Black, and in that we all experience and express our privilege differently, even when we don’t realize it. Which can be what’s happening here with the author’s decisions and depiction, but does intent matter or does the result? Another thing I can’t give a definite answer to, but to me, result always takes center-stage.

    I obviously haven’t read the book, but it seems to me to fall on depictions that are, for their tireless repetitions, conductive to harmful viewpoints and statements, whether the author intends it so or not. Whether they intend to hurt or not misses the point; the fact is, intent can escape a book’s pages but effect never can.

    In this case, though I think it’s not up to you to say “hey, here’s what’s racist”, because it’s not about centering your viewpoint, it’s important to point out “hey, here’s what your choices” because whether intended or not, our choices have effects on others) “can possibly be interpreted as”.

    Since this is not a situation where your POV comes from experience, you can only direct the author towards what you imagine or assess from others’s (namely Black readers who will pick up the book) experiences, and I think if the author rly strives for constructive criticism that highlights substantial literature and their writing, then they’d be glad to seek out that experience-informed viewpoint.
    So, pointing them to Black reviewers could be a good solution.

    If not, well, again, it’s not up to you neither as a reviewer or as a white person to tell ppl what’s wrong, it’s up to you to make them want to learn for themselves what can have harmful effects.

    At least that’s how I see it!

    It’s never about authority in a case like this. That’s my viewpoint but I know it can be hard, and again, because I’m not Black I don’t have the experience to exert my views here. But just my advice, as I know how difficult cases like these are! Good luck and feel free to reach out if you need to rant or anything!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. What a thoughtful reply. That’s a great perspective and very helpful—it’s tempting to take the role of authority when reviewing, but approaching it more from a “this set off alarms for me, but I’m not an expert” stance is freeing . Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Arina

        It rly is. And I got to say you raised very important points so I think you should not hesitate to speak your mind. Reviewing comes w this double edged sword but the best thing we got is our honesty 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: Book tour gone bad – books + ecstatic = BIBLIOSTATIC

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