Thursday, April 09, 2009

A No-Win Whiteness?

I want to write race, my white writing buddies confess. Demographics are shifting in America, and I know I should. But I feel stuck.

Most of them don't feel comfortable writing a nonwhite protagonist. How is that authentic? they wonder.

They don't feel free to create antagonists of color. How is that not racist? they ask.

And the answer isn't simply including secondary characters -- foils, sidekicks, or "magical negroes" who exist only to help or inspire a white protagonist. How is that not tokenism? they ask.

How in the world, then, can my white writing friends safely write race?

The answer is easy. They can't. Write race safely, I mean. None of us can. But we can be brave enough to try.

In The Atlantic's The End of White America?, Hua Hsu describes how white people feel in circles of influence:

... If white America is indeed “losing control,” and if the future will belong to people who can successfully navigate a post-racial, multicultural landscape—then it’s no surprise that many white Americans are eager to divest themselves of their whiteness entirely ...

Matt Wray, a sociologist at Temple University ... has observed that many of his white students are plagued by a racial-identity crisis: “They don’t care about socioeconomics; they care about culture. And to be white is to be culturally broke. The classic thing white students say when you ask them to talk about who they are is, ‘I don’t have a culture.’ They might be privileged, they might be loaded socioeconomically, but they feel bankrupt when it comes to culture … They feel disadvantaged, and they feel marginalized. They don’t have a culture that’s cool or oppositional... We’re going through a period where whites are really trying to figure out: Who are we?”

Talk about irony, right? Welcome to life between cultures, people. It's about time you got here. Those of us who've crossed ethnic and racial borders since childhood know this place well. We know about feeling constrained and stiff and unsafe when it comes to writing race and ethnicity. Sometimes you tell yourself yes, and sometimes you tell yourself no, but at least you ask the hard questions and listen to thought-provoking criticism. In a fast-changing time without clearcut rules and definitions, there's grace for mistakes and rewards to anticipate, especially for the kids and teens we serve.

8 comments:

  1. Thanks for this, Mitali. Good points.

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  2. Great points, Mitali. It is unfortunate that it has taken so long for some people to reach this point when so many have lived here for so long.

    Very insightful.

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  3. I've heard this a lot in the last few weeks. People are trying so hard not to be racist that they've failed to be inclusive. My answer always is, "You do your best. You apologize when you make a mistake. You're not being punished when you're being corrected- it's a chance to learn and try again."

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  4. I'm thankful for the dialogue you've opened up here, Mitali.

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  5. Anonymous4:26 AM

    Don't remember the title but I recently read an excerpt from either a Mid.
    Gr. or YA novel in which the main char. opens the door to a conference room and sees pinks, browns, yellows, and blacks sitting around a table. Took me a second to realize that by "pinks," he meant whites. By using the term pink, whites would have a color, too, like American minority ethnicities do. We'd all have pigmentation as a common uniting trait. Pink writers might feel easier about their main char. being brown, yellow, black, or any other color.

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  6. Oh, wow, that statement by Hua Hsu really, really hits home. How often I have felt much the same way, in a weird sense Other, by not feeling like - or being told that I am not - reflecting my culture, yet not being sure altogether that I can be what someone else thinks that entails. My goodness, are we all in the corridor together? Maybe we can sit down and make a new space between the rooms...

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  7. Can I just say it is so helpful as a white writer to have people of other cultures help edit a manuscript and educate me? Justina Chen Headley has been a dear to me as I write about my life in Korea. It was a painful revision process, but with graciousness and patience, the writing I hope has really been strengthened and is more fully accurate!

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  8. What will end it other such open dialog?!

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