Racism. Misogyny. Homophobia. They’re all working off a common assumption: a given culture has a norm, and anyone who’s different from the norm is just that — different, and therefore, of course, inferior.
Feminists have for example long argued that using language like “mankind,” or making the assumption that “he” also implicitly includes the legions of “she,” effectively sets up two tiers: the norm and the not-norm. Well, of course mankind means everybody — but it says “man,” doesn’t it? And language and culture follow each other.
I’m a product of my culture. I’ll admit to my racism; I actually don’t think anyone who says they’re not racist is quite in touch with reality. My accidental advantage was to be born Caucasian, and that accident has gifted me with layers of privilege I did absolutely nothing to earn or deserve. I started to list some of those privileges here, and gave up: twenty pages on, and I’d still be writing.
That’s a very long introduction to what I really want to talk about: fiction.
I’m fascinated by language; it’s one of the reasons (well, that and having no discernable talent in any other direction) I became a writer. And I’m generally careful about the way I use it. Except… except.
There’s a horrible racism embedded in much — if not most — of the fiction I read, certainly in fiction written by white authors. I’m as guilty of producing it as everybody else, and I’m at my wit’s end trying to figure out how to fix it.
Let’s set the scene. Cozy mystery novel. The female protagonist — let’s see, maybe she owns an antique shop, or works for a local newspaper, or is a freelance graphics artist. Whatever. She has a cat. She’s nice; she pays for the person behind her at the coffee shop. As the novel opens, someone in her neighborhood just got murdered, and she’s realized she can help solve the crime.
Pop quiz: what race is said protagonist?
Chances are, if you’re white, you didn’t think twice (or even once) about her race. You assumed she was white, because that’s what you perceive as the norm, especially the norm for a nice girl like the one I just described. If I don’t say she’s something else, then she’s white. The thought doesn’t cross your mind as a reader. If I didn’t want her to be white, then I’d have written, “the Latina protagonist” or “the African-American protagonist.” I didn’t; I assumed she was white. Like me.
I’ve read a lot of books written by non-white authors for an audience that sees white as normative. They can sometimes pull off the who-am-I trick by situating the novel in a certain community — Indian, for example — or neighborhood, so that a different norm is established from the beginning. Or they can describe characters’ race, and sometimes it works, and sometimes the descriptions are romance-novel painful (“his skin in the sunlight was the color of ebony”). But none of it is easy.
I teach writing, and one of my mantras is forward momentum. Keep the story moving. Don’t give the reader a good place to stop, or they will. Part of maintaining forward momentum is keeping writing tight: sentences need to flow without extra verbiage that tangles the reader up and slows them down. Such as, one could argue, a description of race.
I’m imagining one of my mystery novels that might start with the protagonist describing herself as a white woman in her thirties. I’m not big on descriptions at the best of times; I like to let the reader form their own sense of what people look like. In one of the series I write, the protagonist has red hair; I don’t think I even let on to that until I’ve done what I see as more important things: set the scene, give the reader as sense of her as a person, pull in a place and some other characters.
I think I’m right in that: her having red hair has never been intrinsic to understanding her or enjoying the books. Red hair doesn’t really mean anything.
Race, on the other hand, does.
“An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned,” said Nina Simone, “is to reflect the times.” That’s where artists need to be: at the cutting edge of the culture, both reflecting where it is and challenging it to be better, to do better, to strive for more.
That’s where artists need to be. I’m not there. I’m reflecting the status quo, encouraging my readers to make racist assumptions when they read my books. I can’t say I feel good about that.
I’d like to find a way to change. It’s a truism (and the pinnacle of unfairness) that the task of ending racism falls upon Black people rather than on white people, just as the task of ending sexism falls on women rather than on men. I am responsible for racism. It’s on me to share — even give up, if that were possible — my unearned white privilege. That should be the task of every white person.
But as a novelist, I have even more responsibility. A lot of people read my books. I have the power to influence them — if I can only find the right language. And that’s where I get stuck. Will I give up my beloved forward momentum and flow to make a statement about racial assumptions? Am I brave enough to do that? And even if I am, how do I do it? How do I structure my descriptions and thoughts so that the language can contribute to the cultural discourse?
I don’t know the answers. I don’t know how to solve the problem.
But I know I want to.