Thursday, August 18, 2016

On White Fragility, by Guest Blogger Justine Larbalestier

Author Justine Larbalestier. Photo by Niki Bern.
Why do we white people hate talking about race?

My theory is that it makes us feel like we are the baddies. A notion we recoil from because we have been taught all our lives that white people are the goodies. So many of our stories are about us saving (some part of) the world from racism and exploitation: Dances with Wolves, The Help, Avatar (some other world) etc. All too often in these stories, as in probably the most famous example, To Kill a Mockingbird, we're also the baddies doing the terrible things but that's okay because we're the white saviours.

The story we often tell ourselves about white colonialism is that we saved the "savages" from their brutish, cannibalistic lives by giving them Christianity and civilization. 
We tend to edit out our "gifts" of small pox, massacres, slavery, and the fact that the vast bulk of verifiable incidents of cannibalism were committed by white people. *Cough* Donner party.


Coming to terms with the fact that, not only are we not the goodies, that historically we are, in fact, the big bad is not easy. Nor is realising that individually we white people can, and frequently do, hurt people on a daily basis because we don't think about how our whiteness smooths our path for us while flattening others.

When we are called on our (usually) unthinking racist statements and acts we tend to fall apart. All too often other white people rally around to tell us that the problem is not what we’ve said or done—nope, it's those mean people calling us on it.

“I'm a good person. I can't be racist.”

This spectacle is called white fragility.

It doesn't have to be that way. We white people can get out of our own way.

Here's what I do when a Person of Colour or an Indigenous person calls me out (in the non-­duelling sense):

1. Assume they're speaking in good faith because they know more about racism than I do. Too many of us whites are convinced we know more about racism than the people who actually experience it. We don't. Even those of us with PhDs on the subject.  Someone saying something mean about us because we're white is not the same as systemic racism.

2. Listen. That uncomfortable feeling? I've learnt that it's a good thing. I no longer run away from it.


3. Learn. This is the part where I figure out why the criticism is making me feel uncomfortable. Always remembering that feeling uncomfortable is nothing compared to being subjected to racism. Discomfort isn't lethal.

4. Assume that the calling out is not about me but about making the world a less racist, more equitable place.

5. Do what I can to make the world a less racist, more equitable place. Obviously, this is the hardest part.


Ways white writers can make the world (or publishing, at least) a less racist, more equitable place:

To help diversify YA, we white authors can support Indigenous authors and Authors of Color by reading their books, recommending their books, blurbing their books, and recommending them to our agents. When we're invited to conferences, or festivals, or to be in anthologies, make sure they're not majority white. We need to make more space for People of Colour and Indigenous people in our very white publishing industry.


These are by far the most important things we can do personally to increase diversity.

However, I keep seeing white authors getting hung up on whether white people are allowed to write from points of view not our own. Spoiler: we're allowed. No one is stopping us. Will doing so make YA more diverse? No, it won't.

Obsessing over that question has little to do with making YA a more diverse genre and everything to do with centering the concerns of white authors. A more important contribution to making YA more diverse would be to stop obsessing about it. Yes, we were taught by To Kill a Mockingbird that racism can be solved by a well-intentioned white person saving the day, but maybe it's time to say goodbye to that more­-than­-fifty­-years-­old model.

Recently I've said I'm going to focus on writing white main characters in my single point of view novels. That's a personal decision. I've not told anyone else to do likewise.  This decision is also not much of a contribution to diversifying YA. It's about my journey grappling with my whiteness and racism and fragility.

My name is Justine Larbalestier and I'm white and fragile.

For too long time I believed in being a white saviour. I thought that by writing from the point of view of a Person of Colour I was helping make YA more diverse. I was helping YA's diverse readership see themselves represented. There were so few books for them! I was supplying the lack! I was doing good!

For years the response to my books—glowing reviews, award nominations, fan letters from People of Colour—supported my belief that I was doing good.


I had read critiques of the white saviour complex but was sure they didn't apply to me. But one day in early 2009 a black woman blogger wrote a critique of my novel Liar.

Liar has a black teen protagonist. The blogger wrote that the book hurt her, that it was full of painful tropes, and that she would not read anything else I wrote unless it was not about People of Colour because I could not be trusted with the stories of anyone who isn't white. Further, that she wasn't going to read any more books with PoC protags by white people because we always get it wrong.

I felt like I'd been punched.

It was the most painful criticism any of my books had ever received and I've had reviews call for my books to be burnt and me to be slapped.

I sent the critique to several friends so they could reassure me she was wrong.


Yes, in the face of someone literally stating she had been hurt by the racist tropes in my book, all I wanted was reassurance. I thought my hurt feelings were more important than her actual pain.

That right there is white fragility.

I'd love to tell you that I understood that at the time. I didn't.


I knew enough not to say anything publicly. I just moaned to my friends.

Not long afterwards people started realising that the cover of Liar had been whitewashed. That particular blogger wrote brilliant critiques of the whitewashing. She was one of the many voices who helped get the cover changed. I continued to follow her work online and found myself agreeing with the majority of it.

Which only made her criticism burn more. She was right about so many other things, did that mean she wasn't wrong about my book? I wanted to believe she was wrong. My friends had told me she was. Besides, she'd gotten several details of the plot wrong. Clearly her anger blinded her. It was an angry, disgusted, sarcastic review.  She used the word "ugh" a lot. She wasn't being reasonable.

I ignored the critique and went on to write (with Sarah Rees Brennan) yet another book with a PoC main character, Team Human. This time the protagonist was Chinese ­American. There were no critiques from well­-known bloggers. I saw one or two reviews on Good Reads by Chinese ­American reviewers who had problems with it. But it got great trade reviews! Lots of other Chinese ­American readers loved it!

I kept thinking about that review. More and more blog posts and articles were appearing about the lack of PoC and Indigenous writers in YA and the need for diversity.  The conversation was starting to shift from merely being about representation. There was growing talk about who wrote those trade reviews, who gave out those awards. Overwhelmingly white people.

I'm not sure when it happened but sometime in the last few years, amidst the growth of #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #OwnVoices, I started to realise that blogger was right. Of course she was right. Liar had hurt her. I had hurt her. More than that, I finally realised her critique was not about me. It wasn't all that much about my book, either.

She was explaining what it's like to read books by white people that purport to be about people like her, that arrogantly trample on her lived experience, without a thought as to how that affects her. She was saying she'd had enough. She didn't trust white writers like me. And why should she?

We white people tend to judge books individually and not within the wider context of systemic racism. PoC and Indigenous readers don't have that luxury. They can't step outside their lived experience. The racism in one particular book might seen mild—or even invisible—to white me, but for the PoC reader who has been bombarded with those tropes over and over and over again, it's too much.

Her critique showed me how high the stakes are.

Before I read her critique I had never seriously considered the harm I could cause writing PoC and Indigenous characters.


Her angry, disgusted, sarcastic critique was what finally got through to me.

The fact that it took me so long to hear what she was saying also made me realise that there is no way to talk about white privilege or racism that doesn't get heard by many white people as an attack. Even if she had written her critique in a nice way I'd still have felt gut-­punched.

Frankly, back when I first read that critique I'd read hundreds of books and articles about white privilege, white supremacy, appropriation, diversity, racism. Most of them written very nicely indeed with nary an angry word. I'd not thought any of them had much to do with me because I was sure that I'm one of the good ones. Like that nice white lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird who saves the day.

Frankly, her anger got through to me more effectively than if she had been nice.

Except.

I reread that critique while writing this essay. Here's the thing: it wasn't that angry or sarcastic. It was more sad and disappointed.

It sounded angry to me back then because I didn't want to think about how my books weren't helping YA to become diverse. I didn't want to think about how I was part of the problem. I wasn't ready to listen so I heard it as angry yelling.

Until we white writers are ready to listen, until we're ready to accept that, yes, we are a part of systemic racism, yes, we benefit from white supremacy, it doesn't matter what the tone is, we won't be able to hear or understand what's being said.

A big part of why we find it so hard to listen is that we whites are rarely taught about race. Unless we're very lucky, our parents don't sit us down and explain it. Our teachers mostly don't either. Most of us have not been prepared to think or talk about race. As a result most of us will literally do anything we can to avoid talking about it.


This feeling that we're the baddies is so uncomfortable we change the subject as soon as possible.

Or, just as bad, we follow through on naive notions about how we can fix it. You know, like writing a nice book about a good white lawyer who tries to save a black person from being jailed for a crime they didn't commit because they've been framed by a bad white person and now racism is over. Yay! A white man once told me that was the most important novel ever written about race. He wasn't joking.

We white people have much unlearning to do. Step one: throw away the myth of the white saviour. Let other communities speak for themselves.


Note: Thank you, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Scott Westerfeld and Doselle Young for your feedback on earlier drafts of this essay. All remaining infelicities of expression and unclarity are mine all mine. I'd also like to thank Edi Campbell and Debbie Reese for their amazing blogs. They are two of the best resources out there on YA, Children's Literature and representation of PoC and Indigenous people. For some of the other people who have shaped my thinking on these issues check out the people I follow on Twitter.

Although the single point of view novels I write now have white main characters they are not all-­white books. I don't live in an all-white ­world so I don't write all­-white books. The books I'm working on that have multiple point of view characters are also not all-white.

I didn't name the blogger I discuss above because she critiqued my book without naming it. She did that because she was tired of white people yelling at her every time she critiqued a book for being racist. I wasn't about to point more of them in her direction.



Justine Larbalestier is an Australian-American author of eight novels. Her most recent, My Sister Rosa, is about a seventeen-year-old boy whose ten-year-old sister is a psychopath. It was published in February by Allen and Unwin in Australia and New Zealand and will be out in North America in November published by Soho Press. Her previous novel is Razorhurst, which takes place on a winter’s day in 1932 when Dymphna Campbell, a gangster’s moll, and Kelpie, a street urchin who can see ghosts, meet over the dead body of Dymphna’s latest lover, Jimmy Palmer.  Her most popular novel, Liar, is kind of self explanatory, i.e. it’s about a liar. She edited Zombies versus Unicorns with Holly Black. Her other novels include How to Ditch Your Fairy and the Magic or Madness trilogy.

27 comments:

Debbie Reese said...

I want to read this again and again.

It touches me in ways that other writings have not. It isn't because Justine references me, but because of what she shared about LIAR and how she felt about criticism of it, the praise and then the blog post... The arc of that experience, the emotions, the thinking...

Allie Jane Bruce said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Allie Jane Bruce said...

Yes, I had the same reaction Debbie! I love how unflinching she is, about herself first and foremost.

E.M. Kokie said...

What I find so very effective is that Justine takes the reader through her process of realization from denial to discomfort to awareness, taking apart her good intentions and blind spots, and I can't imagine many white people won't identify with her somewhere in that timeline, whether in a memory or in a future moment. Maybe not about a book, but about a social interaction, or online comment, or shared gif or beloved movie that has received criticism. Maybe about a review they wrote or something they love that others say is hurtful. I often reference LIAR when critiquing and working with writers. I will have to evaluate my own blind spots as a reader, too. And when that moment of recognition happens, maybe this post will help people on their own progression to awareness, help us to embrace the moments of discomfort rather than run from them.

I want to walk around conferences and hand out printed copies. I will be recommending the post to many, many writers, and also reviewers, bloggers...anyone who creates or reviews content.

azteclady said...

Thank you, Ms Larbalestier, for writing this; I'll be pointing people here.

I am particularly grateful for this part:
"Frankly, her anger got through to me more effectively than if she had been nice.

Except.

I reread that critique while writing this essay. Here's the thing: it wasn't that angry or sarcastic. It was more sad and disappointed.

It sounded angry to me back then because I didn't want to think about how my books weren't helping YA to become diverse. I didn't want to think about how I was part of the problem. I wasn't ready to listen so I heard it as angry yelling.

Until we white writers are ready to listen, until we're ready to accept that, yes, we are a part of systemic racism, yes, we benefit from white supremacy, it doesn't matter what the tone is, we won't be able to hear or understand what's being said."


A lot of the people with whom I talk about race react defensively, no matter how nice, polite, subtle, or patient I am. Their reactions, to a person, are of outrage--how dare I accuse them of racism! It's irrelevant that what I am actually doing is pointing out that racism is so pervasive we are often unaware of how it affects our thoughts and reactions.

Thank you.

mayak46 said...

This is a fantastic post. Searingly honest. I think it's hard for any of us to write about experiences as visceral of race when it's from the outside looking in.

Years and years ago when I was a high school student we were reading Jane Eyre. If I remember I was in 10th grade so this was 1980. I took issue with the second half of the book which had to do with Jane's cousin trying to convince her to marry him and go to India to convert the savages. My parents immigrated from India to the US in 1960 (dad in 1959), so I was very sensitive to this stereotype. I went on a teenage rant as only a teenager can do about how upset this made me. In that report came out 16 years of sometimes feeling like the outsider in my own country.

I got a C. The teacher was so angry at me. She called me out in class because this was her favorite book. Even then I didn't care. My mom told me to dial it down. (She still does to this day. Go figure!)

A couple years ago I got in a twitter argument about the same thing. Yes. I know it was written in a different century, thus a different world. However this does not mean I don't get irritated by the second half of that book (never mind all the contrivances)

I enjoy the first half. My favorite dramatic version of Jane Eyre is Timothy Dalton's BBC version. However that doesn't change I still can't stand the colonial tone after she runs off.

I confess I approach with caution books with POC characters which aren't written by POC. And going deeper in to the weeds? POC writers are as guilty of using stereotypes of groups they aren't.

I feel this post applies to many of us regardless of color. We (global) tend to see each other as a collection of stereotypes rather than fellow human beings. There is a human condition we all share regardless of culture. This is what I think gets lost sometimes in general.

Thanks for this post!

Me and the Professor said...

Your essay raises some vital points and made me think even more carefully about the question of whether writers can create main characters whose race is different from their own. What you seem to be saying is that race is an utterly impenetrable difference, unlike other kinds of difference. I'm sure you'd agree that a woman could write a male character, a wealthy person could write a character in poverty, an older person could write a child character, a Muslim writer could write a Christian character. But if race is a divide to great to cross, isn't that one of the roots of the problem of racism itself? Rather than choosing to stop writing characters of color, shouldn't writers be having more conversations, doing more research, trying harder to understand that divide and those differences? Wouldn't that do more to bridge the gap?

Nancy Werlin said...

>>Yes, we were taught by To Kill a Mockingbird that racism can be solved by a well-intentioned white person saving the day...<<

That wasn't Harper Lee's point at all. Atticus Finch utterly FAILS to save Tom Robinson.

tanita✿davis said...

Like Debbie, I'm going to reread this one again someday.
It's hard to speak coherently about race or hear it spoken of coherently, and sometimes I have to step away and think and read again. This is a monumental piece of writing, of thinking, and Justine is a monumental person, full stop. It's hard to own all of who we are, and I thank her greatly for showing me how.

Jenny Elyse Becker said...

Thank you. You eloquently expressed a point that occurred to me too.

Nanette said...

So much here... I love that you've detailed your learning arc. Maybe that will make it easier for others who are going through (or determinedly resisting) the same sort of thing.

Some of what you say brings to mind a time when my granddaughter was in middle school--7th grade I think, though maybe 8th. She would come to my house after school, along with her younger brother, and do homework. She loved to read, but one day she came up to me and just stood there for a minute then, in a plaintive voice, said, "Grandma..."
"What?" I asked. She didn't say anything else, just held out the book she'd been assigned in class, with which she was almost halfway done. To Kill a Mockingbird. I looked at it, remembered my (childhood and adult) reaction to it and hugged her--"I know, sweetheart. You don't have to read it. Take the bad grade, make it up elsewhere."

Maybe not the most responsible reaction, but I wasn't going to force the harm of that book on her. Even as an older adult, I'm very, very wary of reading books with major Black characters (or incidents to do with Black people) that are written by non-Black authors. Well, even some that are, actually--depends on who their imagined audience is.

I think... well, not sure how to say what I think. It has something to do with white writers, even white writers writing characters of color, and the Voice of Authority. Which, of course, is a major part of white privilege. I think that voice is part of the reason, consciously or not, for the very great reluctance of some to publish or even highlight non-White writers. We've never been trusted to tell our own stories.

People, even today, will believe a white writer writing black people over a black writer doing the same. Non-white people writing are often considered, in essence, "race writers." While a white person writing on the same subject, fiction or nonfiction, is considered an Objective Voice of Authority. Or someone who can correctly write the non-white experience *because* they are not part of it--just someone observing from the outside who has come to their conclusions through "objective reasoning" and not because of "emotional blinders or attachments."

These are actually things I've had said to me, by the way, in one way or another.

It's likely one of the reasons why most everyone knows Patterson's (white guy) Black detective Alex Cross (who all the Black ppl I know laugh at, when they are not fuming,) but Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins? Not so much. Or if you want a good read about Native mystery, what to bet Tony Hillerman's name comes up before any actual Native writer?

Mind, I am not saying I think that people should never write characters outside of their own experience--I highly recommend reading all the people who are publishing/posting pieces on "writing the other" first, though. We can fix this. We can work all this out, but it does take honest engagement, and an honest look at the industry, writers, gatekeepers, all of it. Love that this post is one more step in that direction.

Gah! I'm so long-winded. Sorry.

david elzey said...

I reread that critique while writing this essay. Here's the thing: it wasn't that angry or sarcastic. It was more sad and disappointed.

an important component in talking about racism is recognizing the hidden racism within the language we use. especially as writers, understanding how the written word is used, intended, internalized, and interpreted can reveal aspects of our thinking that have been molded to the point that we miss what might be buried beneath.

i think this kind of examination and discussion is important but can't help noticing the racism in the assumption that came from feeling that the blogger in question was angry when the author was getting called out, but later came to correctly read the sadness and disappointment in her voice. the idea of the "angry black person" is something the media like to portray, and in questions surrounding racism among us "fragile white people" it can be hard to listen through the initial defensiveness and the tone of the dialog and understand where our own feelings are coming from and how to course-correct.

these discussions are important, and i think this is a great examination, and would hope we all are having these conversations daily.

Jenny Elyse Becker said...

My comment was in reply to Me and the Professor

Joe Iriarte said...

MATP,

I think a key distinction is that it's difficult to see your own privilege, and so it's very difficult to write from the POV of somebody with less privilege along a given axis, because we don't see how we're getting it wrong or perpetuating harm. Also, BECAUSE we're privileged, our inauthentic telling of somebody else's story will actually be privileged over more authentic versions, because they sound more like what (predominantly privileged) editors think those stories should sound like.

It's difficult and often harmful to write "down" a privilege spectrum.

It's not at all the same when somebody writes from the POV of a character *more* privileged. For one thing, we've all been smothered with that point of view. I don't think there are hidden nuances of what it is like to be Anglo that I'm not aware of: damn near every book or movie I've ever consumed has been written by Anglos and has explored their values. I think I can write Anglos convincingly. Even if I'm wrong, though, I'm not likely to perpetuate an existing system of oppression against Anglos, because frankly, there's no such thing. Finally, I'm not pushing talented and deserving Anglo writers off the shelves, because the system isn't set up to exclude Anglo voices.

So yes, women can often write male POV. POC can often write white POV. Non cishet people can often write cishet POV. Non-Christians can often write Christian POV.

Nilah said...

First of all, this is a wonderful post Justine. Thank you!

To MATP,

I'm not entirely sure where Justine said that race is an impenetrable difference. I seem to remember her saying quite clearly that white authors cannot be stopped from writing POC, and her decision not to is a personal choice. Moreover, she states that she still intends to write POC in her books, just not as main characters.

That said, I'd like to address the following comment:
"But if race is a divide to great to cross, isn't that one of the roots of the problem of racism itself?"

Some excellent points have already been made in the comments already, but this question sticks out to me enough to comment myself because it misrepresents what racism IS. The problem of racism is not about separation, it's about power. Racism is a system where one group holds itself as superior over others. Historically, racism has played out in the forms of slavery, genocide, colonization, cultural appropriation, and cultural erasure. It's tempting to look at modern diversity discussions without the lens of historical context, but by doing so, we miss the fact that the narratives of marginalized cultures are overwhelmingly controlled by the dominate population--in this case, the white population. White authors have a long and celebrated history of erasing and revising history to promote their own narrative and minimize everyone else's. That is the problem of racism. Just as white authors have had the liberty to write their own stories (and everyone else's), POC should be allowed the opportunity to tell their own stories.

Nanette said...

Another couple of things I wanted to comment on, that Justine said:

Why do we white people hate talking about race?

I like her theory of why. I have another one, though... or maybe just an additional one. I have long thought that white people hate talking about race--I mean *really* talking and discovering and learning--is because they then know that things must change. Likely things in their homes, their lives, their friendships, their family relations, their reading/viewing habits and more. Unseeing things is far more difficult than never seeing (or never having to see) them at all.


This decision is also not much of a contribution to diversifying YA. It's about my journey grappling with my whiteness and racism and fragility.

I think... this is more important than it's often given credit for. I'd urge thinking about this along with some of the comments above. Or all the comments. It's my belief that unless you know "whiteness" (which is different from knowing or being a white person) you'll have a hard time effectively writing "the other." Because so much of our lives, whether we're down and out or rich and famous, is affected by whiteness. From birth to death, reaching far into the past and, sadly, likely pretty far into the future.

Being non-white doesn't protect one from being affected by or buying into whiteness, either, or from falling into stereotyping others outside (or even inside) your own group. As mayak46 points out. Also, we don't all see the same things--I read Jane Eyre at least a couple times when I was younger. If I ever noticed the part she mentions, it didn't strike my heart like it did her, because I don't have her history. Writing someone outside of your experience is hard and should be undertaken with great care. That's all.

Carol Baldwin said...

Very thought provoking. thank you for sharing all this.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

Thank you for this honest and thoughtful piece, Justine, and for all the time you put into it. Thank you as well to the people who read earlier drafts -- Alaya Dawn Johnson, Scott Westerfield, and Doselle Young -- for your contributions. I've learned a lot from reading Debbie Reese and Edi Campbell and working with them on the We're the People Summer Reading List, which selects and promotes books written or illustrated by authors of color. I appreciate your decision, Justine, to step aside in favor of Black writers who deserve the kind of attention that you and other white authors (such as Tony Hillerman and James Patterson, referenced in the comments) have enjoyed for writing protagonists from diverse backgrounds. I hope that your promotion of authors of color garners the acclaim and sales they deserve, but we have much work to do to change attitudes in the broader population.

JinTheNinja said...

Great great great. Painful in a way to read. I want white writers to engage with PoC characters though, as mains particularly. I think they should not abandon the endeavour because they get it wrong. They should do it to counter the thousands of depictions of PoC characters by white writers which are in fact racist and denigrating. The one thing i still find complicated and problematic is that by extension what can a multi racial person do aside from writing multi racial characters? I have no intention to only write characters of my same multi racial origin not do I want to only write about characters from one diaspora or one locality. I think this is also an issue of exposure. Post colonial literature of the Caribbean of Asia of latin America, , of the formerly colonized third world extensively makes use of mulit faceted voices, multivalent perspectives. i think writers should be encouraged to read not only American writers of colour or literary fiction under an ethnic subheading, but also world literature, where much more multi racial and diverse societies have learned to engage if not address these issues.as a multi racial person, with two non white parents, but still comprising a large degree of european descent, it is really important to note that white people should attempt to navigate these issues, after all if we have to, why not allies?

mclicious said...

Such good stuff, Justine! And mostly good comments, too! Joe, I love your point. I often say, somewhat jokingly but with a lot of truth behind it, that the people least qualified to write about anything other than themselves are cis/het Christian nondisabled middle class white guys, because literally NEVER have they been required or expected to identify with or even care about books with perspectives that differ from theirs. If they do, it's a favor they're doing the rest of us. Everyone else experiences at least some sort of marginalization, and while it doesn't mean people can't make mistakes (does it EVER not mean that), I trust anyone with an understanding of their own marginalization to do a better job writing other marginalizations than someone who has no experience in that.

Nanette said...

One more tiny thing I've been thinking about, missed yesterday, figured I'd point out:

Why do we white people hate talking about race?

White people actually do talk about race all the time--what they don't always talk about is their own white race in relation to non-whites. But even the choice to only focus on White people--in friends and acquaintance, in reading matter, in films, in thought, in business, in writing, so on is talking about/thinking about/acting on race. Just as it would be were I to only focus on Black people. Or on non-white people in general.

Race exists for whites just as it does for anyone else--in fact, "White" (and its support and blanket, whiteness) was created just as Black or Asian, or whatever was.

And it's not really enough to say that racial categories are meaningless--scientifically they are, of course, but culturally, definitely not. It affects us all in one way or another.

Also, am loving the comments and learning so much about various perspectives (non-US and more.)

Pea Woman said...

Solid points and despite the discomfort, something to re-read regularly. Because I live very near Donner Pass I am aware of some info you might want to consider. Cultural myths of all kinds are hard to kill.
http://www.seeker.com/donner-party-ate-family-dog-maybe-not-people-1766079881.html

Peter said...

My goodness, what a sad display of self-regard, focusing from beginning to end on how one writer can pen a celebratory story of her own ever-growing goodness. She was good when she wrote about PoC protagonists ("All those happy PoC readers!"), and she was even better when she chose not to write such tales. Perhaps if she stops writing all-together, she will become the best white person around.

I am sorry, but the tone-deafness of this piece -- which reenacts and revels in the very status of White Saviorhood that it attempts to escape -- is flabbergasting. And the patronizing attitude towards non-white readers is worse.

Mooga Booga said...

Not all unconvincing depictions of non-white characters by white authors fail because the portrayals are belittling. In The Human Stain, Philip Roth depicts a very light-skinned AA man who succeeds for many decades in passing for white. He comes across in three dimensions, but Roth makes his parents and siblings look far too noble. The father and brother are both hardasses in their various ways, and it could be argued that the mother's a bit of a doormat, but otherwise they're perfect -- unbelievably so. Roth seems to be so anxious not to make them look bad that he ends up making them look unreal. As one Slate reviewer pointed out, people don't read Philip Roth because they want to see the American nuclear family revered, so this one weakness was hard to overlook.

Unknown said...

Justine, I love all your blog posts on these topics.

Personally as a white writer I'm not sure I'd ever be comfortable writing a POC protag from a specific, real-world community such as "second-generation Chinese-American". I just wouldn't feel like I was enough of an authority on it, no matter how much time I'd spent hanging out with people from that group. However so far I've never felt inspired to write anything set in a contemporary or historical setting. Everything I write involves far-future / sci-fantasy type settings where having a white cast wouldn't make much sense, in my view. On the other hand, it also wouldn't make much sense to have characters who look specifically black, asian, etc. Because of the settings I create, to me it makes sense to write characters who are largely racially ambiguous.

I struggle with these issues because I'm not sure how my choices of setting and character fit into the overall debate. I'm not writing about any community that exists today, nor am I writing about characters who experience racial marginalization in their own world. I'm not trying to capture how it feels to be oppressed in that way, because my characters are not oppressed in that way. However in a way I am still writing "for" marginalized groups, because there are multiracial people living in the real world today, and they may see themselves in my characters, even if their lives and struggles are completely different. I don't know if it's my right to write these multiracial characters, but I also don't want to whitewash my settings and make them feel inauthentic by doing so.

I know there are no easy answers. Thank you again for a great post.

Nanette said...

Hi Unknown,

I'm not Justine, obviously, but I wanted to say something about your comment anyway, if you don't mind.

First, since I don't know who you are or any of your books, all this is basically "in general" and not specific to you. You might write the most amazing books with wonderful characters who offer no offense or harm to anyone and, if so, keep on keeping on and well done to you!

That said, there are a few things ringing a bell in my mind, mainly due to my experiences with other far-future books with "largely" multi-racial, racially ambiguous casts. The below is only my opinion and not a "don't do this!" or an attempt to dictate how you write your stories (standard disclaimer.)Nor am I commenting on your "right" to write multiracial characters--if you love them, respect them and can do it well, why not? People who do none of this write them all the time.

Far future SFF isn't my favorite, but I will occasionally pick one up. Some of them envision an all white future--which is, of course, more scary to me than those who imagine an all white past. We were there, in the past, whether they acknowledge it or not. The future is yet to be determined, still those I just roll my eyes at and toss away.

The books, tho, where most everyone is multi/ambiguously racial, that's a different thing. If *everyone* is coded in that fashion, it's a little squirrelly, but can be done. However, most of the ones I come across have unambiguously white characters--and every other character either racially undefined or racially ambiguous/mixed. As a Black woman (even one whose almost entire family is often coded as racially ambiguous, due to slavery) the latter scenario simply feels like an erasure. Can't speak for Asians or visible minority Latinx or Natives, but I imagine much the same.

Here's why: the latter scenario, where you have unambiguously white characters and *no* unambiguously Black, Asian, Latinx, Native, etc is basically positing that in the far future, whiteness remains the standard and everyone else will eventually be absorbed into whiteness. Or at least into not whatever you're descended from ness. If this is an Earth society arisen from a standard Earth past, that's a problem. That's an erasure of multitudes.

As for writing racial minorities in the future and marginalization and oppression--I remember reading a couple of news articles a few years ago, one from Chinese media, one from South African. In both the elders were lamenting the fact that the young had forgotten the oppression of events that loomed large in the minds of the older generation--Apartheid, for example, and that the young were mostly focused on fashion and technology and having fun and being young. And I remember thinking "Good. Good for them." A little dangerous, yes, if a like horror comes once again and they don't recognize it in time to stop it, but I would hope that in the far future oppression *because* they are racial minorities would just be something in the history books. That they would be free to be whatever and act however w/o all that hanging over their heads. So, kudos on that in your books.

Unknown said...

Hi Nanette,

Thank you so much for your thoughtful and insightful reply, it has definitely given me a lot to think about! As I said I have been struggling with this for a while, because so much of the "white authors writing POC" debate focuses on the act of writing for a specific community and how it's important to talk to people from that community. I never knew quite how to apply these ideas to my own work.

Again, thank you and I will keep everything you said in mind while writing from now on!