On being a white novelist

I gave this talk last fall at Community Change. It has some points in common with another talk of mine, “How I Set Out to Write About the Revolution,” but it goes further and says more of what I’d really been wanting to say, for some time, about whiteness and writing fiction.

Hi, I’m Cathy and I’m white. I’m probably one of the whitest people you’ll ever meet. I grew up in an overwhelmingly white environment, in a place called Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and attended majority-white schools. My whole family is white. Until recently I worked exclusively for white organizations, and I still have mostly white friends.

I’m also a novelist. I began writing fiction when I was a little kid, and I’m currently midway through my ninth book. After many years of trying to get a traditional publisher, I published The One-Way Rain myself last year.

I didn’t set out to write about racial justice when I started The One-Way Rain. My original idea was to write a literary version of an action movie, with a kick-ass heroine. I assumed without even thinking about it that this heroine would be white. Around the same time I was also interested in the concept of a freedom fighter who was willing to die for her beliefs, and I ended up adding a second protagonist who was Black.

At this point in my life I defined myself as a progressive. I knew being racist was bad, but I lacked a deeper understanding of systemic racism in America. Cherry Hill is right outside Philadelphia, and in 1985, when I was fourteen, the city dropped a bomb on the MOVE house on Osage Avenue. I remember reading about this event in the paper the next day without any sense of its historical context. When you don’t know that the U.S. government has been targeting Black radicals since before Marcus Garvey, something like the MOVE bombing is just another weird, disturbing incident that comes out of nowhere. And that was how I thought about race for the next twenty-odd years—in personal, not institutional, terms; as an unfortunate hiccup in human relations, not a social structure.

I started Rain with only two concerns related to race. One was a peculiar habit I had noticed in the work of lots of white writers, which was to mention skin color only in reference to characters of color, never white characters. This, of course, sends the message that the default, “normal” skin color of the human race is white, which even then I knew to be an outrageous lie. My other concern was a vague feeling that I could really mess this book up if I wasn’t careful. I didn’t want to make any stupid mistakes, but I didn’t know much about what to avoid. I don’t think I even understood the degree of my presumptiousness in undertaking to write about Black characters. Although it might also be true that if any writer had a full sense of her own presumption, she would never finish a book.

So, purely to protect myself, I set out to learn some basics about race and racism in America. I found the subject so interesting that I continued to read and think about it after my book was finished. And the more I read and thought and talked to people, the more the world made sense to me—you could say that everything started to fall into place. There’s a great quote from “The Matrix” that describes how this feels:

What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind . . . You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you to the truth.

The truth now visible to me was simply that this country was formed, in every possible way, by the drive of white people to protect their own privilege and power at the expense of people of color. I could finally see that white supremacy had shaped not only the lives of the people in that house on Osage Avenue, but also my own life.

This was a big change for me, and it naturally bled over into one of the most important things in my life, which is fiction. I began to read fiction differently. Previously, I had identified only one racist mistake I wanted to avoid—that habit of assuming all characters would be read as white unless specified otherwise. Now I began to perceive a whole landscape of white-privilege booby traps that could mess up my writing and other people’s, some very easy to identify and avoid, and some more subtle.

I’ll start with the easy ones. The simplest mistake a white novelist can make is not including characters of color at all. And that isn’t always necessarily a mistake; it depends on the book. But for me, the unthinking absence of any people of color in a novel is a sign that the author hasn’t begun to conceive of herself as a person with a race. In my case, my first five books were exclusively about white people. Thank heavens they were all written before I was thirty and, with one exception, none of them came close to getting published.

More troubling to me is the absence of characters of color in settings where one might reasonably expect them. To move from printed fiction to television for a moment, this was a complaint about the first season of “Girls”: the show was set in a neighborhood that’s historically Black, but there were almost no Black people to be seen. Another example is a lengthy suspense novel I read recently which takes place in the sorority scene at a large state university. Not only is there no reference to the people of color whose labor probably makes the lifestyle of these young white women possible, but there is not a single student of color mentioned throughout the entire book.

Many of us white authors try to avoid making this mistake, but sometimes the ways we avoid it are also problematic. One thing we do is to salt our stories with minor characters of color in order to give them a flavor of “realism” or “diversity.” A preeminent example is J. K. Rowling, who carefully scatters a number of African and Asian students throughout Hogwarts but doesn’t grant any of them major-character status. In my case, in the first book I wrote that wasn’t all white, I had one small three-year-old Latina character who was being raised by white people. The reason she was Latina was that I wanted to make a play on words with her last name. I thought it was a good play on words, it was thematically important to the story, but that was why she ended up with brown skin.

In addition to using minor characters of color as window dressing, white authors often compound the problem by erasing racial difference and historical context. We want to show a world populated by people of varying skin tones, but we don’t want to grapple with the complexities of race; we prefer our worlds to be colorblind. In the Harry Potter novels, most of those students of color are presented as being exactly the same as white students except for their non-Anglo names. In the book I wrote before Rain, I imagined a minor-league catcher falling in love with a pitcher on the Boston Red Sox. I made one of the players white and one Black, but I focused almost exclusively on the homophobia they experienced and blipped right over the racial tensions one would expect to play out between them. Like many white writers, I wasn’t familiar with the concept of intersectionality: there was room in my brain for only one oppression at a time.

Even when we white authors honestly try to write three-dimensional main characters of color, and to engage with issues of race, we mess up. This is because, to quote Beverly Daniel Tatum, “cultural racism—the cultural images and messages that affirm the assumed superiority of Whites and the assumed inferiority of people of color—is like smog in the air.” We’ve been breathing it in our whole lives, and it prevents us from seeing clearly even as we set out to investigate it. There’s a whole bouquet of mistakes we can make here. We can, for one thing, exalt whiteness through our description of female characters’ white skin and straight blonde hair. I don’t think this is something I do myself, but I see it a lot: an emphasis on very pale skin, alabaster skin, skin like cream, golden hair, flowing hair, hair like water—to the point where I really find it ridiculous. We can make all our characters of color drug dealers or criminals. We can write dialogue for Black characters in what we think is African-American Vernacular English without bothering to read a book about AAVE or learn its grammar. We can throw around the N-word to spice things up, without having a true sense of the word’s history and impact. We can put our characters of color into racially implausible situations, where they do and say things that simply ring false. In Stephen King’s newest book, Mr. Mercedes, there’s a young Black man who’s growing up affluent and middle-class. He mows the lawn for the main character, a white retired cop, and he likes to communicate with the ex-cop in a heightened jive talk, complete with slavery references, that made my skin crawl. I would be embarrassed to quote it here.

Now, if you asked Mr. King about this, he might say he’s using this character to explore aspects of racism. And that may be true. But sometimes when we white authors really, really want to write about race but don’t know as much about it as we think we do, we use a technique called lampshading. I’ve adapted this idea from the website TV Tropes, which defines “hanging a lampshade” as calling attention to an implausibility in the plot and moving on. For me, it’s a great word to describe how writers indemnify themselves against charges of racism by mentioning racism up front. Last summer I was reading a well-received novel in which a white character is traveling on a train. She overhears a Black woman talking loudly on the phone, using AAVE, and thinks about the “inevitable racism” that she, the white woman, is feeling. Well, there’s nothing inevitably racist about that situation. The only thing that’s racist is the author’s assumption that hearing a Black woman talk is inevitably—that is, understandably—going to make her white character feel racist.

So far I’ve talked about pitfalls that are pretty easy for white authors to avoid. But white supremacy goes a lot deeper than just a tendency to stereotype characters of color or indulge in some questionable racial bantering. White supremacy is about putting white people at the center of everything, and that’s a particularly difficult habit to break when creating fictional worlds.

At its most straightforward, this tendency results in characters of color whose role in the story is to help white characters develop. I read a gay coming-of-age novel in which this was explicitly stated: the main Black character compares the white protagonist to a baby sea turtle and says he just wants to help him along (by the way, both characters are the same age). I’ve done this too, with my Latina three-year-old and my Black baseball player: both are ultimately means of psychological growth for the white characters. And while it pains me to admit this, you can look at The One-Way Rain the same way. Although I do believe that Lore has real integrity as a character, I overtly positioned her as someone who’s teaching and helping Sterling, the white character. I conceived of her second, after Sterling; in that way alone, it’s inescapably a white-centered novel. And that makes sense, because I’m a white novelist. But it’s not something I want to repeat in every book.

When I finished The One-Way Rain, I made a deliberate choice to continue to write about characters of color. In part, I made this choice because it was the only way I knew of to keep myself interested in antiracism. I was pretty sure that if I didn’t incorporate these issues into my writing, I would stop caring about them, and I felt like I had made a promise to myself and various other people not to do that. But I think there was something more to it, too. As I’ve said, writing fiction is about creating worlds, and I was no longer satisfied with creating only white ones. A couple of weeks ago I read a cool science-fiction book in which all the villains were named after famous poets. Every single one of these poets was white and European or European-American. Which is fine, I guess, if that’s your frame of reference, but I don’t want that to be my frame anymore. There’s so much more out there.

I’m still not sure I fully understand the implications of my choice. What are my responsibilities as a white novelist? How can I use characters of color in my own fiction in a way that’s not exploitative or harmful? How can I grow my understanding of white supremacy in a way that will expand my imagination and make me a better writer? These are questions that I look forward to exploring, hopefully with humility and a lot of practice. Thank you.

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