Five ways a white author can mess up on race

UPDATE, July 2013: I have “anonymized” this post. Despite my elaborate justifications below, it kept not feeling right to me to put the book’s author on blast. I don’t know his personal journey. Therefore, I’ve redacted the title, author, and some character names.

Today in the Antiracist Book Club, a coming-of-age novel about a gay white kid, “Jamie,” with a black friend, Juice.

First a word about anonymity. In my previous ABC posts, here and here, I disguised the books I was talking about. That was partly because I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, partly because I was—and remain—afraid of people coming back at me angrily, and partly because who am I to be calling out more successful authors on the internet? I’m not disguising this book, though, and again I have a few different reasons. I want to quote from the book, so it could always be reverse-Googled anyway. Next, it was published in 1995, so I’m not interfering with a current publicity campaign and/or an author’s financial living (should my obscure blog post even have that ability). And third, a post about an anonymous book would just be less interesting.

I’d also like to state that I am not calling this author a racist. The only person I’m comfortable naming as racist is myself. I have many, many white-supremacist thoughts and behaviors which are the inevitable result of my segregated upbringing and the poisonous racial atmosphere of American society. To quote Beverly Daniel Tatum again, “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,”* and I’ve been breathing it all my life. But I don’t think it’s useful to say other people are racist. Jay Smooth suggests that pointing out someone else’s racist behaviors should be like letting them know they have something in their teeth. I hope that this post will be taken in that spirit, and that I will have the grace to so take any future criticisms of my own work.

Right then. A peculiarity of the British edition of this book is that it appears to have a person of color on the cover. So when I picked it up I assumed the protagonist was black, which led me to assume the author was black. (This shows the limitations of racist thinking; after all, my book has a POC on the cover, and by the way, in case you haven’t gathered, I’m white.) But the more I read, the more I suspected he certainly wasn’t. In fact, the novel has five qualities which, to me, indicate an author who hasn’t given sufficient thought to his treatment of race and his own whiteness.

1. Bad AAVE

African-American Vernacular English is a variety of English with its own grammar, syntax and linguistic features. Dr. Geneva Smitherman is one of its most prominent scholars and the co-author of a new book I really want to read, Articulate While Black. Another great source is Spoken Soul by John Russell Rickford and Russell John Rickford (father and son). I use AAVE in The One-Way Rain, and I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten some of it wrong. Here’s an example of its deployment in this book:

Juice was a wiz at political theory. He really knew his shit. He’d be President someday.

“You think they’re the ones who killed Marilyn, too?”

Boyeee, J. was fuckin’ a mafioso’s bitch! Norma Jean [sic] Baker got caught in the crossfire! You listen to Juice, [Jamie]—he’s down on the Ken’dys. You never seen a bunch uh G’s so hard on their women! . . . I mean, Jesus! What you Cath’lics got against sisters? Ken’dy boys, they got dicks like hurricanes, leave a path of bitches in their motherfuckin’ wake! It’s like, damn—you beadbusters worship the Madonna, kick the shit outta any honey falls short!”

This isn’t building character through dialogue, it’s caricature. It was frankly embarrassing to read.

EDIT: Recently, after benefiting from some frank and knowledgeable corrections to the AAVE in The One-Way Rain, it occurred to me that I might have been confusing two issues here. To my ear, the AAVE above is now not so much syntactically incorrect as it is presented in an exaggerated way that comes off as stereotypical.

2. Black characters described by color first

We all giggle-grunted in that dumb gorilla guys’ way. That’s when my prodigious pal Juice sauntered over. . . .

Juice was jet black and just smotheringly cool. He wore Italian clothes and sported thighs the size of juggernauts. Juice also dealt to all the other football players and made better money than my mom and dad combined.

I don’t think humans can be “jet black,” but more problematic is the use of skin color as the primary descriptor of characters of color, and characters of color only. This habit, which is incredibly widespread in fiction, has bothered me for a long time. When black skin is pointed out but white skin is not, the obvious underlying assumption is that white is the norm (a basic tenet of white supremacy in any form). I’ve read that Zadie Smith, in her novel NW, specifies a character’s race only when that character is white. It’s about time that white authors, too, started thinking about this.

3. Female character with a three-syllable name ending in “a” and including “q”

Leaving alone the fact that the first black character introduced in the book is nicknamed Juice (and why is his last name that of a famously black city?), it’s distressing that the old canard of black women with “funny names” is promptly trotted out:

“Who’re you taking [to the prom], Juice?’ Ian said, coming around.

“My cousin Anquanna. And mmm-mmm-mmm. Girl’s got more back than Canadian bacon! . . .”

Sure, there might be a woman of color with the name Anquanna somewhere in this country, but to see it featured so prominently did not increase my confidence in a book that was already giving me the racial willies.

4. Black characters live in the ghetto and deal drugs

Full disclosure: In The One-Way Rain, most black characters live in an apartheid-style township, and some deal drugs. Again, I’m not immune to any of this. But when one of the primary characteristics of a fictional person of color is that they live in a “bad” part of town and/or sell drugs, the author might need to do a little more thinking about their own assumptions.

5. Black characters are there to help white characters

Juice is actually a well-developed character in the end. He’s obviously real and passionately important to the author. But his role in the book is to care for Jamie, to help Jamie out of the convoluted scrapes of the plot, and to shepherd him towards a greater acceptance of his (Jamie’s) nature. He even buys Jamie expensive clothes: “Ray-Bans, Nike Air Huaraches, baggy Converse trackpants, a silk Adidas tanktop, Reebock athletic socks, furry purple sweatbands, a fat gold chain, and a Knickerbockers cap. Also in the bag was some Oscar de la Renta [cologne].” (When questioned, Juice explains: “You shootin’ with Juice, you gotta look fly. You already white, and you no Vanilla Ice, so we gotsta, like, do what we gotsta, like, do to make [Jamie] funky fresh on the playground!”) Most disturbing, in a speech near the end of the book, Juice reveals that he cares about Jamie precisely because Jamie needs protection:

I like you, [Jamie], ’cause you’re such a goddamn baby, and because you’d follow Freddy Krueger into Toys ‘R’ Us. I like you, [Jamie], ’cause you’re so fuckin’ white. Everything you do is white—folks can always see it comin’! You’re a fag and people know it! You’re a kid and people know it! And when it comes to other people, [Jamie] White Boy don’t know shit! You’re the baby sea tortoise in Biology movies, at night, in the moonlight, busting outta its shell—and the birds a’ prey are circling, and the cameras are rolling, and I just wanna help your little bootie along. ‘Cuase if you make it to the water, and the waves don’t getchoo, and the sharks don’t getchoo, you’re gonna swim a thousand miles. You’re gonna swim a thousand miles and you’re gonna find your island. That’s why I like you, [Jamie].

So the charismatic black boy is there to protect the white boy and help him find his “island”—where, presumably, other people of color will be conveniently hanging around to offer similar favors.

Bonus Round: The N-word

I left this out of my original post, because I felt it stacked the deck a little too much. And also, I think, because when you hear or read something you find very offensive, your initial reaction is sometimes shame (at least mine is) and a desire to hide the offending item from other people. But early on in the book, before any black characters are introduced, we have this:

“Have you thought about joining a nunnery?” [the guidance counselor] suggested, twiddling his double-jointed digits with abandon and n*****-lipping the butt of his Kool something awful.

Obviously the asterisks aren’t in the original. I have to admit, I was shocked by the choice of this word, and baffled too. It didn’t make sense to me that a boy with Jamie’s interracial friendships would sling around the n-word to describe how someone smokes. Maybe I’m missing something here. But it unsettled my relationship with the book, and I never recovered from it.

*Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, 2003.

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