Microaggression in fiction

I know this kick-ass woman who helps run a radical youth organization. On Friday I was telling her that I was rushing through a Toni Morrison novel in order to get to the new Stephen King, and she laughed and said, “Why, though?”

I just love Stephen King. Going right from Tar Baby to Doctor Sleep leaves one with no illusion that he is a great writer, but Doctor Sleep offers the visceral pleasure of storytelling in a way that Tar Baby, for me, did not. (Kyle suggested to me that our own racism might be at the core of why we both feel somewhat distant from Morrison’s characters. I agree, and it’s so sad that white supremacy can estrange us from works of such greatness.) It’s also fun to be reading a book that’s a publishing event, such as those are these days. When King writes about race, however, I cringe. Here’s something a few pages in:

Dick’s mother’s mother—the one with the shining—lived in Clearwater. She was the White Gramma. Not because she was Caucasian, of course, but because she was good. His father’s father lived in Dunbrie, Mississippi . . . For a man of color in that place and time, he was wealthy. He owned a funeral parlor. Dick and his parents visited four times a year, and young Dick Hallorann hated those visits. He was terrified of Andy Hallorann, and called him—only in his own mind, to speak it aloud would have earned him a smack across the chops—the Black Grampa.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I thought.

My gut feeling about King is he’s interested in race—he often includes black characters in his novels—but doesn’t get racism on a deep level. (My usual disclaimers here: I don’t claim to get racism on a deep level. I know for a fact that I’m a very racist person. At the same time, I don’t know anything about King’s private life or his personal interactions with people of color.) This passage, while superficially sensitive to the differences between being Black and being white in America, actually embodies one of the most basic aspects of white supremacy: the equation of white/light qualities with goodness and black/dark qualities with badness, which is a translation into symbols of the idea that white-skinned people are superior to those with dark skin. Especially jarring is the assumption that, in a Black family in the fifties, a grandparent who is presumably loving, nurturing and protective would receive the moniker of “White.” I guess this could be internalized racism* (and it isn’t clear whether the whole family calls her White Gramma, or just Dick) but isn’t it more likely that these people would see whiteness as a problematic quality, not a beneficial one? I’m looking at this from the outside, but so, I can’t help but feel, is King. And I don’t think he’s looking very carefully.

Silvia L. Mazzula defines microaggressions as “things said or done—many times unconsciously—that reflect a person’s inner thinking, stereotypes and prejudices.” Identifying (or naming, as the kids say) microaggressions is for me a powerful way to keep myself awake to the pervasive racism in my environment and in my head. In fact, I realized while composing this post that microaggressions in fiction are one of the things I was trying to put my finger on with the Antiracist Book Club. They are everywhere in books by white people, and they make me crazy—no doubt because I am more than capable of committing them myself, in both fiction and life, whatever the distinction between those two worlds may be.

*(Thanks, J.)

UPDATE: In the end, I didn’t enjoy Doctor Sleep all that much. It was no Under the Dome.

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