White supremacy in paperback

I believe that one element of white supremacy is unthinkingness. Not thoughtlessness, which suggests that a person knows better if they would only stop and think, but a complete absence of thought that comes from never having had to question one’s assumptions about the place of white people in this world.

Increasingly, I’m noticing this phenomenon in my own field of literary fiction. What does “white supremacy” mean in that context? To me, it means an author interspersing characters of color in her book without having examined her own whiteness. (Note: I don’t think I’ve fully examined my whiteness by any means.) Often such an author uses people of color as minor characters to make a point about her white protagonists—how cosmopolitan they are, or how tolerant, or how benevolent. Or the author sets his book in Africa or Japan but is only and overwhelmingly concerned with the white experience of these places. Or she fails to include people of color (or non-middle class people) at all and doesn’t even notice that she hasn’t.

There are subtler manifestations of white supremacy in fiction, too. Here are three I’ve come across lately.

1. The high-literary novel about white people in Africa

This book presented with a classy watercolor landscape on the front and blurbs from major newspapers on the back. It may, in fact, be a sensitive and complex treatment of race relations; I don’t know, because I couldn’t get past the fifty pages. I just didn’t feel hopeful that some fifteen thousand words spent exclusively on the experience of privileged white people in Africa would lead into a conscious and respectful treatment of Africans themselves. And when the first allusion to the white heroine’s African lover involved his “beautiful black skin,” I decided I didn’t want to invest the time to find out.

2. The novel about young middle-class white people in New York

This one, on the other hand, I did finish. It had many good elements, and I dog-eared a couple of pages where smart prose and smart perceptions came together. But the author seemed oblivious to the fact that she was writing about privileged people moving through a non-privileged world (as all we white people do). I felt that I was expected to empathize with the protagonists when they move into a “rough” section of Manhattan to save money, or when (this being an extreme example) one of them finds he no longer has a bedroom in his father’s new condo. Which I might have done, if I had not been annoyed previously by what struck me as the author’s indifference to people of color. When a minor character with a stereotypically African-American name is described as “sassy,” and a housemaid is given another stereotypical name and coded as black and poor seemingly as a matter of course, am I wrong to suspect that these are gestures towards a “diversity” that the author doesn’t wish to examine too closely?

3. The perfectly nice novel of intertwined suspenseful stories

Here I had less to be cranky about. True, all the main characters are white, but the first five novels I wrote were all-white, too. (Fortunately for me, I was unable to get published for twenty years and that gave me time to evolve.) On the other hand, one unambiguously villanous character had a Spanish name and spoke AAVE (although not correctly in my opinion). And I had other objections at the level of syntax, too specific to reproduce here, by which minor characters of color were shown to be set-dressing only.

So, what’s the problem with white supremacy in paperback? Aside from the problems of white supremacy in general, this kind of obliviousness damages our work as writers. Fiction, of course, is about truth. And when we reach for the universal truths that, I believe, all writers want to make contact with in some way, our grasp is the weaker for having blocked out most of humanity.

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