I helped a student the other day with a paper about September 11. There were many many things wrong with it, but the trickiest place was where she talked about anti-Muslim sentiment. I gently talked her through some ways she could make that section a little less painful and/or racist and she looked at me and said simply “I don’t want to be mean.” And I felt sorry for her. Writing about race is hard, there’s a lot at stake. Here is a quick guide on how not to be an asshole, aimed toward more beginning writers perhaps.
1. Assume nothing
Black people are not necessarily poor. White people are not necessarily Christian. Asian children are not necessarily good at math. Gay men don’t necessarily like musicals. Librarians don’t all have tightly tied back hair and buns. I could go on, but you get the idea.
2. Be specific
The basic problem with language is you say something and I have an image in my mind and you have an image in your mind and they are probably completely different. So channel George Orwell and the politics of the English language and write as precisely as humanly possible. It will give you less room to be misinterpreted.
3. Do not construct an us vs. them scenario
This paper talked about Americans’ suspicion against Muslims. “We” thought bad things about “them.” Let’s just channel Pogo and say “We have met the enemy and he is us.” We are them and they are us. Never assume you know who “them” or “us” are. See rule 1.
4. Know your facts
This is an extension of rule 1. Don’t just state things, research them and have solid backup. This will help you both with the assumptions and with the false dichotomies (such as us vs. them).
5. Know your terms
I had one student doing a great project on rehabilitation centers, but she referred to everyone there as handicapped. This is old-fashioned and false. It’s like the way my grandmother used to call Asians Oriental. I told my student to go read some disability studies, read up on her labels, and define them accurately.
6. Understand your context
If we lived in a vacuum, then affirmative action might be seen as unfair. But we sure as fuck don’t live in a vacuum. We need affirmative action. You might think that the confederate flag represents heritage. But you can’t ignore the fact that that very heritage was based on slavery. So respect your ancestors, but don’t fly a flag that says my white ancestors are more important than your enslaved black ancestors. There are things that a black person can say that I, as a white person, can’t say because of our respective histories. I once knew a white writer who used a version of the N word in her fiction and read it out loud. The word appeared 45 times. The black writer in the front of the audience was horrified. Later the black writer talked to the white writer and it turned out that the white writer thought the word was OK because she read it in The Help. Don’t let that be you.
So go forth, my friends, and let’s all try not to be assholes.