Avoiding Racism for Writers

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.


5 responses to “Avoiding Racism for Writers

  1. Very good post. I’ve never given this much thought although I recently had to remove a term from my manuscript because it’s trouble for some and not for others. In the end I decided to err on the side of caution. I don’t ever want to offend anyone (unless I mean to) and I don’t want the distraction of a debate of whether a word is offensive or not.

    • I think, when writing about race, or anything where the potential to offend is high you have to be excruciatingly careful. I don’t see it as an issue of PC or not PC, it’s an issue of clarity and your ability to communicate effectively. A reader on the other side of the country doesn’t give a fuck if you meant well if you say something that’s racist.

      I definitely agree that if the debate of whether something is offensive is distracting, you should just cut it out.

  2. Oh, independentclause, number six, the beauty of number six.

    Can you modify that for a short lesson on how the term “redneck” is not the equivalent of the N word? People are so dumb. Just. So. Dumb.

    And my hat is off to the writer who talked to the white writer to try and clue her in. That took an incredible kindness to see someone’s ignorance and try to teach them rather than dismiss them. Dismissing is so much easier, but it doesn’t change anything.

    • I too had great respect for that writer.

      I grew up in the south and I remember standing around in middle school while a black girl tried to get a white girl to call a third person the N word because the third person had called the white girl whitey. It wasn’t mean spirited or anything, it was some kind of fairness thing. Bizarre.

      As for the redneck thing:
      1. How would you feel if a man in a suit came down from New York and called you a redneck? Yep, that would be worse than your friends calling you a big ol’ redneck.

      2. Were your ancestors ripped from their homeland, chained to the floor in the hold of a wooden boat while their countrymen shat, moaned, and died all around them, and then forced to work on someone else’s fields, all the while being called a derogatory name? Less than a hundred years later, did your grandparents and parents ever have to step off a sidewalk when a white man walked by and called you that very same name? No? Then you can’t fucking say it, it’s not yours anymore. This is called history.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s