What Keeps Me From Writing About Race

Editors deal with race in a very specific way. We politely correct authors who think “flesh” is an actual color. We try not to get all nostalgic in disturbing ways. We encourage inclusiveness. We (OK, I) post a few interesting links addressing racism. Fighting racism through editing is reasonably straight-forward.

But what about writing? You have all the responsibility as a writer. And if you’re white, as I am, it is ten times easier to say something stupid about race because I (we) live in a society where whiteness is privileged. Some of you grew up with the song “Everyone Is a Little Racist Sometimes“. I have a certain amount of education, awareness, and home-training, but I say or think or assume stupid shit sometimes.

But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t write about race. Did you hear about Tony Hoagland and Claudia Rankine? It was a big poet scandal. (Aside: I love poet scandals; I can’t help it. Everyone is so articulate about their rage and anger.) Hoagland wrote a poem about one of the Williams sisters, and it was racist. Claudia Rankine called him out on it. Instead of saying “I was trying to capture a certain mindset, that of a middle America racism,” he said “my poem was for white people.” Claudia Rankine is black, and Tony Hoagland seemed to be saying directly “my poem is not for you.” And yet, they were colleagues; both taught poetry at the University of Houston. Claudia Rankine started a project called “Open Letter Responses,” where writers wrote about their own experiences of race and racism. You can lose hours reading them.

I’m trying to write some poems that are about, among other things, race. What was it like being a kid in the South? I am privileged in that race is just a small part of my experience. I am trying to both be honest and not be an asshole. And it takes time. It takes readers who let me send them awkward poems and tell me when my work could be misread or is just plain old racist. It takes my trusting my readers. It takes more drafts than the other poems to make sure I get it right. And I’m okay with that.

Sparks wrote in a comment “Everyone with something helpful, illuminating and true to contribute to the conversation should be writing about race.” I can write true. But is it illuminating? Is it helpful? I am not a formal cultural critic. I rant and rave about cultural criticism all the time to my friends and family, but to write it formally on the page for all my stranger-friends? I don’t know. It’s easier, for me, to write about it in poems. But is it educational or is it just blathering? Time will tell I suppose. If I tell the best truth I can, that is all I can do to be illuminating. As one of my former professors says about memoir: it is about placing yourself, not just in your life, but in a time in history and showing how history, as well as your life experience, has made you who you are.

How do you write and talk about race? What holds you back and what sets you off?

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10 responses to “What Keeps Me From Writing About Race

  1. This would be one of the top 3 reasons that writing my memoir is taking so long. This is tough, tougher than I imagined when I started, when I just figured I’d tell the story like it happened. Um, no.

    That said, it’s worth it. It is. The most recent story I had accepted is being published because I “went there.” When I got the email from the editor, she specifically said the submission stood out because I addressed a topic that most do not. White people writing about race. I’m sure there will be people who read it and rail that I didn’t get it right, and that’s okay. I got it as right as I could.

    Keep going there, Indy.

      • No, it will likely be in print only and not out until next Spring or Summer. While the story itself if not about race, racism is the constant, ugly undercurrent.

        I read the Hoagland exchange you posted —- there’s just no way to please everyone, and everyone will have their opinion about what the writer is trying to say, or not say.

  2. I just popped back over here to read the conversation. Ahem …. I guess today is a day where talking about race has been hijacked by the rich white men in the news who hold office and want to tell women what to do.

    I’m tired.

  3. I don’t write about racism. That it exists is inarguable, but my experience of it is too sparse to put myself in the conversation. I do find that it sneaks up in odd and startling places, like from the mouth of my sweet little mother.

    I dated a Jamaican man once. He told me that a white woman can get along with anyone, anywhere. Something about how we’re innocuous or submissive or something. Bred for agreeability. I did try to argue. . . .

    Oof. I’m tired too.

  4. When anyone carelessly says or writes something strange, if not out-and-out false, about race that they haven’t lived or researched, it sets me off. I try to be polite if I respond, because no one can hear or learn when they feel attacked, but what about me? When my very being has felt attacked by their unfortunate words, it’s awfully hard to be calm.

    I don’t talk about race much with anyone but my sister because it hurts too much to be misunderstood, hurts down in my bones like I’ll crack and split open. It hurts to hear people say that “the conversation on race” is no longer needed. It hurts to hear about the scandal you mentioned in your post. I need to talk, and despite that, I feel like I can’t much of the time even if I want to.

    On SIS, I’ve written about it a couple of times. The worst part is when people respond with extremely hurtful things out of what seems like a desire to deflect guilt away from themselves, as if I’ve pointed at them specifically just because I wanted to talk about a part of life.

    When I posted my first sonnet, from a prompt, I was astonished by comments from a couple of people who didn’t seem to know what it was about. I was still recovering from the feelings that sparked the 3/26/12 SIS post, so the subject was racism. What must it be like for a person to know so little about racism that they don’t recognize it as a subject?

    Ann Coulter’s smug stupidity and her latest book also set me off. Even though I believe I’m a pacifist, I’d like to slap her hard.

    • Sparks, when I saw Ann Coulter 2 weeks ago on Bill Maher I thought I would come completely unglued. One, it was her shrill voice and hand flipping the long blonde hair while promoting this book, and then two, no one really pushing back on her all that hard. I kept wondering, who is buying this book? Who would publish this?

      • The answer to those questions scares me so much. I was surprised at Maher. All I can think is that he thought she was crazy and that his audience could tell — and what she was saying didn’t feel like a kick in the gut to him.

  5. Like Averil, I don’t have much experience with racism (being in the privileged class as I am), so I don’t try to write about it in my fiction. I don’t think I could be true in any representation.

    Having said that, though, I’d be reluctant to strive to say the “right” things. I don’t disagree that there is a cultural problem, and a big cultural blindness, but I think a story has to be true to itself first and not serve some propaganda purpose. To Kill a Mockingbird is true story telling, but I don’t think it set out to say the “right” things about race relations. I think it set out to tell a story as true to itself as it could.

    • Good points. The “right” things would be more said in a cultural criticism context (which I think about), while I think the burden would be more to be “true to life and/or experience” in fiction or poetry.

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