White Writing Black Writing White

At my writer’s group this week, we touched on the issues that arise when we try to write a character of a different race (or gender, or and so on). Coincidentally, a thoughtful essay by Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda “Where Writers Go Wrong in Imagining the Lives of Others” is included in an early edition of LitHub. (If you’re interested in “the best of the literary Internet,” you may want to sign up for this e-publication, a new joint creation of Grove Atlantic and Electric Literature. It looks promising.)

Rankine and Loffreda explore the difficulties inherent in any effort to imagine the lives of people who have had vastly different life experiences and social conditioning than one’s own. Most of their argument applies to white authors writing about people of color, but could apply to other fundamental differences of the sort that influence not only how people see the world but how the world sees them. (This last point is why stories about people who “pass” are so powerful. They know who they are, but no one else does, and they would be treated very differently if they did.)

Many white writers, the authors say, believe “it is against the nature of art itself to place limits on who or what I can imagine,” as if imagination “is not created by same web and matrix of history and culture” that made the writer. The result is an unconscious racial subjectivity that has the power to wound, to do damage, irrespective of whatever benign motivations the writer may have. There are risks. At the same time, they say, writers of color may pull their punches, unwilling to negotiate territory, develop characters, and explore situations outside whatever conventions the literary establishment endorses.

Nat Turner, slave

Nat Turner captured by Mr. Benjamin Phipps, a local farmer (graphic: en.wikipedia.org)

Writing authentically and deeply even about characters one presumably knows best (people “like me”) is a difficult endeavor. Writers who want to create characters of a vastly different point of view should ask themselves some basic questions, they say: why do I want to write such a character and to what purpose? Not can I and how can I? In other words, is the choice to write this character worth the risk of, essentially, getting it wrong and causing harm? What is needed, they say, is to expand the limits of imagination, even if escaping them is impossible, because “history is not an act of the imagination.” At the same time, as James Baldwin once observed, race is “our common history.”

A Slate article written in response to reviewers’ qualms about Michael Chabon’s 2012 novel Telegraph Avenue (a book I much liked, by the way), offers a somewhat different perspective. Among the book’s principal characters are the proprietors—one black and one white—of a used record store located on “the ragged fault line where the urban plates of Berkeley and Oakland subducted.” Writing a black character in this setting is both appropriate and necessary, enabling an exploration of (among many other issues) the community divide and the shifting forces of gentrification, answering the “why” and “to what purpose” questions posed by Rankine and Loffreda.

The Slate piece, which is by Tanner Colby, reviews the history of this continuing debate, which crested with publication of William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, told from the point of view of the eponymous former slave. For some years after the criticisms of Styron, white authors shied away from writing black characters, and Rankine and Loffreda agree that issues of “race” and “racism” frequently become entangled. Colby has a cynical view of such critiques: “If you convince white people that they’re not qualified to tackle race, if you scare them away from the issue, if you give them the slightest excuse to ignore it, they will be more than happy to ignore it. For as long as you’ll let them.”

My takeaway from this is that authors who write across racial/gender/other lines need to be hyperaware of the need to push beyond the limits of their own understanding of the world. I suspect that with practice, identifying one’s blind spots comes easier.

1 thought on “White Writing Black Writing White

  1. You make a valid point that so often is ignored in today’s age of political correctness vs speed of writing. Getting it right for the scene, setting and story is imperative,

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