Last week I was invited to speak about my most recent story to a university class. When the topic of race came up (which the story confronts only obliquely), I suddenly felt as though I had a belly full of worms. I wanted to pack up and run, but I couldn’t. I just had to take a deep breath and talk about it — to a room full of ethnically diverse students. Afterward, I tortured myself by replaying my remarks over and over inside my head, wondering, Did I accidentally say anything insensitive? Did I come across as a racist asshole? Am I a racist asshole? Was anyone recording me? This, in my admittedly limited experience, is a dilemma for white writers when it comes to exploring ideas about race. Does it matter that some of my favorite writers — my literary idols, in fact — are people of color? Pointing it out is tantamount to insisting that I have “a black friend.”
I was talking about this issue with a friend, and she sent me Junot Diaz’s recent essay for the New Yorker, in which he writes about the historic and ongoing under-representation of people of color in MFA programs, and how discouraging the experience was for him and other non-white students. In short, he writes, “That shit was too white.” Diaz’s experience was in the early 90s; mine was a year ago, and although white-heterosexual-maleness was still the broth of the MFA soup, I took classes on Native American Literature, South-East Asian Literature, a class on Toni Morrison. My classmates and faculty were likewise more diverse than those described by Diaz. Nevertheless, race was still a topic we tiptoed around in class discussions and workshop sessions. It wasn’t that racial assumptions weren’t pointed out and challenged, they were. It’s that it was done in a finger-pointing kind of way, not in an exploratory way.
In this day and age, isms of any kind are not just passé, they are an egregious social faux pas. (Consider this week’s Donald Sterling debacle.) Diaz writes, “In my workshop what was defended was not the writing of people of color but the right of the white writer to write about people of color without considering the critiques of people of color.” I agree that this is a totally bogus stance for any writer to take when writing about someone outside their race. I also agree with the response in the comments section by “brannigan” that “Ultimately, there is absolutely no way [white people] can be the authorities on the experiences of people of color and so we must struggle to carefully and humbly engage with critiques like this in hopes that we can make the world a radically more human place.” Which of course is why Diaz’s essay and the discussion in the comments section thereof are valuable, and why programs such as the VONA/Voices workshop are essential to contemporary literature.
It isn’t that I’m afraid to dig into my own racial paradigms and evaluate them. I grew up in rural Texas, in a small, overwhelmingly white community; in spite of my efforts toward awareness and empathy, it’s probably inevitable that I carry around within me unconscious assumptions. The problem is that there isn’t really a space for me investigate these assumptions without censure. And so I remain afraid to participate in public conversations about race, for fear of showing my ass. Diaz complains that during his time as an MFA student, the topic of race was avoided by everyone, not just white students. He writes,
. . . what I’m left with now is not bitterness or anger but an abiding sense of loss. Lost time, lost opportunities, lost people. When I think on it now what’s most clear to me is how easily ours could have been a dope workshop. . . . If we’d actually been there for each other. What might have been if the other writers of color in the workshop—the ones who were like I don’t want to write about race—had at least been open to discussing why that might be the case. I wonder what work might have been produced had we writers of colors been able to talk across our connections and divides, if we’d all felt safe and accounted for in the workshop, if we’d all been each other’s witnesses.
I think this is true, not just for writers of color but for writers in general, specifically within the milieu of an MFA program. I share Diaz’s sense of regret for lost opportunities, both for myself and other aspiring writers. Writers are often told, “write what you know” but what I know is a society shaped by racism — even if I am on the privileged side of the equation. I think that many young white writers are often scared to write about racial issues and people of color because it’s a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. If we write exclusively about white people and “white” experience, then we’re forking more white-lit onto the already stifling heap. If we do write about people whose skin color and culture differ from our own, then we’re coöpting an experience we can never fully understand. Part of me thinks white writers shouldn’t get to have any more room in the conversation; it’s time to let someone else do the talking for a change. Part of me suspects I have a shallow understanding of the issues at hand, and shouldn’t participate in this sort of discussion. But, as a writer and a muller-of-issues, where does that leave me?