Thursday, July 15, 2010


In response to the ongoing discussion on racial representation in children's books, I'm continuing to reflect directly (beginning with this post) on the topic of white socialization and racial identity (especially the unconscious parts), for clues about how we got to this point and how we might move forward.

White people need to talk more about the topic of race - with other white people.

We can examine the messages we got (or didn't get), express the thoughts we have (but don't dare say), admit the mistakes we've made (or are making), and be candid about our ignorance and fears. All these attempts give us practice getting comfortable with a topic that many of us were raised to avoid.

It can feel awkward and artificial; as in learning any new language, some of the attempts we make may seem silly or forced. But the alternative is to continue to demand that people of color deal with race in a way that keeps us comfortable, mostly by not calling attention to it. (And I have doubts about the depth of that comfort. In my experience, many white people carry deep anxiety about race just below the surface, but the fear that we'll be exposed keeps us from daring to address it.)

Refusing to directly address race is one more way of insisting on a white world view. One of the reasons white people are uncomfortable with a lot of race talk is because most of us didn't grow up racialized, so it feels unfamiliar or difficult or even dangerous (how soon before I put my foot in my mouth and say something that appears racist?). But when we object to that frame, when we complain about people playing the "race card," when we talk about not "seeing" race, we're once again imposing white privilege (see this quote).

In this country, just about everyone else's identity is racialized - to a great degree, by the white majority. For most Americans of color, race consciousness is a daily, unavoidable fact of life. White people are the only ones who have the option of thinking about race or not; choosing remedial racialization is one way of stepping away from white privilege.

Here's a vision of what it can look like when white people get comfortable with the topic of race: transracial adoption expert John Raible's "Checklist for Allies Against Racism."

We can't get to the beloved community - to "just human" - by ignoring all the stuff that's in our way and pretending it's not there. We can begin the journey at any moment, shedding the accumulated baggage so that we can experience true community.


M and M said...

Another resounding "YES!" - thank you for writing it.

Mary Patterson Thornburg said...

I love this two-part article and your blog posts on the subject. Many thanks! Although I’m a white woman, I started many years ago to notice how much literature seemed to have white people as a sort of “default setting” when it’s unnecessary and often even when it’s unrealistic. How come all these fantasy worlds, especially, are populated entirely by white people? One thing I really like about Ursula K. Le Guin’s fiction is that she doesn’t do this. A few years ago, one of my YA stories was published in a national magazine; I hadn’t emphasized that the characters were dark-skinned, but I did mention it in the story, and when it came out it was beautifully illustrated with a picture of the central character — as a white girl.

Yes, I can understand why white writers often don’t try to write about people of color (or when they do try, don’t do it very believably). In this country, there’s such a racial divide that white people are very frequently unfamiliar with the experience of living as a person of a different race. If they attempt to make people of color central or even important characters, they run the risk of making huge mistakes even if they’re aware that the experience is different from their own; they don’t want to inadvertently misrepresent everything from cultural conventions to dialect. In my science-fantasy novel Underland I wanted my central character to be of mixed race, and I tried to get around this problem by having her raised from infancy by her white father, her mother having died and her maternal grandparents having severed relations with him because he refused to give his children up to them to raise. I hope it worked.

I certainly agree that white people should talk about race with other white people. My own experience can’t be much different from that of many white people, and I have to say that this has almost never happened with me, although I’ve tried to start those conversations plenty of times. The only serious, honest discussions of race I’ve ever had have been with black people! People of color do talk about race with each other, and I think many of them would be amazed to learn that white people don’t, at least not very often. I suspect that it’s because white people are often uncomfortable with the subject and can afford to ignore the fact that it’s there, like the proverbial elephant in the room. People of minority races, in the United States at least, can’t afford to ignore race.

Waiting for Zufan! said...

Love this post. Thanks!