One of the great characteristics of white privilege is the privilege of reinvention. White people can class jump, and nobody looks twice. You can go from having grown up below the poverty line, being routinely frisked against police cars, and having your peers shot by rival gangs, to being a graduate student, an editor, a writer, a professor, and it never occurs to anyone to think it odd that you are any of these things. Since you are educated and living a middle-class life, everyone seems to assume that probably your parents and their parents were from a similar cultural milieu. You can, by virtue of association with money or “culture,” be generally presumed to have that slippery thing sometimes called breeding
, and your previous life — your entire family’s lineage of shepherds and faith healers and factory workers and small-time bookies for the mob — can fall away from your visible narrative like drops of rain slicked easily away off a shiny plastic surface. You look like something the dominant culture understands. Your past disappears. You don’t understand that this is because you are white, but it is.
When I was growing up, I didn’t realize I was white. I don’t mean in the sense that Oh, everyone I knew was white so therefore I didn’t know whiteness was a Thing.
What I mean is: I grew up in an underprivileged Chicago neighborhood in the '70s/'80s, dominated roughly equally by Italian and Latino Americans (with a small smattering of what we all ungracefully called “hillbillies”), and in the neighborhood it was equally common for the Italians and the Latinos to refer to “white people,” the Italian half of this equation being clueless that we were referring to ourselves
. We called ourselves “Italian” in the way someone would say “Mexican,” and believed white people were The Other, likely to be in a role of authority such as a teacher, or of a persecutor such as the cops who frequently stopped us kids and frisked us for walking down the street: male and female, Italian, Latino, and “hillbilly” alike.
Needless to say, a lack of perceived whiteness did not stop the actual white people of my neighborhood from being racists. There were extreme incidents (one with baseball bats, with an unconscious, barely teenaged boy who had ridden his bike a few blocks too far north and who disappeared into an ambulance and was never heard of by us again) and there was also everyday racism, such as our seventh grade teacher, who was African American, asking us all whether we would ever consider marrying a Black person, and only one person in a class of 36 students saying yes, if it was Michael Jackson. The rest of us, myself included, muttered some variation of “my father would kill me,” and it still torments me to think of what it must have been like for that teacher to wake up every morning and come to our neighborhood to teach such a group of budding assholes, and how much she must have regretted ever asking us that question to begin with, probably initially hoping that we would exhibit the idealism of the young, but instead finding out that we — the Latino students included, of course — were already indoctrinated in our grotesque collective world view, and had no idea we should be ashamed. Sometimes, at family gatherings or block parties when the men got drunk, there would be stories of going down to the south side of Chicago to bust some heads in the 1968 riots. Racism against Black people was — as it is many places, even now — so casual in the neighborhood as to be utterly uncensored.
When I was 14, I placed into a selective enrollment high school a few miles north of the neighborhood, and every day got on the bus and went to school among more than 5,000 other “smart kids” from all over Chicago who had also tested in. It was there that I discovered my whiteness, though I don’t remember an exact moment of epiphany. Merely that I went to high school believing myself outside the dominant racial hierarchy, and that by the time I graduated, I understood that I was not. I also had come to embrace a certain cultural class snobbery, such that the people in my old neighborhood, with their lack of cognizance and shameless hate, had become embarrassing and angering to me, and I could not wait to flee and run away to college out of state, to reinvent myself, to forget that this was where I had come from, to become something else…
I became a writer, which — even more than WASPS — were not a Thing in the neighborhood. I had never known a writer. I was the first person on either side of my family to even go away to college; my father had not graduated from eighth grade before going to work in a factory to help his family. I ran away from my old neighborhood as certain kids who aspire to “getting out” have been doing for generations, and for about the next eight years I did not stop running: to Wisconsin, to London, to New Hampshire, to New Mexico, anywhere but Home. I learned to stop wearing my hair in a mullet and sporting purple eye shadow; I learned not to say yous guys
; I moved to college and New Age arts towns where everyone was so white that it sometimes felt to me as though the same people were running around the block and passing me multiple times because they all looked so similar, and I believed — perhaps not consciously but definitely in a deep, if unconscious, place — that somehow “getting out” of my neighborhood was the same thing as becoming one of these blandly, innocuously white people. Even my first novel was about WASPY suburban twentysomethings. I had accepted the myth of white-middle-classness as Norm and any other category as Other, and I wished to be the norm: the anonymous, the invisible, the reinvented, as is the American way. And because I was white, my efforts were simple enough.
Take a poor girl from the old neighborhood, add college, add Milan Kundera
novels, add trips to Europe even if they are done on so little money that they are spent mainly squatting amongst drug dealers and under the table laborers, and presto — if said girl is white, as I decidedly was despite my earlier idiocy about the subject — you soon have a person whose past is “invisible.”
One beautiful thing about both life and literature is that who we are as individuals is not defined exclusively by who we are as a group.
When you are Not White, not only does your past not “disappear,” but people may even assign a past to you that may not exist. Based on your last name or skin color, when you are working as a lawyer or an options trader, people may imagine for you a past of parents who are illegal immigrants, a youth spent in street gangs, friends lost to drugs and violence, whether or not these things bear any resemblance to your reality. They may decide you are actually Nigerian with a false birth certificate, and surely a Muslim, as though being a Muslim is a crime to begin with. My college friend, Michelle, who was Black and the child of doctors, went to college to find that everyone assumed she was there on scholarship (no) and that she had grown up urban poor and had “gotten out,” whereas these things were
true of me but no one assumed them. My twin daughters, who were adopted from China when they were nine months old and are now sixteen, are often asked by people who don’t know me if their parents “speak English” or if their mother is a “tiger mom.” Once, at a book club, another (white) mom picked her daughter up and announced in an overly cheerful manner to my daughters, “We’re having Chinese food tonight!” as though anticipating a bonding moment or a medal. Non-whiteness, even in major American cities, continues to be thought of as somehow being an “alternative” to the default of whiteness. That white people will soon no longer be the numerical majority in this country has done pitiful little to change this fact in white circles.
It is enough to make a white person cringe. Of course, I think we all agree by now that white people, pretty much, should
cringe at ourselves. You name just about any shitty American category, and white people are at the top of the list among its numbers. Serial killers, pedophile priests, violent cops, date rapists, Real Housewives, school shooters, Trump supporters. As a group, we suck.
Alas, the reality of whiteness is this: it isn’t a club you can decide to leave. You can be an ally; you can marry a person of another race; you can have children of color; you can run all over the place in a #BlackLivesMatter T-shirt, but you can’t choose to stop being white
. We live in a world where you actually can
choose to stop being your particular gender, despite gender being the primary binary historically; you can, if you so choose, defect from the patriarchy, these days. But race, not so much. Whatever your race, for better or worse, you are stuck with it.
I was always
white, whether I knew it or not. My people were always part of the problem, no matter what they called themselves. I grew up weaned on stories of race riots, and the stories came from the wrong fucking side of the fence. My relatives — who have mainly defected from the city to white-washed cheapish suburbs and who have almost uniformly become Republicans — exist perpetually on the wrong side of history. “That’s why everyone hates white people,” my daughters like to say, every time a white person says or does something asinine or hateful in public. Fair enough.
One beautiful thing about both life and literature is that who we are as individuals is not defined exclusively by who we are as a group. Though it may be arguably true that all white people possess at least subconscious racism, it is also true that white people, and white literary characters, are of course capable of complex inner lives, acts of great compassion, personal demons and turmoils and dreams and heroisms and atrocities that are not filed under the one singular heading of Racism. People, in life and in good novels, are more than one thing. If this were not true, then there would be no harm in rounding up all the white folks and shipping them off to sea to float around endlessly like that terrifying mass of plastic waste and conclude that no one would “miss them.” If this were not true, then surely we would never need another novel again in the future of humanity about one damn more white character, to join the legions of already-white characters. But life and literature do not work that way. Of course white people are worthy subjects of both life and art. All
people are worthy subjects of both life and art.
But just because white people are
worthy subjects of art does not, of course, mean they are the only
worthy subjects… not just among writers of color, but among white writers too. Race is at the center of the American story, past and present. So why is it so incredibly infrequent to see white writers focus on characters who don’t happen to look like them? Why, when it does happen, such as in Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare
, does it seem so jarringly unusual? Why is white such the default color of the page?
Write what you know
, they tell us from the moment we set foot in our first workshop. You can’t be criticized for cultural appropriation or mistakes across lines of ethnicity, gender identity, culture, or sexuality, if you don’t leave your safety zone. Of course you can be criticized for not leaving your safety zone, for not
challenging the status quo (case study: Lena Dunham
). It can seem a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Yet the history of literature is full
of writers who dared to get things wrong. Madame Bovary
and Anna Karenina
would not exist if male writers had shirked before the (probably impossible) task of representing female minds in an era when there were precious few models of women with enough privilege and clout to put out their own honest representations. Early novels that interrogate racism, such as A Passage to India
and To Kill a Mockingbird
, could not have been written from a place of timidity and fear. Did these writers make mistakes? Of course they did. Writers from D. H. Lawrence
to Harriet Beecher Stowe
have been blasted for their (mis)representations of those outside their own gender or race. Sometimes the failures are so astronomical that they become cultural slurs, i.e., “Uncle Tom.” Things reached epic proportions of backlash following the publication of William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner
. By presuming to speak as a slave, Styron enraged critics, who published a whole “response” anthology (long before “response pieces” had the viral popularity they do today), William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond
and called out Styron as a “white liberal interloper” and “cultural carpetbagger.” The fear of being so publicly chastised may have kept many writers inside their own safety zones for the next two decades, and the politically correct era that ensued in the late 1980s probably did not improve writers’ willingness to risk criticism. Said Michael Chabon
of his MFA program at UC - Irvine:
If a white member of the workshop wrote something from the point of view of an illegal Guatemalan immigrant — as I recall someone did — there were some people who said there were issues of cultural imperialism involved in doing that, that you shouldn’t do that. I understand it politically. I understand the historical context, completely. Artistically, I don’t understand it at all. Because if I can’t write from the point of view of a black woman nurse-midwife, then I can’t write from anybody’s point of view. That’s why I do this. I use my imagination to imagine myself living lives I don’t live and being people who I’m not.
A further dilemma is that, since most literary characters are
white, white characters are almost never read as “representative of whiteness,” which in a sense may make writers feel more free to create a multi-dimensional character, free of the shackles of being expected to “represent.” To write a character who belongs to any minority (not just racially) can open a writer to their work being reduced by critics, and in the world of literary fiction, which prizes individuality, originality, nuance, and even ambiguity, some writers may shy away from work that could be seen as political statement or social commentary above art. Even if a writer dares to “go there,” sensitivity and an adherence to political correctness can veer into a self-policing condescension if, in an effort not to get anything wrong or piss anyone off, white writers make any characters of color into educational mouthpieces or representations of a false racial utopia. If it’s realism, your characters need to inhabit the same world we all inhabit, which can be a wildly screwed-up place. And no literary character in the history of the world has ever been interesting without also being deeply flawed.
At the heart of it, literary fiction is all about the imaginative space — about empathy, risk. As writers, we write the book we are longing to read. As readers, the novels that changed our lives are the ones that made us feel less alone, precisely by allowing us into the skin of other breathing, feeling characters whose inner lives become — for the time it takes to read the novel at least, but sometimes for decades afterwards — as real to us as our own. What would it mean if at least some of this didn’t entail writing and reading outside of our own niches? As readers, as well as for the publishing industry as a whole, one imperative is to give far more space and voice to writers of color, writers of various backgrounds and ethnicities and orientations and identities, and to stop assuming John Updike
’s or James Salter
’s or Jonathan Franzen
’s worlds to be the “norms” to which every other world is an exotic “alternative.” One absolutely crucial imperative is to allow writers of every
norm to tell their own stories, to have access to readers, to be able to have a place at the multigenerational table that is literature’s dialogue with other books, critics, and readers. Though we have of course made significant progress in this area, there is still so — so — far to go before most of the characters in contemporary fiction don’t mirror the white, elite East Coast college backgrounds of… well, of most editors and agents working in New York, who “relate” to characters more like themselves. Above all, writers of every stripe need to be heard.
But as writers, we also need to be able to imagine the other, in the sense of the “other” being anyone who is not ourselves. As Chabon says, “If I can’t write from the point of view of a black woman nurse-midwife, then I can’t write from anybody’s point of view.” The adage of “write what you know” is an important one for fledgling writers in an undergraduate workshop, but in a career that spans some 50 years, it can also be absurdly limiting, constrictive, repetitious, and fail to allow a writer to take risks, to fail ambitiously, to grow, to achieve that transcendent and rare state of connection for which we are all, ultimately, in the act of literature. And what does it mean to “write what we know” anyway
, in the United States circa 2016? Unless they live under a rock, almost all white writers have friends — or even extended family members — who are not white. Almost all straight people have gay friends, family, and coworkers. Male and female writers not only perpetually cross the gender line, but are now beginning to branch out into the more complex forms of gender and sexual identity in multiple forms of media, such as Jill Soloway’s Transparent
Maybe we’re simply asking the wrong questions. Maybe it’s not so much whether to write what we know or not, as to change
what we know, so that what we can write is what we, in our multiplicitous culture, need.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of the Target Emerging Authors selection A Life in Men
, which was a book club selection for NYLON
magazine, The Rumpus
, and The Nervous Breakdown
. She is also the author of two other books of fiction: Slut Lullabies
, a Foreword Magazine
Best Book of the Year finalist, and My Sister’s Continent
. She is the founder of Other Voices Books, has served as the Sunday editor for The Rumpus
, the fiction editor for The Nervous Breakdown
, executive editor for Other Voices
magazine, and the faculty editor for TriQuarterly Online
. Every Kind of Wanting
is her most recent novel.