Triggers: racial classifications, Identity politics
I don’t often do this, talk or write when I’m angry, because you can end up saying things you don’t mean because you are emotional, which muddies important arguments and can upset people.
However, if you are prepared (as I am) to apologize to people and clarify your argument to anyone who cares, then sometimes speaking in anger is important. Because you don’t get angry unless you care.
So, first things first, I am a young, white, female, middle-class (with the financial and academic and language and network based privilege that that comes with) writer, living in Johannesburg. I can’t change most of that. And I have to believe that that is an ok thing to be, because I can’t change most of it. I’m not going to run around continually apologizing for my existence (as much as nature of my profession as the colour of my skin: How can you bloody waste your time and mind being a writer when we need engineers to build people water pipes so they don’t die of typhoid?) because I HAVE TOO MUCH WORK TO DO AND I AM NOT INTERESTED.
Yes, I have to be be aware of the blindness, the arrogance, the assumptions that can come with this existence. I have to guard the division between the things that this existence does and does not allow me to know and do. I have to be aware, and ashamed of the history of the people who have ensured that some things are easier for me because I am white and speak damn good English. No I cannot either not be be benefited by them or make them benefit everyone (make the playing field level) because no-one can in a single life time. Do I get points for being cut-up inside about the horrific policies of colonialism? No. Do I get points for trying to build a future where your parent’s income levels should not determine your future? No. Because there are no points, no-one is giving them and no-one cares. Just do the things that you love, well and be happy, and unless you have delightful and interesting things to say about that, shut up.
So where I get really angry, as a writer and as a person, is when the internet tells me the three step process to writing POC. That’s People of Colour, or Color or whatever, for the fellow unenlightened few. Similarly WOC is Women of color. No points for sussing that one out. WN is a little harder, White Nanas springs to mind, but it is, in fact, Western Neutral.
So, when people via the internet or the blogosphere or the twitterstream start telling me, as a White Writer (capitals and bloody all) about how to write POC, and avoid them just being brown people who act WN (the south african phrase that I am familiar with for that phenomenon is Coconut, black on the outside but white on the inside, or the less commonly used Litchi: white on the outside, but with a black core. I prefer the South African terms, at least using fruit shows you a little how ridiculous the whole categorization process is), I have a couple of issues.
1. You will never write characters of any description the same way anyone else will. So by extension, you will not write POC like an AOC (author of color) would. BECAUSE ONE AOC is NOT DIRECTLY EQUIVALENT TO ANOTHER. So, you might spend a long time studying what lots of AOC’s have said both about writing POC’s and about being a POC and about language barriers and stupid bar-stool racism and really dumb things that their white friends have asked them about, and still write offensive characters who are different to you. So, maybe rule one, is learn when the characters you as a person regardless of C, lack of C, gender, height, naming preference or location are offensive. Do this by writing them, checking to see if you think they are offensive, and then getting a lot of other opinions, from a lot of people. (By the way, if you can do this, then you are probably an WRA (Widely Read Author) and congratulations and teach me how 🙂 )
2. If your stories need characters that are different from you, you will be offensive sometimes without meaning to. Learn to apologize, first always. Even if you, in your heart of hearts, think that the other person is being an ass. If someone feels offended, apologize. Don’t assume that their pain makes them right by default, because people, regardless of income or star-sign or number of pets, get upset about a lot of things a lot of the time, and this doesn’t always grant biting insight. I get upset when it’s cold and my back hurts (even though I’m only 22 and that’s totally unfair) and I would hate to think that whatever I said was true because I said it when I was upset. I also get upset when I feel that human-beings’ dignity (including mine) is being degraded by stupid categorizations that reduce and diminish. This is more likely to give me some insight. So apologize, but tailor what you do with the pain your character has caused to the reasons, if they exist (and sometimes it pays to ask gently to try and find some), and arguments behind that pain and anger. You might end up learning stuff that way and learning stuff is probably a pretty good way to become a better writer.
3. WHY IS THIS DIALOGUE ONLY ABOUT RACE? Why, when we talk about characters that are different from you, are we not also writing about men writing about periods, or arrogant white university students writing about what it’s like to grow up in the slums of Paris or well-meaning virgins writing with trepidation about sex? I understand that race and privilege and racism is insidious and omnipresent and really horrifying when we perpetuate it accidentally. But, think about it this way, for me to assume that because I had a nasty, restrictive backbrace in highschool, I can now write with authenticity about a person who is young, female, white and middle class, living in Johannesburg and in a wheelchair is ridiculous. This is the difference between characters and people. I might be able to extrapolate my own experiences into writing a character like that, but more important would be trying to discover her experiences, her story, what made her the person who is going to feature in my book today. And then I hope I would get some letters (does anyone still send letters anymore?) from young, female, white, middle-class, readers in wheelchairs, who shout (hopefully not too loudly) at me for the things I’ve gotten wrong.
Yes, the fact that the representation of various kinds of people in literature is so skewed means that writers will get all sorts of terrible ideas about how characters who have certain defining attributes behave, think and feel. (By the way, unless you are writing about race, or representation, being OC, probably shouldn’t be a defining attribute of a character, because that’s a character who is not doing enough work to progress your story. Just like the sexy lamp-post problem: if your female character could be replaced by a lamp-post in lingerie, you don’t have a very functional female character). So yes, we (as the group of people who put words down wanting other people to maybe read them sometime) do need to think and figure and edge our way around a lot of scary pitfalls that have been drilled into us by the literature that we had available to us growing up, but that does not mean we can start talking about categories that are basically White and Non-White, and expect them to be meaningful or useful.
Please, shout at me, disagree with me, tell me where I’m getting this rant wrong, because this thing of Othering and Tokenism and all is bigger than anybody’s sole power to tackle and is going to need a lot of people shouting and apologizing and learning for each other for us to take apart.