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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Post-race post

Inspired both by Roxane Gay's recent article in the Wall Street Journal about the color-blindness, or rather lack of color blindness, on The Bachelor/-ette series and also my own experiences as one half of an interracial power couple, I want to ask something that has stumped me over the last half decade or so of my writing career, namely: can I, as a white man, offer anything whatsoever to the discussion about race in this country that is worthwhile or interesting?

I don't have any idea how to address this and this bothers me because it matters a great deal to me what happens in this discussion. I am white and my wife is black, therefore our son is both (though even in 2012 he is only ever considered black). It matters to me how he is viewed and whether he will someday be forced to choose whether he will be black or white (whatever that means), and whether that choice will have implications for how he and I interact. It matters to me. I know how middle class, privileged white people think and I know what their thoughts will be about my son. It matters to me that they don't think those things. It matters to me how this national discussion goes.

I wonder what I can do about it.

We are told we live in a post-racial society because we elected a black president (though, here we go again, he is half-black). Certainly there is some truth to that. I am in an interracial couple living in the south and we have never been harassed or stared at or discriminated against that I know of. But, then again, we are middle class, college educated, homeowners, diligent voters, parents. So, are we outliers, or the new normal? I can tell you that race never figured into whether I loved my wife: we came from the same background, we could relate to the same cultural touchstones. Race was one of those things we did not have in common, but so was her being a southerner and me a Midwestern boy or the fact that she likes Phish. So, as far as color-blindness is concerned, my feelings for my wife are, and have always been, as color-blind as can be expected in this country. It rarely comes up, race, except during those vaguely uncomfortable moments when I'm with her family and her parents or grandparents talk about the past and it occurs to me that people who look like me are/were the bad guy(s) and that there are some things that just can't be healed in a generation or two or three or four. These moments are few and far between, which makes them all the sharper; a reminder of both where we've come from as a nation and how very far we have to go. I love them, my new extended family. They have been nothing but sweet and beautiful to me, which says a hell of a lot more about them than about me.

As writers are we supposed to depict life as it is, or how it should be?

I rarely mention the race of my characters, nor do I offer many cultural signifiers by way of dialect. In my first novel, Daniel is white and his wife is black. In the latest novel, one of the main characters is black and several of the other characters are ambiguously raced. There's Lin, Sharlima, Ramesh, etc. These are conscious choices. I want readers to know my characters on the inside, irrespective of their outward appearances, and I want to create in my stories the type of world that I want my son to live in, a world where what's inside him is judged first. But is this wrong? Is this a cop-out? Am I side-skirting the issue of race by simply not mentioning it? Of course my son is going to be judged first by his outward appearance. If not his skin, then by the way he dresses or his hair style or the way he shakes hands. He will be judged. Is it cowardly for me to avoid addressing this in my fiction?

It certainly feels cowardly, not least of all when I read articles like Roxane's which are fierce and unequivocal and direct.

But what can I offer to the conversation? I am white. I am middle class. I am college educated. I have received all of the privileges that come along with those signifiers. Is there anything I can say that will not seem hasty or uninformed or condescending or just plain stupid? Is there anything I can say that will not immediately prove the stereotype right, the tone-deaf, privileged white kid. Am I doing this right now?

Maybe it's better if I just don't say anything at all, if I keep writing characters without races, without descriptions, with only insides to be explored. We live in a post-racial society, after all. Maybe that's a--if not good enough, then simply a--not negative contribution, to make this supposed post-racial world a reality, in my life, in my fiction.

It matters to me, this discussion we're having. My son, like me, like all of us, will have to live with the consequences. 

1 comments:

Mister Booze said...

My intuition tells me that questions of race will matter less in the coming years but other questions will matter more. Teens today (I am told) never bully about race but are more virulent bullies than ever before. Maybe largely social class? But this may all change in 10 years.

Maybe you are asking the questions of today instead of the questions of tomorrow?