Recently I wrote an article for a website that centered on race and homosexuality. This article was not an opinion piece or a personal essay, rather it was a thoroughly researched article that presented a lot of statistics and facts. A couple of days later I learned that it had been read by someone who commented on me, the writer, rather than on the piece. The comment was along the lines of: “I bet she’s some little white girl.”
Now my first question was, “What was in my article that made this individual say that?” My second question was, “Why would the individual make this comment?” Since the comment focused on my race, then the individual must have been disturbed by the race aspect of the article and not the homosexuality aspect. Based off the comment and based off some contextual information given to me about what was said, how it was said, and what the individual meant, I could only conclude that the individual does not believe that a white person can write about race or some aspect thereof.
After exclaiming, “What?!” I discovered that the individual was white. Put aside the fact that this individual diminished an entire racial group because the true crime here was that this person believed that race and the multitude of subjects that can be written about it is limited to writers who are persons of color. For the person chose to say “little white girl’ not ‘little Asian girl” or “little black girl.”
Realizing this, I humorously said, “Does he need to see my brown card? Then will it be okay for me to write about race?”
Three years ago I joined my first MFA Creative Writing course at the University of Central Oklahoma with Rilla Askew, an award winning novelist and the artist-in-residence at the time. The class was a novel writing course with writers that had all types of writing interests. However, in the course (and in the entire program) I believe I was the only person that was by appearance not full white. My father is Mexican American, my mother is Caucasian, and on both sides of the family we believe that we have Native American ancestry (that has yet to be confirmed) and so my skin is a tanned brown color. I must admit that there is a possibility that some of those in the program were part Native American although it never came up in their writing nor was it discussed at any time.
Rilla Askew was a great writer to have as my first novel writing teacher. Rilla has published numerous fictional books, short stories, and essays that center on race. She has written characters that are black, white, Mexican, and Native American or a mixture of these races and ethnicities and has focused on racially charged incidents in Oklahoma, like the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921 in Fire in Beulah or the current immigration situation in her newest novel, Kind of Kin. Rilla herself is white (although she might also be part Choctaw and Cherokee).
At one of her many readings, Rilla spoke about writing on race and her personal struggle with coming to terms with creating main characters in her novels that were of a race not of her own. She said something that has always stuck with me. (Please keep in mind that I’m paraphrasing her words). She said that anyone can and should write on race because every human has the ability to empathize with someone of another race. Similarly, every good writer has the ability to convey a society’s history of that race through a character’s voice because of their ability to empathize as a human. She was talking about fiction but I am sure that Rilla would agree that journalists and those that write other forms of nonfiction should not hold themselves back from writing on race because they too have the ability to empathize.
Rilla’s statement could not be any truer and it is always close to my heart and mind when I write. As humans we have the great gift of imagination and we have the ability to feel. With imagination and with the ability to understand how others may feel, react, or say things in certain situations, we can create realistic scenes in fiction and make certain points or present information correctly in nonfiction. This is how we are able to write a character who is of a different gender than we are. This is how we write about someone who is of a different age and this is how we write about someone who lived in another time or a different country. And this is how we write about someone who is of another race.
Race is such an integral part of the world’s history. There have been wars and crimes because of it but we are trying to move past the social constructions of race that we have created and unite as a species. I have never been one to deny myself the ability to write about anything that I want to write about. I currently write for a website that focuses on LGBT issues and parenting and I am neither a parent nor LGBT but with research, personal connection with those that are parents or LGBT, and my ability to empathize and logically use my imagination, I can write about these subjects, as long as I do so well.
I understand why the individual mentioned at the beginning questioned my ability to write on race. Talking about race, reading about race, or writing about race can be uncomfortable. I once wrote a short story (that was later published in Cigale Literary Magazine) for a short story workshop in my MFA program. It featured a half Mexican, half white main character whose white father was a zealous politician that spewed exaggerated and sometimes false information about Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans to gain political support. There was even a scene at an immigration march where individuals who were of a variety of races and ethnicities like black, Irish, and white, were angrily looking on at the Mexicans and Mexican Americans who were using their freedom of speech to ask for certain rights.
I knew that I had written a racially charged scene but not something that was not or could not be a reality in different parts of America. Granted it was the first draft so I also knew that it might not be as developed as it should be and I looked forward to the opinions of my classmates.
Each week in an MFA creative writing workshop, or at least the one that I attended, a few writers distributed copies of their stories to the entire class. The class would then take the stories home to read and created written critiques of the work. The class then returned the next week to discuss the stories which took about twenty to thirty minutes for each story. The author was then given the written critiques for their own personal use.
After distributing my story, the next week the entire class critiqued it and lo and behold, not one person brought up race during the discussion of my story. So I left that evening with their written critiques believing that nobody had had a problem with what I had written. That is until I went home and read the critiques.
A few people actually had a problem with how I presented the scene for a variety of reasons. Five people in a class of eleven had written extensive comments on it.
I even received two very interesting critiques that sought to give me a one-sided history lesson on immigration. In these people’s words, “swimming across rivers and jumping over fences” (my favorite quote of their critiques) is criminal and should be greatly punished. If you weren’t quite sure, this is how you do not write about race or ethnicity. Regardless, these two individuals got very carried away with their ability to hide behind a written critique and did not follow the correct guidelines of giving a creative writing workshop critique which is very simple: focus on the craft! Instead they stood on their soap box to preach their political ideology which, surprise, would not improve my short story.
As you can imagine I was upset and not because of the two ignorant-driven ridiculous critiques. I could deal with ignorant rants but what I could not accept was that no one had the guts to speak up in class about the racially charged scene that I had wrote even though almost a majority of the class had made comments about it in their written critiques. Everyone in that class was white (by appearance) and I was the only one that was not full white. I could only assume that those who had problems with the scene did not want to be the one to offend me by discussing it in class or because they feared sounding like “racist white people.”
I could not believe it. Why was race not an acceptable topic to discuss, especially in an academic setting? When I look back on it now though and after discussing it later with a few people from the class, I see that for some in the program I might have been one of the first people who they had come across in the creative writing program who wrote on subjects that dealt with other races and ethnicities.
The next submissions for the class were the last submissions for the year and I had to submit a revision of one of the previous stories from the semester. I chose to revise that story and submit it again. On the day of the critique I asked the professor if I could say something before the critique began and she allowed me to. I turned to the class and told them that I had read their opinions about the racial/ethnic aspect of my story in their previously written critiques and how I did not appreciate them remaining silent on this subject during class discussion. This was a MFA creative writing course and I expected to hear their opinions!
I told them that if they have something to say, they should say it because this was a MFA writing course and anything and everything about a creative piece should be discussed in class so that I could become a better writer and improve my story. The two individuals that were so excited to share their very inappropriate opinions in their written critiques would not look me in the eye.
It was quiet for a moment. I looked at the professor and said thank you. Finally one person began to speak about the race scene and then another and we were finally having an actual academic discussion on race and fiction! And it was a great discussion with some positive and amazing suggestions by these writers and I could not have been more appreciative of them at that moment. I’m sure you can guess which two chose to remain silent during this discussion. And by the end of the productive critique, thanks to my fellow classmates, I had a much better understanding of how to improve the way in which I represent the complexities of race relations in my fiction. I actually ended up taking out that scene after many revisions I did after that course ended because the final product that was published did not need it.
That day in class showed me something that is wrong with our society. I had to pull out my “brown card,” the metaphorical card that shows everyone I’m a person of color, and then give everyone permission to talk about race. That is not okay! Writers have the absolute ability to write on race. Humans have the absolute right to discuss race (respectfully of course) and we should not be afraid or should not limit ourselves because of the world’s turbulent racial and ethnic history. And even more important, we should not pressure or deter anyone from speaking on race because every single race, yes, even white people, have been the subjects of racial or ethnic discrimination in different parts of the world and at different parts of history.
Writing on race, writing about race, writing about people whose struggles have been because of race and ethnicity, is a great opportunity for all and I would never limit myself from writing on it just because other people fear it. Every writer, whether they realize it or not, has a brown card. They can write about race if they wish as long as it is written exceptionally well, is factual, and presents race in terms of reality.
Race is my history as a human being and every race’s personal struggle is my personal history because I am human. When we limit ourselves from talking or writing about the ugly parts of our society, like the social construction of race and it’s ugly past, we lose the opportunity to make any topic, like race, into a beautiful and promising future.