Writing about racism: ignoring white people who told me I didn't know what I was talking about
I have one short story that has been an absolute bear to write for various reasons. It has undergone multiple revisions. However, I almost gave up on it as unsellable three years ago. It is a fusion of three separate snippets from my own personal experience. The other two, which I won't talk about here, are a vignette from my early days as a parent and some scientific speculation about cyanobacteria that drew on the late phase of my scientific career.
The third personal anecdote was my experiences at the riot/uprising that emerged from the 1995 Oakland Festival. The key incident that touched off the riot/uprising was a white cop from outside of Oakland getting frustrated that an old, physically handicapped Black man wouldn't move fast enough for him and beating on him with a truncheon.
This is not where I'm going to recount that history or debate it. It did underlie an incident in my story where a riot/uprising was touched off by a racist cop beating on an old Black man who hadn't done anything to incite violence. When I put a draft of this story to my online critique group three years ago, I got the response that I was being wildly inaccurate. Antagonism between cops and Black people was something that ended many decades ago, and it was mostly in the South, wasn't it? How could I imagine any such conflict happening in a "civilized" place and era like Oakland in 2031? Racism was already near-eliminated--what in the world would get me to imagine it could ever come back?
I knew I was right and they were wrong. (My frustration was that the story would be unsellable, not that it would be inaccurate.) I have not heard any further from any of these folks, but I imagine they have changed their mind in light of recent events.
This blog post is about two things: how did I know what other white people didn't, and what is the proper role of a white progressive on issues like this. As for the first, although I will never know the fear of a Black man, let alone a Black child, for the police, many of whom are racist, because I am not Black, I have encountered some situations most white people have not, and they have led me to listen to and accept narratives from my Black friends that many white people would not listen to or accept. In one case, I viewed what no Black man will ever view: white cop racism from the inside, with the cops' guards down. In my early twenties, I was home, in Cleveland, for a winter break from grad school. A friend of mine wanted to go to a party at Cleveland State, but first we stopped in on a friend who was working as a cop to pay his way through college. I was told before I stepped in the room with other cops that I was to say nothing. I complied, as I didn't want reprisals against the friend of my friend. I witnessed the most shocking, virulent racism I have ever heard out of anyone's mouth. And it was coming from every single cop in the room (well over a dozen). Later, those were the cops policing a campus party we attended where most of the partygoers were Black.
In grad school, when I was one of the few white people working with a social change organization that grew out of the Rodney King-related uprisings, it was often my role to drive some of the pre-teen kids home after tutoring. Several times, I had to sit in my car and watch white cops beat up their older siblings before it was safe to let the twelve-year-olds with whom I was working out of the car.
High school, debate/speech team trip to southern Ohio. Our debate/speech team is one of two in the entire state that has more than one or two Black people on it. It is approximately one-third Black, one-third Jewish, and one-third Catholic. Our bus breaks down on a rural road. Below us, there is a cross burning. It is a major rally of the Klan. Fortunately, we are up on a hill, and they don't see us. The bus driver turns all the lights off. Seventy or so high school kids are completely silent, because we all know what we are witnessing, and we all know what will happen to us if they see us. I have never seen a man's hands move faster than that African-American bus driver who is changing the tire on his bus. The Klan hates me as much as it does any Black man, but usually the Black man is in more danger, because from the site of a rifle from two hundred feet away, you can't tell I'm Jewish. Not on that bus. Had they seen us, there would have been violence. We get away with no incident. Later in the tournament, southern Ohio could have been southern Mississippi from the level of ignorance and racism I heard out of the lily white competitors from other teams. "You have Black people with you! I didn't know Shaker Heights had a ghetto." (Parenthetically, these same people were also talking about how they got "Jewed" out of their victory, so the ignorance and bigotry was not limited to racism against African-Americans.) I had almost self-gaslighted these memories out of existence (it had been pretty upsetting for all of us) until a few years ago when a friend, who was on that bus, without prompting, mentioned the incident, recalling every detail exactly the same way that I had.
Second year of college, I come home to my dorm room to see the word "Niggerlover" spray painted completely across all of the comics and other clipping I have on my dorm room. I considered reporting this, but the mere warning given a few weeks before to frat boys who had slipped flaming papers under the door of a sleeping, out-gay student gave me pause. Also, I didn't want to upset my roommate. Mike was the most sheltered African-American student in the country. Likely, the bigots didn't even know my roommate was Black--"Niggerlover" was a reference to my work on anti-apartheid issues. Mike was convinced that there was no such thing as racism. He was an über-nerd: he loved math and even more, he loved the weather. I would come back to the dorm sometimes, and he'd be listening to an especially "exciting" weather forecast, the first snow of the season from a previous year, for example. His goal in life was to start his own weather forecasting service. I met several of his friends from high school, all white--he went to a highly selective magnet high school in Baltimore. One day, he'd discover that the entire world saw him not solely as a "human" but also as a Black man, but I wasn't going to be the one to burst his bubble. It was the young woman down the hall who later burst it. She wouldn't go out with him because he was Black. For him, this was devastating: he truly had never encountered any bigotry whatsoever before in his life. I was there to empathize through his tears. Regardless, the day in question, I quickly took down the defaced clippings before he could see them, then reported it to the campus housing folks, who did absolutely nothing, as I had expected.
Early 2008, my scientific career has ended due to the impossibility of continuing to fund it as well as various other political things at many levels that I won't get into here. Among other things, to make ends meet, I am substitute teaching in high schools and in the process of getting teacher certification. I end up number one on the substitute list at a 90% Black school. The kids are all happy to see me each time I come, for a reason I never would have predicted: I spoke French. Nearly half of these kids are from Haiti and a few other French-speaking countries. Their often African-American teachers are largely ignoring those who don't speak enough English to function. I can teach bilingually. However, that isn't the story. The story is that one week, I am substituting in an English class that is showing To Kill a Mockingbird. I soon realize that these students have been taught nothing about slavery, Jim Crow or the Civil Rights Movement. It wasn't in their curriculum. So, I, a white guy, ended up teaching Black history to Black students. I knew I'd succeeded, because at the end of the week, from these classes, which included mostly kids who had been turned off to reading, a large number said they intended to head to the library and pick up books I'd mentioned by authors like Richard Wright. The reason I am including this here is to say that the system, the machine, has made Black history, Black struggles, Black literature nearly taboo subjects, skimmed over in only the most cursory fashion. The anger of living in a racist society thus has no informed way to express itself, because there is a purposive suppression of the means to connect the anger to the history and to the politics of what to do about racism and hate. And I saw this. Few of the other white teachers did. Remarkably, few of the Black teachers seemed to either.
So, I'm not Black. But I've seen enough to know there are big problems in this country with racism. And I knew that well before the current news headlines. I've known that most of my life. I've known that since seventh grade, when several friends started hanging out with me more, because they were told by their other Black friends that they had a choice of being Black or succeeding in school and they chose the latter. I went to a school where a large number of Black kids chose educational achievement. But even that a choice was forced upon them was an indication of the extent of the pathology of racial hatred under which this country operated, and I had a clear understanding of this at age thirteen. Most white people don't, even as adults.
The key is listening. I have nearly always lived and/or worked in diverse areas with people whose life narrative was not exactly my life narrative. I listen. At least I try my best.
That would be my rule number one for addressing racism in any kind of fiction: listen first. I don't claim to be an expert on being someone I am not. But if I am going to write anything even remotely realistic, the world is diverse, it will continue to be diverse, and whitewashing a narrative will keep you from any sort of truth that fiction can express, so listening is paramount.
There is a fine line on which I've blogged previously between whitewashing on the one hand and stealing a narrative that is not yours on the other. I think I will be able to avoid both with my story. The protagonist is white. The main arc of the story is him learning to listen, to accept responsibility for what he has done wrong, and to use his privileged status to try to make things better for those who aren't privileged.
Wouldn't be a bad set of goals for our non-fiction, real lives either.