I do not believe I am a racist. And yet I can make thoughtless comments, be oblivious, be hurtful without realization or intent. Like when I offered a hairdrier to a black friend. Hey, I thought I was being helpful. Forget color-blind. I can be down-right blind.
I don’t classify people by race. Why? I grew up with parents who were from the deep south. They would whisper things like, “well, he’s black...” as if that would explain something. Those comments made me ill. I grew up in Silicon Valley in the middle of the dot com boom. My early jobs were so multi-cultural that to me the world was a rainbow. I tour guided at a museum that drew international tourists and tried to learn phrases in as many languages as I could.
Later, I became a planner in a manufacturing environment. I worked with men and women of all ages and ethnicity. I adored it. Hey, I’m a foodie. We had the most incredible potlucks you can imagine. Home made tortillas with fresh raita and sushi. You can not find that food variety anywhere else.
I listen to people's life stories. There’s just something about me that people enjoy telling me their histories. I’m a writer, so I’m blessed. I’ve discussed the place of love in life with a Sikh, learned about pirates from a woman from Vietnam, and cried with a college professor from Mexico because she was being ignored at work since she was just a “dumb Mexican.” Since our country didn't recognize her doctorate, she was working making widgets. Dumb? Hardly.
Yet, when I write, my characters tend to be monochromatic. (Unless you count Blue, my favorite alien.) I write what I know. Often, I don’t specify race. My writing partners will say that I also don’t remember to describe scenes and settings, so early drafts come out with invisible people walking around in white rooms. But those people say interesting things....
My monochromatic writing bothers me. I want to include the rainbow that is reality, and yet I am afraid. Terribly afraid. I do not want to offend. I've been wrestling with this aspect of my writing for a few years now, which is one of the reasons why I love Alicia McCalla.
I saw an example of what I fear in a Survivor episode.
If you watch interviews with Phillip Sheppard, you’ll realize that some of his behavior was an act. I don’t think he belongs in a mental institution. But under the stress of the environment, yes, he behaved like he was insane. The color of his skin was less relevant than the color of his underwear. I wish I could find the actual tribal council from that night where Jeff got Phillip to explain why “crazy” = the n word to him. It was heart-wrenching. I wished I could go back to the little boy he was and protect him from the harm done. But he's right. To him being called crazy was the same as being called ... That word I will not use.
My marriage counselor talks about “filters” -- how everything we say goes through our filters, then through the air, then through the other person's filters and then into their brain. Words do change in that process. Written words change the same way. Which makes being a writer a dangerous thing, especially if you want to deal with race issues.
I’m not as brave as Alicia, but she’s challenged me to write about why dealing with race is a complicated thing for an author -- for me.
Why? Because I respect the people I write about. I felt for Steve. He didn't intend a racial slur, but he inadvertently did rattle that image loose in Phillip's mind. To Phillip it was a slur. When I offered the hairdrier to my friend, it was a racial mis-step. Does that make me a racist? No. A blind idiot? Probably.
And that is what I worry about in my characters. For example: my current novel deals with a series of genetically altered humans. The underlying point is that their genes are so similar a twinning affect has been created. So, I’m not going to be playing with racial differences between them. There are good and bad characters in the mix, but those 6 are all white. Why? Well, because they're the ones I need to feel comfortable writing and I need to understand them to the best of my ability. I’m certain that if I tried to make them all of a different ethnicity I’d make more than a hair brushing mistake.
I have other characters in the story, many of which are minor villains. I don’t want to write a bunch of multi-cultural villains playing opposite a bunch of white good-guys. That makes ME sick. So, I intermix them as best I can. Honestly? I think I do a horrible job with race in this novel, and it bugs me. In another of my stories, I do worse.
How can I learn to be better? I don’t know. I’m hoping Alicia will teach me. Because this isn't just a black/white thing.
Here's what I do believe about racism and prejudice, and here is where I sometimes offend people. Everyone -- EVERYONE -- has experienced prejudice. Maybe it is prejudice because of race, gender, religion, age or something less obvious like hair color, but everyone has experienced it to some degree.
I’ve been told that I don’t understand prejudice, I don’t understand what a person of xyz race goes through on a daily basis. That’s true. I don’t. I do know that I lost a best friend because he didn't want to hang out with a Christian. I do know that I struggled as an engineering student in college because of gender discrimination by some of the older professors. (And yes, I went on to prove it and turned in a documented report to the college with data, assisted by an anthropology professor.) I’ve watched white men be turned down for jobs because a less qualified minority worker wanted the job. I've worked in government agencies and seen the hiring guidelines. I’ve watched older people do menial labor because employers want younger workers. I've watched kids struggle to find a job in a marketplace glutted with out-of-work adults.
I even committed a terrible slur in this blog. I referred to myself as “blind” when I made a mistake. That's an insult to blind people. The ones I know often see better than I do. Our language and culture is riddled with terrible danger for writers. Every word may trigger a filter in another person. Words inter-twine with emotions and events, and until we can bypass language altogether, accidents will happen.
I hate prejudice in all of its forms. I detest racism. I loathe the event that caused Phillip to move to a place where a word like “crazy” could be associated with a racist slur. I hate the harm that was done to that child.
But I fear writing multi-cultural fiction, because it seems there is no safe path through the minefield.
Alicia talks about healing the affects of racism with multi-cultural fiction, as if we could somehow clear those filters and start over. I want to learn how. We’ve talked about writers being afraid to even touch on the topic, and I believe she's right. Being afraid of dealing with racism gives it power and takes power away from our writing.