Notes on Questioning Whiteness as a Literary Practice
Apr 23, 2015
Note: This is a selection from a larger essay that provides readings of the opening passages from works by Jonathan Franzen, Jhumpa Lahiri, Shawn Wong, Junot Diaz, Sherman Alexie, and ZZ Packer. About a year ago, I was talking to a younger white writer about the issues of race and literature. He candidly said he understood that race was of course a live and vital subject in relationship to contemporary America, but in the end, he was too afraid to take on that subject. He feared he might make a misstep; might be called on the use of a stereotype or perhaps even be deemed a racist. While I understand and can empathize with his fear, giving in to fear is not a path I’d recommend for any writer. At a certain point in our history, more white writers will begin to see that race is not an optional lens but a central and essential lens to understanding both their own particular experience and identity and American society as a whole.
In one of his routines, amid his usual kvetching, Louis C.K. apologizes for being such a bummer. Admitting he’s a “lucky guy,” he goes on to explain:
I’m healthy, I’m relatively young. I’m white.
I mean thank god for that shit, boy.
That’s a huge leg up. Are you kidding me?
O my god, I love being white, I really do.
Seriously if you’re not white you’re missing out.
Because this shit is thoroughly good.
Let me be clear by the way:
I’m not saying that white people are better.
I’m saying that being white is better.
Who can even argue?
Of course, there are those who would argue, and not just from Fox News. At any rate, for those who find this routine funny, the humor here, as with most humor, comes from the stating of a truth that many people—in this case, specifically white people—would rather not say out loud.
In Learning To Be White: Money, Race and God in America, the theologian and college professor Thandeka describes an little social experiment she devised called The Race Game. The origins of this game were this: At a lunch together, a white member of the staff at Smith College asked Thandeka what it felt like to be black. Thandeka said that if her luncheon partner played The Race Game for one week, she would then answer the colleague’s question. The game consisted of one rule. For one week the woman was to “use the ascriptive term white” whenever she mentioned the names of “Euro-American cohorts. She must say, for instance, ‘my white husband, Phil,’ or ‘my white friend Julie,’ or ‘my lovely white child Jackie.’” The women never had lunch with Thandeka again. Over and over, when Thandeka presented the idea of The Race Game, white colleagues refused to do it. Thandeka remarks: “….in their [my white colleagues’] racial lexicon, their own racial group becomes the great unsaid.”
Whether liberal or conservative, many whites believe that the way to racial harmony is simply to never speak about race or call attention to race. This ostensible silence is practiced when referencing people of color, but it is even more strictly enforced when whites refer to themselves. Basically, the ideology is this: Don’t speak about race, and race will not exist. Moreover, talk about race inevitably promotes conflict or is evidence of racism; therefore the solution is to not talk about race. And, if we don’t talk about race, then racism must not exist.
In a similar fashion, most white writers can observe the rules of silence on racial discourse and still tell their stories. In doing so, they write about their experiences with a very different set of lenses, a very different set of tools and categories of thought, than writers of color. And yet, like most whites in this country, they do not think about how it is they think about race in the ways that they do. The epistemology of race is not a subject many of them consider.
And yet race is built into the very structures through which white writers and writers of color tell their stories and describe the realities of their characters. This starts with a literary rule that whites seldom ever consider: If the character is white, the race of that character does not need to be mentioned or indicated in any direct way.
The absence of a racial marker means the character is by default white. The exception to the rule is always the character of color. In considering this convention, what writers and readers often overlook is this: Whiteness here is instituted not only as the norm; no, its very existence must also be kept invisible, unremarked upon. In other words, this literary practice presupposes that the white characters need not be identified racially; race for them is not a significant part of their identity or social reality. It’s presumed that this is a politically neutral stance concerning race. But I would submit, it is not.
What if we step back from this practice and see it not as natural or instinctive—that is, as it is practiced by most white writers--but as a practice which is socially constructed? This literary convention is clearly an example of the racial construction of whiteness; it embodies the way whiteness is defined.
At the same time, the practice also presupposes that characters of color must be identified racially; that race is a crucial part of their identity or social reality.
These are basically two practices then based upon racial identity. Separate and unequal.
The question becomes then: Who benefits from these different practices? And what is missing from the white definition of race that is included in the definition of race for people of color?
Does the contradiction between these two definitions make sense--that is, that whites do not have a racial identity and people of color do? Is it people of color who gave themselves their racial identity? No, it's historically been white people who have done this.
If the very way white writers introduce their characters and the very way writers of color introduce their characters is racialized, how is it that any piece of American fiction, white or POC, escapes being racialized?
What would our literature look like if this rule were not the norm? How difficult is it for whites to identify themselves as white? And what exactly is the cause of this difficulty?
All these are questions few white writers even acknowledge, much less attempt to wrestle with.
As exhibited in their use of the literary convention which allows them to not identify their white characters racially, most white writers work from certain basic assumptions about race and literature:
The default identity of a character—that is unless otherwise indicated—is white.
White authors do not therefore have to label their white characters by race.
In following this convention, white writers generally assent to the assumption that race is not a significant lens through which to view their characters.
The text need not acknowledge how people of color might view the white characters or how a reader of color might view the white characters.
i.e., The gaze and judgment of the racial other will not be present or accounted for in the text.
Overall then the literary judgment of a work by a white writer does not need to take into account the lens of race.
i.e., What is missing from the text because the lens of race is not employed can have no affect on our literary evaluation of that text.
For writers of color, a different set of assumptions are at work:
The writer of color must or chooses to identify her characters in terms of ethnicity and/or race if the characters are not white.
In exploring the character’s ethnicity or race, the writer of color must make a decision concerning the ways a white reader, a reader of the writer’s own group and other readers of color will read the text.
This is an aesthetic question which most white writers do not ask themselves. (As Toni Morrison points out in Playing in the Dark, historically American authors have written solely with a white audience in mind.)
Many characters of color possess an awareness of how whites view that character and not just how people of the character’s own race view that character.
i.e., The character of color possesses an awareness of the gaze and judgment of the racial/white Other, and the racial hierarchy which structures the society to the benefit of that racial/white Other.
For many writers of color, the lens of race is essential to understanding their characters as well as to the way the writer herself views her characters and the society we live in.
The difference in these assumptions then inevitably comes into play when a writer of color enters a writing class or MFA program where white professors and white students are the predominant majority—i.e., just about any writing program in the country:
In writing programs where the professor is a white writer, that white writer professor will generally be unaware of or not go over the techniques through which a writer of color indicates and explores ethnicity or race.
This is partly because the aesthetics of most white writing view such indications as unnecessary, inessential or exceptions to the norm.
If a writer of color specifically employs the lens of race, that puts that writer at odds with the assumptions of white writers who believe the lens of race is inessential or unimportant
This also puts the writer of color at odds with the portions of the society that argue that our society is post-racial or, at the very least, that race is not a significant factor in American life.
Inevitably the clash between the writer of color and the white professor and students also involves how the writer of color’s work is judged:
The writer’s ability to read her characters and the society through the lens of race and her ability to convey the complexities of that reading, are a significant criteria through which readers of color evaluate writers of color.
For the white reader to make such an evaluation the white reader must be aware of the ways people of color use the lens of race to understand themselves and those around them as well as the society in which they live.
Most white readers do not possess this knowledge. It goes against the aesthetic—and political--assumption that race is not a significant and necessary lens through which to understand characters, whether they are white or people of color. They also generally do not have sufficient cross racial experiences to be familiar with people of color. (As Major Jackson points out in his essay “A Mystifying Silence,” many white poets do not have a black friend, much less a cluster of friends of different races.)
All of this occurs because most white readers do not assume that race is a necessary lens to view their own lives. They do not think very often or want to be conscious of their own racial identity (which naming white characters as white would force them to do).
In order to maintain this view, white writers and readers must therefore deem the lens of race as not necessary to an essential understanding of the society they live in. Or its literature.
It is therefore impossible to argue that race is not a factor in the aesthetic judgment of works by either white writers or writers of color.
Long ago, Richard Wright remarked that black and white American are engaged in a struggle over the description of reality. Despite our current rhetoric of a post-racial society, that struggle is still taking place today between white writers and writers of color. Where we are going in this struggle is difficult to say. And yet, we all know that we are coming to a point where whites will no longer be the majority racial group in our country; indeed, this year, 2012, was the first year in which more babies of color were born than white babies. Is it difficult to believe that with such demographic changes, at some point, the default race of an unidentified character will no longer be white? And if that is changed, will the aesthetics of white writers finally be forced to grapple with the realities most writers of color have been grappling with along? And finally when will writers of color begin to be read with an understanding of the complexity and literary merit that their works deserve?