the written world: of whiteness


two cool things are happening right now: the ten thousand doors of January is a kindle daily deal today! $3.99! also there’s a goodreads giveaway for 100 copies of the once and future witches (digital; us only). oh, and i was recently honored to lose the nebula award for best novel to sarah pinsker, who was unbelievably gracious and kind to me during the virtual nebulas. congratulations to all the other winners (and other losers) as well!

of whiteness

so: i’ve been getting this certain kind of email lately. they’re all pretty long. they all have a palpable anxiety to them, a sense of hands being wrung. they start something like this: “hi, i’m a white author, and i want to write/have written a book/story with a Black/Indigenous/Asian/Latinx character, but i don’t want to get in trouble/fuck it up. I was wondering if you had any—"(1)

it’s not a huge mystery why i get emails like this: i’m a white writer who has written characters of color. (the main character of The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a mixed race seventeen-year-old). a lot of my work deals, to varying degrees of success, with issues of power, race, and empire.

i answer most of these emails the same way. i refer them to jeannette ng’s “cultural appropriation for the worried writer” and alexander chee’s essay on writing the other. i encourage them to ask themselves some serious questions, wish them wisdom, and peace the hell out.

i know it’s not the response most of them are looking for. they’re looking for permission, absolution, information. they want a ten-step plan and a list of sensitivity readers. they asked “should i write this story about a Black WWII nurse/a Cherokee explorer/an immigrant witch?” (2) and they want a yes or no, and the truth is: i don’t know, dude. maybe! probably not.

but there’s often a second half to that question, which goes like this: “…or should i just make them white?”

putting aside some of the other implications of this question,(3) it’s the just that’s been bothering me lately. the implication that there’s an easy mode to novel-writing, a switch you flick that means you no longer have to worry about race or power or history. there’s nothing just about whiteness.

whiteness isn’t accidental or coincidental. it’s a (relatively recent!) cultural construction designed to justify domination and subjugation in the name of profit. it has a history, a set of norms and expectations, a shitload of baggage. even where it appears coincidental, it has been rigorously, violently maintained: the pacific northwest is white because they passed laws banning Black people; cities are segregated because of redlining; sundown towns were a national phenomenon. racism determined the height of overpasses (google robert moses) and the number of public swimming pools in your town.

in my next book, all three point-of-view characters are white american suffragists at end of the 19th century. one of the scenes is modeled very loosely on the 1913 women’s march on washington—a triumphal moment, full of radical women dressed in white waving banners high. it was also the moment when ida b. wells was asked to march at the back so as not to offend the white southern participants.(4)

so like: making my characters white did not magically erase issues of race, privilege, exclusion, and power; it still demanded research, investigation, interrogation, grappling with unpleasant realities and complex identities. i wrung my hands. i re-wrote. i still don’t know how successful i was.

and look: i’m not saying every novel in the world has to become some kind of expository anti-racist manifesto. i’m not saying i know what i’m doing. i’m just saying it’s not a choice between dealing with race, or just writing white characters. i’m just saying: there is no just.

1: note that this newsletter is aimed pretty squarely and white readers and writers; nothing i have to say will be surprising, groundbreaking, or even particularly interesting to people of color.

2: these are made-up examples; i’m not trying to publicly shame or embarrass any of the email-writers, who i think are mostly well-intentioned, doing their best to navigate a shifting cultural landscape. (mostly).

3: if you can just flip your character’s race from brown or Black to white, without reevaluating the entire plot and character arc of your book, i suspect…..deeper issues.

4: ida b. agreed to go to the back, then stepped right the hell out in front when the march began, because ida b. did not come here to play games.

further reading

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