We invited editors and writers to participate in a series on issues and representations of race, class, gender, and sexuality in independent publishing. We asked them how these issues affected them as editors interested in publishing underrepresented communities, or writers who want to challenge dominant notions of identity.
I Don’t Know How to Write About Race
by Roxane GayPosted on October 1st, 2009 at 4:41 pm
I don’t know how to write about race.
I don’t know how to write about race without becoming irrational and emotional.
I don’t know how to write about race because it makes me uncomfortable; people get defensive; they make assumptions about me, my creative interests, my agenda.
I rarely write about race. I don’t want to be pigeonholed. I don’t want people to expect me to write about race. When I do write about race, I don’t want people to think I’m doing it wrong. When I do write about race, I don’t write the typical black narrative. Sometimes, I write about Haiti (because I’m Haitian American) and sometimes I write about the black boarding school experience and the experience of being black in academia because that’s my black narrative. Most of the time, I like to write about bad relationships and destructive relationships and shallow people who love deeply. I like to write about sex and flaws and lots of other things.
I often avoid writing about race because people seem to only want to read about race when it satisfies their shallow expectations. This is a frustration I am certain is common to all writers of color.
There is a lot of unwillingness to acknowledge the multiplicities of experience. Funny and true story: an editor once (not long ago) sent me a rejection stating that people aren’t interested in reading about black people from the suburbs but that he would love to see me write something about the inner city.
That attitude overwhelms me. It makes me wonder where I belong, how I fit in, how I can participate in publishing when I’m not this or that, when I’m neither here nor there.
When you talk about race, people have to stand up and declare the ways in which they are marginalized. We can never only talk about race. We have to talk about class and gender and sexuality and every thing but race. We have to acknowledge that everyone holds some kind of privilege and on and on it goes.
This is only about race.
I don’t want to write about race because once you do, you become branded as the angry one. You become branded as someone with a one-track mind or a chip on your shoulder.
There is no chip on my shoulder but I am angry. We should all be angry.
I don’t care about race. I care about getting enough sleep and grading and remembering to get my mom a birthday card and all the other solipsistic minutiae of my life. And yet, I do care about race. I care very much.
When I follow various online conversations about writing I often feel that it is just a bunch of white people sitting around completely uninterested in introducing race into the conversation. Let me be clear—that is their right. Still, it troubles me that there is no visible concern about the lack of diversity in modern letters. And this is not just a concern about including black voices. There are writers of all races and ethnicities, but we don’t hear much about anyone with a different skin tone unless they are the Person of Color Flavor of the Week (POCFOTW) and then they instantly become the spokesperson and go to reference for all things ethnic.
Far too many people are tired of talking about race. They think we’ve moved past the necessity for such discussions or they’re not interested or it doesn’t matter to them and they think such attitudes are acceptable. They think race is force-fed in classrooms and that there just aren’t that many people of color or there aren’t that many writers of color so it’s not something they need to think about.
Those attitudes will not deter me from talking about race.
Toward the end of August, I wrote a blog post for PANK, a magazine where I am the associate editor, to encourage discussion about race and gender in independent publishing. In that post, I clarified that I wasn’t writing about myself because I’ve achieved a fair amount of success as a writer and editor. I was writing about and for the people who look like me who did not, for whatever reason, have access to a similar platform with which to bring attention to this issue.
I was surprised yet not surprised both by the number of people who participated in the discussion as well as the tenor. While each comment gave me something to think about, many of the comments also saddened me and showed me just how bad, how frustrating, how futile things really are. By the end of a long day where I tried, as best I could, to participate in a very active conversation, I was no longer able to speak rationally or coherently. The one thing that lingered in my mind was the ineloquent notion that shit is not okay. Shit is in fact far worse than I have ever imagined.
More than one person implied I was inventing a problem where there was none, as if I have nothing better to do.
When you say the word race, people are somehow unable to interpret the words before and after. All they see are those four letters and the painful histories inextricably bound to them.
Talking about race is not a call for liberal guilt or apologia. To say that people of color are underrepresented in publishing, independent or mainstream, is not an accusation to any person or entity. It is a fact. People of color are underrepresented almost everywhere. Encouraging a conversation about ways in which we might increase that representation within the independent publishing community does not necessitate somehow taking responsibility for the deficit.
As several people pointed out during the discussion on the PANK blog, there’s no real way to know if a writer is a person of color. Names tell us very little. As such, it is daunting to come up with effective ways of ensuring that writers from a broader range of races and ethnicities are getting their words out there regardless of what they choose to write about.
At the same time, this isn’t rocket science. There are many active communities for writers of color. The challenge is finding ways to create relationships with those communities, to encourage those writers to submit to independent publishing markets to make it so it’s not easy to name the one or two black writers or Asian writers or Latino/a writers with whom we are familiar.
I don’t have any answers. That was another theme in the blog conversation—the notion that if I want to talk about race, I should also have answers to these unwieldy overwhelming questions. That’s a rather unreasonable burden. It doesn’t work that way.
As an editor, I want to be as inclusive (and this inclusion goes far beyond race/ethnicity) of diverse voices as possible but the writing always comes first. What I do is hope that we have created an ethos where all writers feel comfortable sharing their work with us and where writers trust that their work will always be read fairly regardless of what they write. I also hope that some day I won’t have to think about race or be angry or wonder if there is a place for me.
In the meantime, I don’t know how to write about race.