The (Laurel Thatcher Ulrich) quote goes, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” And I suppose I do a fair amount of misbehaving here at The Sin City Siren when it comes to prochoice, feminist conversations. So, today I’m going to stretch myself a bit. I doubt very much I will make history for this (or any) post, but maybe it will be just the right amount of misbehaving to start a healthy dialogue on a very important topic: Race.
I rarely write about race. And why is that? Well, it’s one of those impolite conversations, up there with religion and politics. But, I write about politics all the time. And I’ve been known to talk a little about the flying spaghetti monster and its cousins from time to time. Why do I eschew talking about race? Well, in case you don’t know me, or have never seen me before, I am about as pasty white as they come. My ancestry is Polish, German, English, and Irish — or European mutt. (There’s an unverified rumor that I’m also an eighth Cherokee, but that is probably just an urban legend. And probably fodder for a whole different post on race in America.) And somehow, even though most of the other members of my family have enough pigment to tan, that gene completely skipped me. The best I can do is freckle. And, of course, burn redder than a lobster in a pot. Considering I live in the desert, where there’s approximately 350 days of uninterrupted sunshine a year, it’s a bit problematic but nothing that a sun hat and some strong sunscreen can’t get me through.
So, like all good progressive white people, I avoid talking about race because I feel that I am not allowed to talk about race (with the “safe” exception of denouncing it every chance I get). The narrative goes that by being born white, I’m implicit in a system of racism that dates back — probably since the world began. I’m guilty by association of ancestors I don’t even know about. And, of course, the biggest reason most whites don’t talk about race: I don’t want to be called a racist. I don’t want to accidentally say something racist. I don’t want to perpetuate white privilege (which is really a crap situation because while it is totally unfair that I have it, I can’t opt out of it either).
Another reason I avoid talking about race is that I often feel like I can’t speak from a place of credibility, because I’m white. But lately, I’m thinking that is actually a form of racism in and of itself. Treating “white” as a race without credibility in the discussion of racism and race problems, is like saying that white is not a race. And, as any good progressive knows, believing that whites are “neutral” (or even worse) not a race at all, is the backbone of institutionalized racism and white privilege. Indeed, I am a race, just like everyone is. And my race effects how I move through the world. How I see myself. How I’m seen. How I’m treated. All that stuff. I would argue that framing the discussion in a way that makes it impossible for whites to participate is, in fact, a kind of racism.
So, what got me thinking about all this? Well, the movie The Help. Or rather, all the race critiques I’ve seen about the movie The Help. The Ms. blog, Colorlines, and more are going after the movie and hard. Before I say anything else, let me be clear about one point: I have not seen The Help. I have not read The Help. And this is neither a critique nor a defense of either product. I have absolutely NO first-hand knowledge of either. This post is not about The Help. This post is about the conversation.
And I find the conversation to be quite interesting, and telling. For all I know, author Kathryn Stockett is a closet racist. The critiques certainly condemn her for whitewashing history and creating a fictitious world with no authenticity when it comes to the black characters in her book/film. If she is a racist, or her work is, then that is not something I could ever support. And, in fact, I would willingly condemn.
The question in my mind is not so much about Stockett specifically, but in the greater dialogue about what is okay for whites to talk about and create (in fiction). As a writer (and I write a lot more than just blog posts, including creative fiction), I find this part of the conversation the most compelling. In fiction, what is “okay” when it comes to race?
Hell if I know the answer! Let’s try to work it out together.
As far as I can tell from media reports and critiques, the failing of Stockett’s book (and subsequent Hollywood movie) is that she failed to create an authentic world when it came to the fiction of The Help. Let’s just take Hollywood out of the equation from the start. They rarely produce authentic stories… So, the book was — yet again — a telling of race relations in the mid-century South by a white person from the white person’s perspective and with white people in central roles. (Again, I haven’t read it/seen it, so if I’m wrong about this, let me know. But for conversation’s sake, let’s go with this premise.) And this is not a singular experience in fiction.
But it makes me wonder: When is it okay for white people to write about race? Which fictitious worlds are okay?
Of course, there are obvious works that are right out. Fiction that out-right poses a racist view of the world — for instance, openly suggesting that black people are inferior to white people — is obviously wrong. But what I’m talking about are works of fiction that make Best Of literature lists and are even considered classics. (And I am not suggesting being a “classic” exempts it from criticisms of race, sexism or anything else.) What about works we can almost all agree are good? Is To Kill A Mockingbird racist because it is told from the perspective a white girl, rather than the black man on trial (and written by a white woman)? Or, let’s think about the converse: Is Alice Walker racist because she writes about white people in her books? Is Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart a more authentic creation of fiction set in Africa than The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver?
The bigger question raised for me, during all this discussion about The Help, is: When is it okay for a person to write about experiences outside their own lived experience. When is it okay for a man to write from the woman’s perspective (which I will argue can and has been done very well)? When is it okay for me, a white woman, to write black characters or Hispanic characters or lesbian characters or HIV-positive characters, into my work? If we want writers to present worlds that are more integrated and have more diversity in race, gender, sexuality and all the cornucopia of the world — then how do we liberate them to do that?
I don’t know exactly what the answer to all that is. But one thing I would posit is that in order to get the so-called “good” fiction we crave — that challenges us, moves the flag forward, and represents positive change — we may have to suffer through a few “well-intentioned” but, um, less-than-perfect fictional pieces, like The Help. What is that old phrase? You have to break a few eggs to make a cake? So, maybe for every A Raisin in the Sun, we have to deal with a The Help. Is this ideal? No. Is this life? Yes.
And let me also offer this humble opinion before I let go of this post: Sometimes you have to meet people where they are.
Yes, it would be ideal if we could have discussions about race on the fictional level of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Winter in the Blood, and The Joy Luck Club. It would be great if the fictional worlds that writers created showed the ideal circumstances and that when racism cropped up, it was to illustrate how it is wrong and how we should move forward from it. That would be an awesome literary and pop cultural world. Or would it? We don’t just live in a diverse country in terms of race. We live in a diverse country in terms of education level. And even in terms of what constitutes entertainment. Some people can happily get lost in a museum, while others would rather saw their leg off to escape. We need the low-brow, less-than-perfect examples, too. I can’t stand George Lopez’s comedy (apparently, I’m not the only one) but I can’t deny that his late-night talk show was ground-breaking in terms of showing a Latino in that venue. Star Trek offered the first televised kiss between people of different races. Sometimes it’s precisely because something is the lowest-common-denominator that it breaks the ground. And let’s face it, you have to learn to crawl before you can walk. “White privilege” and “institutionalized racism” are big concepts. You can’t just start there. You have to work up to it. Is that fair? No. Is it frustrating. Yes. But it is part of the journey.
What do you think? Did you read or see The Help (or any other book or movie that is relevant to the discussion)? Do you think it’s racist? Not racist? Let me know!