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Archive for June, 2015

Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the phrase "suspension of disbelief," if you can believe that.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the phrase “suspension of disbelief,” if you can believe that.

It’s strange the things that jar readers out of their willing suspension of disbelief. Character is a werewolf? No problem. Character is an American who stops by his local chip shop in Wichita, Kansas, to order some takeaway? Hold the phone. As readers, we’re willing to believe all kinds of ridiculous things, but it’s often the mundane details that make us doubt an author’s credibility.

The interesting thing is how those things shift as time passes and societies change. I was reminded of this a few nights ago while having dinner with a couple of friends who are about to set off on a new adventure together. We were discussing MFAs and their usefulness or lack thereof, and I was reminded of one of the most important things that happened to me in my MFA 20+ years ago.

I was in a fiction class which was intended to be a sort of introduction to novel writing. For critique, I’d submitted a chapter in which my two main characters (a 16-year-old girl and her 12-year-old brother) had a conversation about the girl’s prom dress. My chapter was savaged. Hey, that’s cool, being savaged is part of the learning process. After class, however, the professor asked me to see him during office hours.

For half an hour, he proceeded to lecture me extensively on how unrealistic my 12-year-old boy was. Boys, he informed me with all his vast personal knowledge on the subject, are not interested in prom dresses. Boys are interested in comics and baseball and other sport things, and possibly insects. Boys do not willingly iron their sisters’ clothes or sit on their sisters’ beds watching them get ready for prom.

“Some boys do,” I said. I had known a few boys who did. “Some gay boys.”

“Gay?” my professor said. Then he delivered his verdict: “12-year-old boys aren’t gay. Your character can’t be gay.”

The lesson of my MFA: just as not every book is for every reader, not every critique is valuable. Since I knew I wasn’t going to rewrite my story to make my character hetero-normative, I did the only thing I could. I dropped the novel class and enrolled in a play writing class with a professor who did not have such intransigent views on the sexuality of prepubescent boys.

I realized this morning that I’d get called out on a completely different element if I submitted it to a critique group today. In 1992, a gay 12-year-old protagonist raised the hackles of my critique group as “unrealistic.” What didn’t cause them to bat an eye was a story in which a teenaged girl and her younger brother spent the whole summer roaming the streets with their ne’er-do-well neighbor, completely unsupervised while their parents were at work.

23 years later, in a society that now calls the police and social services on parent-less children playing in public parks, no one would believe that my characters could wander freely without adult oversight. Conversely, on the heels of such a momentous Supreme Court decision, let no critique group or writing professor say, “Your character can’t be gay.”

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I was lucky enough that I went to bed last night before the news broke about the attack on the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. At least I got a good night’s sleep, unlike a lot of people who must have lain awake all night with that on their minds. This morning, though, I saw the news, and I saw already how the facts were being shaped to reflect this ongoing belief in white America that racism isn’t a problem or isn’t a white problem anyway.

The suspect in this attack has been apprehended, and he’s already made clear that he went to Emanuel AME to “kill black people.” Yet again, I see news outlets and private individuals playing up this idea that the shooter was a lone gunman. Just one white guy with bad intentions. When I look at pictures of the suspect, and his clothing, and his license plate, I see a lesson that I have learned repeatedly about racism.

As a white woman from the Midwest, I was raised in an environment that saw nothing wrong with racism, as long as you were polite about it. This wasn’t the kind of racism that involved hurling racist epithets at people’s faces, or burning crosses, or terrorizing people. It was just this low grade hum of acceptance for racism and racist language.

That “polite racism” has not gone away. I have worked in many different offices, with all kinds of people, and without exception, in every all-white workplace, white people have felt that it was okay to send emails containing racist jokes or to make racist remarks in the break room. White people have felt that it was safe to say these things among other white people.

When I have spoken up to tell people that their behavior is wrong and offensive, the same thing has happened every time. The polite racists don’t stop sending racist jokes via email, they just take me off the email list. The polite racists don’t stop making racist remarks in the break room, they just fall silent when I walk in. Remember that: just because you don’t notice racism, doesn’t mean it’s not there. That’s at the heart of white privilege.

“Polite racism” is not harmless. It is not “just words.” That low grade hum of hatred is fuel for more deadly forms of hatred. Look at the suspect in the AME massacre. On his coat he wears the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and of Rhodesia. On his car, he proudly sports a license plate with the Confederate flag. The same flag that still flies over the South Carolina capitol. These are not harmless icons any more than a Nazi swastika is a harmless icon. And the AME shooter, he didn’t make these badges himself. He didn’t make that license plate. He bought them. They were available for sale because of the existence of hate organizations who use those emblems to promote racist hatred. That is not a lone gunman. That is a mass murderer fueled by a culture of hate.

A former classmate of the AME shooter says that he “made a lot of racist jokes.” So this young man made racist jokes that nobody took seriously, wore multiple emblems from nations that espoused racist beliefs and policies, and apparently nobody saw a problem with that. Nobody in his family or circle of friends said, “That’s not okay. That’s a destructive kind of hatred.” Now tell me again how he acted alone. To me, that sounds like he acted with the full support of his community.

So what are white people supposed to do, if they find this hatred sickening, if they want to put an end to racism in America? As I’ve experienced, speaking up didn’t end it, but that’s only because in most instances I was the only person speaking out against it. I think of a racist email sent by a former coworker to more than twenty people in our office. I hit Reply All and indicated that the email was offensive and wrong. Now imagine if every other person who received that email had simply chimed in to say, “Yeah. That’s not okay.” That’s how you stop “polite racism.”

No, you’re not responsible for every white person in America, but to some degree you are responsible for everyone in your circle of family and friends. When somebody you love tells a racist joke, tell them that’s not okay. When somebody you love sports a hate emblem, ask them to find a different outfit. When somebody you love engages in “polite racism,” shut that down. When you remain silent, you become complicit. Everyone has to speak up every single time, no matter how uncomfortable it is. If that seems exhausting, imagine what it’s like being black in America. Then imagine that by speaking out, you might just save the life of somebody else’s loved one.

A great article about the Birmingham church bombing that helped me put my head on forwards today is here.

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