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Posts Tagged ‘racism’

By now, I’m guessing you’ve all seen it: the white American poet who yellowfaced in his attempts to get published. That’s right, a white man used an Asian pen name to increase his odds of having his poetry published. He’s quite open about his reasons for doing so:

The poem in question, ‘The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve,’ was rejected under my real name forty (40) times before I sent it out as Yi-Fen Chou (I keep detailed submission records). As Yi-Fen the poem was rejected nine (9) times before Prairie Schooner took it. If indeed this is one of the best American poems of 2015, it took quite a bit of effort to get it into print, but I’m nothing if not persistent.”

My first reaction to hearing about this was blunt and none too poetic: Are you fucking kidding me?

First, let’s just consider the reality of how difficult it is for people of color to be published. Today provides a great example: Cindy Pon is posting over on John Scalzi’s Big Idea about the obstacles that exist when you’re writing stories about non-white characters. Then let’s take a quick stroll over here, where we find white men dominating writing conference panels, even the ones about women and people of color. It happens so often, it’s hard to pick a single example, so I’ll just grab the latest one: Maggie Stiefvater being asked on a panel about Writing the Other.

So when a white dude goes on record lamenting that it’s so hard to get published as a white dude, and then concocts a rationale that’s based on a small sample at best, and on a completely false sense of persecution at worst, it chaps my hide. If it’s so hard being a white dude in publishing, why do so many “best of” lists contain mostly (and sometimes only) white men? If it’s so hard, why is academia jammed to the gills with classes that teach mostly (and sometimes only) white writers? If it’s so hard, why do so many women writers use just their initials to disguise the fact that they are Tanyas and Rebeccas and Joannes?

Of course, at the heart of this guy’s pen name gimmick is an oozing white core of entitlement. He feels his poetry is so good that the only thing keeping it from getting published is some ingrained bias against white men. Otherwise, how to explain that he was rejected forty times as a white man, but published after only nine attempts as an Asian man? Surely there’s no other way to understand this befuddling experience of rejection.

Let’s look at what he says again: If indeed this is one of the best American poems of 2015, it took quite a bit of effort to get it into print, but I’m nothing if not persistent.

Bullshit. On all counts. Complete and utter bullshit.

Firstly, 49 rejections is nothing. He thinks that’s a lot of rejection? He has no clue. I know people who’ve suffered a hundred rejections in trying to get a poem published. That’s persistence.

Secondly, and above all, I am so tired of this fallacy that great literature never gets rejected. Of course it gets rejected. I’m not even going to bother listing all the great works of literature that had to confront rejection before being published. You all know the list. It’s enormous. Because even a brilliant piece of writing isn’t going to speak to everyone.

A poem being named as a “best of 2015” means only that someone in charge of making the list liked the poem. It doesn’t make it a great poem. It doesn’t put it in the canon of great literature. Nor does it prove that publishing is biased against white men.

To my great joy, Sherman Alexie, the guest editor of The Best American Poetry 2015, has chimed in to discuss his inclusion of this poem in the anthology. He is completely honest about his reasoning, and about his reaction to learning that he had been “fooled.” I don’t think he was, because his job was to choose the 75 poems he liked best from the year. No matter how complex the process by which he got there, he succeeded.

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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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It’s not unusual to come across the kind of discussion I found on Absolute Write the other day, in which well-meaning writers try to hash out a safe path through the minefield of racial identities.  If you’re a white writer, is the “racial default” in character descriptions necessarily white?  How do you describe characters who are outside that racial default setting without being racist?  Can you write outside your racial default without being racist?  Can you write outside your racial default and still be authentic?  What happens when you step outside the lines that are supposed to define your racial identity?

I’ll admit, it was very late in the game of writing my most recent project that I even contemplated this question.  Maybe I’m a little dense, but it really didn’t occur to me to ask: can a white girl write convincingly in the voice of a black man?  The overriding feeling I had and the one I still have above all others is that the narrator, Axyl, is an Okie like me.  He was born and grew up not thirty miles from where I grew up.  He was raised by the same kind of working class family I was raised by.  He has the same cadence to his speech and the same uncertainty about how far he’s willing to embrace his redneck upbringing.

I don’t pretend that I have a clue what it’s like to be a black man in redneck America, but I have lived as an outsider in a community that should have embraced me, if inclusion were only a matter of race.  I was kicked out of Sunday school and harassed for being an atheist.  Everyone in town knew about my father’s criminal habits and his lengthy stints in prison, and people talked about it, not always behind my back.

Years later, living in rural Japan, I had a taste of what it’s like to be on the receiving end of racial bias.  Dozens of times people got up and moved, when I sat next to them on the bus or train.  I learned to cut my own hair, because I couldn’t find a single barber or hairstylist who was willing to cut gaijin hair.  There were restaurants in my town where I couldn’t be served and stores where the shopkeepers put up the closed sign if they saw me coming.

These feelings are in my narrator’s experience.  After all, isn’t that the job of a writer: to borrow from our own experiences to inhabit the lives of people who don’t exist?  It’s an odd task and one that can’t require the exactness of journalism.  Approximation is all anyone can provide.

The strangest part in all of this is that after a dozen or more people had read the manuscript and offered critiques, the question of my race vs. my narrator’s race came up many times.  The question of my gender vs. my narrator’s gender came up a few times, but oddly enough no one asked me whether I felt comfortable writing as a multiple murderer.  I’ve never killed anyone, but apparently that discrepancy between my life experience and my narrator’s life experience seemed unimportant next to the question of skin color.

I wonder, too, exactly how long the lines between races will stay sharp.  They’re blurring already, and writers and readers are both trying to figure out how that affects their perceptions of characters.  For an interesting observation on the failure of race to color inside the lines, see sci fi writer Tobias Bucknell’s great post on his experience as a “Caribbean writer.”

President ObamaI think about this today, because of all the hubbub in the news about our new president.  Many commentators have remarked that “a black family in the White House changes everything.”   On certain levels, I have no doubt that they’re right.  The Obamas represent a sea change for racial minorities in America.  Barack Obama even gets mentioned in my book, as some successful counterpart to my narrator.  The son of a white woman and a black (and largely absent) father, my narrator is in the same awkward gap Obama has described being in: too black to fit in with white people or too white to fit in with black people.  Neither one nor the other.  Neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm?

As I contemplate the process of querying this book, I am in uncertain waters.  The book, though it has elements of the fantastical in it, doesn’t truly fit with the “urban fantasy” genre.  I have called it “literary fiction with magical realism,” but perhaps it has too much action to suit literary tastes.  It’s perhaps too raw and ugly to consider itself  “commercial fiction with magical realism.”  I find myself looking at agents who represent “multi-cultural” novels, but I always end up with the same question: Am I out of the running for multi-culti because I am so pasty white?  Will my skin color become an issue more than the contents of the book?

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