Questioning our own racism: how can fiction help?

I say "our," but that's really a deflection tactic. I mean "my." 

This is step number one. Owning your own prejudices as an individual and not a collective. Acknowledging that yeah, I didn't grow up in the slavery era and I wasn't alive during the Holocaust, which my grandparents witnessed, but that doesn't mean I'm not part of the systematic racism that history has so conveniently laid out for me to follow. 

Racism today is much less overt, and in many ways, it would appear more insidious in its nature because we think of it as something solidly in the past. Perhaps every generation before us has felt that way too. I am young and I don't have much history yet to compare things to, but I would imagine that during the civil rights movement, many racist thoughts were backed by the belief that slavery was behind us, therefore how could anything else be as horrible and overt? What is subtle to us today may not be so subtle ten or twenty years from now.

When I moved to Philadelphia, I had to grapple with a lot of what I believed to be true about racism. I had heard a lot about being color blind and looking through ethnicity like it was transparent glass and none of us were any different.  As I progressed in my education, I learned that this was the wrong approach. Being color-blind was still a respected notion during the nineties. It's easy to apply in theory, but when you don't actually have contact with certain non-white communities in the first place, it's nearly impossible to be color blind. It's easy to ask someone to pretend a color doesn't exist only when they literally don't see it. When it finally slaps you in the face, no amount of training can help you to look straight through it. 

It's especially hard when you realize that the tables have turned and now you're the only white person on the bus. In the store. On the street.

I grew up in suburbia surrounded by Chinese, Korean, Indian, and Jewish communities, but I had not been exposed to African American communities. I was, all at once, worried that I might say or do something egregiously wrong. And somewhere nestled inside that fear, the judgement starts to creep in.

I had a friend who was pistol-whipped while crossing the street. He was actually crossing the street to get to his house, but it looked like he was crossing to get away from the group of young black men headed towards him. It is this kind of incident that fuels my paranoia that borders on self-fulfilling prophecy. It is the kind of thing that leads to people feigning non-chalance just to prove that they aren't racist.

Let me back up for a second. 

After I learned of what happened to my friend, I made it a point to not do anything that could be misconstrued--not just as a white person, but also as a woman. It is hard to unpack and divide those two things, but I will try. Here's a simple example: interactions with strangers on the street. As a white person, I don't cross the street if a large group of black men is headed towards me just so that they don't think I'm afraid of them. 

As a woman, there's another layer to the thought processes I have when navigating public spaces. I am a master of the head nod-- a subtle acknowledgement of a total stranger that does not single me out as interested or inviting, and also does not mark me as fearful, dour, or cold. As a woman, I make a point to nod and smile at people I don't want to just to avoid a confrontation, regardless of their age, race, and level of perceived threat. I'm not saying the street is always a war zone (there are plenty of nice people who genuinely want to say hi, and I'm happy about that) but women must prepare for such situations nevertheless.

And then there are moments when the line is blurred between white and female. I never try to look lost when I'm in supposedly dangerous (read: non-white) neighborhoods. I know in which neighborhoods I can pull my iPhone out and which ones I can't. When I worked in deep North Philly, I carried my laptop inside an old backpack so that no one knew I had it in the first place. These are things I've learned to do so I don't draw attention to myself. Concealment is the best way to move through an urban space. Try to be no one important. Try to look like you're busy and you have a definitive destination. 

This is something white women think all the time and don't like to admit. There is constant compartmentalization--am I doing this because I'm white, or because I'm a woman? Is this about race or gender? Often times it's hard to tell the difference in those impromptu moments of gut reactions. Did I just avert my eyes from the person because he's black, or because I'm a female, or both? 

I'm saying this out loud precisely because I'm afraid to say it, and that fear is what's blocking real growth outside of preconceived beliefs. Most women feel that safety must be maintained via one extreme or the other: either we are colorblind and wary of everyone, or we are non-chalant and friendly to everyone. Many times, it's when we try to strike a middle ground that we get tangled up in how our actions will be perceived. This is the silent choice that women--and not necessarily just white women--feel like they are making. Of course, sexism and harassment know no racial boundaries (and as testament to this, I've felt more threatened in my life by white males than non-white males), but these two issues get confused when a bystander may not know whether a woman has acted a certain way because of race or gender. 

The fear of these two things being confused is what feeds my worst imaginings until they grow into truth. It is what led me to boldly walk home with my Korean co-teacher one evening and, literally as he's asking me if Upper Darby is safe, have small rocks thrown at us. We keep walking, pretending nothing is wrong as we try to keep our conversation going. I feel ashamed that I had assured him of his safety and been so wrong.

This same fear led me, on a hot summer day, into an inner turmoil noticeable to those around me. As was typical for me at my first teaching job, students shared books and I had to carry them from one location to the next in my backpack. I had 20+ picture dictionaries in my backpack, and I had decided to walk from my 5th street apartment, thinking that surely 15 blocks wouldn't be so bad.

I was so very wrong. Every block or so, I had to adjust the pack on my shoulders or take it off completely. My only reprieve was hoisting the straps up in my hands to remove the strain on my shoulders. I was in the middle of doing this when I noticed two African American men standing by their door looking at me. I was holding the bag this way to relieve my pain, but I suddenly saw how it must have looked to them--like I was gripping my backpack for dear life.

So I did the only thing I could think of to make the situation better. I started hoisting the bag up my back further, to make it very, very abundantly clear that the bag was heavy.

That is not how my actions were interpreted. As I got closer to the two men, one of them narrowed his eyes at me and said, "What, are you afraid we're gonna steal your bag because we're black?"

I have never felt so much rage, embarrassment, and shame all rolled into one. Maybe that's what racism is at its core. Was I racist in that moment? I hadn't thought so, but in the very act of trying to avoid appearing so, I had been.

I was in shock, and I'm sad to say that I did not react in the best way. I narrowed my eyes back and mumbled in a gravelly tone that my bag was heavy. Silence skipped a few beats, the guy shook his head at me and closed his door, and I kept walking.

I wanted to curl up and cry. I think on the walk home I might have cried at the thought that someone had interpreted my backpack-hoisting as an act of racism. I wanted to make things right, but I couldn't go back in time and explain myself. And even if I had, how could I articulate this fear of what I appeared to be with who I actually was? Was racism simply the way in which my protective mechanisms manifested themselves?

I decided that the only thing I could do was explore why I was feeling this way and how it affected my interactions with people. And the only way I found that I could truly explore these things was to test them out in fictitious worlds. That's how I started pushing myself to make the majority of my characters non-white. In some cases, I challenged myself to remove white characters altogether. I tried to flesh out characters with complex desires and beliefs, not charicatures of sassy black women and steamy Latinas. What about a lesbian Latina, I wondered? How would stereotypes surrounding sexuality play out in that situation? 

I will let my readers be the judge of whether or not my stories ring true of their experiences, or made them stretch beyond their own stereotypes. Many writers are taught to write what they know. What about writing the experiences we don't know, the ones we must depend on people far different from ourselves to help us mold and shape? That's where true growth happens both as a writer and as a human being, by trying to see behind the many unlabeled doors of diversity. We need writers and readers to come together as co-collaborators and help each other paint accurate and thought-provoking characters who push us beyond color-blindness and polite head nods.