Category Archives: Race & Writing

About rage

Let’s be honest – I am angry. In general. My default mood could be defined as an aggressive simmer and all it takes is one comment on Facebook, one well-placed meme to turn up the heat. I can work myself in to heart palpitations lying in my bed in the middle of the night just thinking about some of the things I read.

I’ve worked to keep a wide range of people from all aspects of my life on Facebook, including ones who hold political and social views that are different from mine. I thought it would help me understand them better, provide a point for human connection for us both. But all it has really done is reminded me every day that I share a planet with people who will “Like” the pictures of my children, but wouldn’t stop to help them if they were in a car wreck or give them the benefit of the doubt if they were lying dead and uncovered in the street for four hours. Then, I think of that little brown boy seven hundred miles away who started first grade in his white Polo and navy blue shorts. And it becomes personal. There are people in the world who will wish malice upon him because of his skin as soon as he hits puberty. And I can’t save him.

Neither could I save Joshua.

And, that pisses me off.  They’re not just stealing the life of my grandson. They’re disparaging the life of my dead son. And, I believe that rage is an appropriate response to that. And, that’s something that I’m not sure my friends who aren’t terrified for the lives of their children understand.  I get that I am not processing all that well these days. I’m not being productive. That I’m losing myself. I do. But I’ve got years of righteous anger bottled up – years of being the voice of reason and taking the high road and it it has only brought more and more opportunities to see people I love ground in to the pavement on the city streets of injustice.  And now, I’ve got grief behind it. Maybe I’m not being productive, but maybe I am. Maybe coming to terms with the fact that when my grandmother asked me thirty-odd years ago, “Why would you want to do that to a child?” she might have realized something I didn’t – the world is a despicable place to raise children of color.

And, I can’t save them.

~ D

America’s Perfect Storm

One day, I ran into a woman I knew in Target. I wouldn’t call her a friend – more of a friend of a friend. We’d been in the same social situations many times and were cordial, but neither of us ever went beyond that in developing a relationship. Still, I figured I knew her well enough that I should say “hi” when I saw her in the shoe section.

In typical polite Southern style, I said, “Your hair looks great! When did you get it cut?”

“Nigger day,” she answered.

“Huh?” Or maybe I said “What?” or “Excuse me?”

“Martin Luther King day. I was off work anyway so I treated myself to a hair cut and a pedicure.”

Did this woman know my children were people of color? Yes, I’m sure she did. She’d been in the same room with them.  So, did it still not occur to her that what she said might be offensive? Or did she not care?  I tucked it away – I had all the information about this woman I needed.

Fast forward several years and her child has returned from Afghanistan and is looking for a job. They apply to the local Police Department and I’m asked to be a reference. I’d seen this person really struggle since returning from deployment. Explosive anger. Excessive drinking.  When the PD called for a reference check, I told them there was no way I would put a gun in this person’s hand*.

I’ve been thinking about what I would have done if the person had not exhibited symptoms of PTSD – would I have given a glowing recommendation? This person had always been respectful and kind to me. Would knowing that they came from a family that referred to Martin Luther King Day as “Nigger Day” have sent off similar red flags for me?

As I watch the number of police shootings of unarmed black people scroll before me on social media, I wonder what the difference is between those officers who proudly and ethically serve their communities for 20-30-40 years without shooting an unarmed person and those that don’t.  Since research has shown that white people are more likely to perceive a black person as dangerous than another white person, that may be part of the puzzle.  (You can take a version of that study here.) When you add on a family history where racism is not only the norm but proudly flaunted and military training to dehumanize people seen as the enemy, does that create perfect storm for shooting first and asking questions later?

Add this story to the storm: In Baltimore, where Lt. Brian Rice has been charged with manslaughter, second-degree assault and misconduct in office due to the death of Freddie Gray, allegations have been made that Psychology Consultants Associates (PCA), the firm that is the sole provider of pre-employment psychological screenings and “fitness for duty” evaluations for officers seeking to return to active duty after an incident, may not have been doing the job they were contracted to do.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been accused of being anti-police. Someone said that people who encourage hatred of police by posting the shootings of unarmed people were responsible for the death of a Memphis Police Officer (Sean Bolton). I believe that in America, there is a perfect storm brewing and we are all contributing to it. White people who can’t even consider that they may harbor implicit bias that makes them more likely to perceive a threat from a black person, much less take any action to fix it. The “unfinished business of slavery” that looms over us and limits the rights of people of color by gerrymandering voting districts and passing voting laws that – intentionally or not – keep poor people and people of color from exercising their voting rights. Unethical organizations (like PCA mentioned above) after the dolla-dolla-bill instead of performing the work they were hired to do. Officers who see other officers exhibiting behaviors that are questionable without reporting them (and worse, corroborating false stories after a tragedy happens).  Draining money out of inner cities so that children grow less and less educated and more and more poor (and thus, more likely to commit crime).

Let me be clear that if I’m angry at police, I’m equally angry at myself. I’m angry at my fellow white American who isn’t outraged that my grandson could be sitting in a playground with a pellet gun, be perceived as a threat and shot to death.  I’m angry at politicians who worry more about two women marrying than about the safety and liberty of our citizenry.

I’m angry.

And I’m tired.

~D

*I’m happy to say that the person is doing much better now – at least from where I stand in their life.

On betrayal, identity and deserving more

There’s  a film on Netflix called Little White Lie about a woman who grew up believing she was white when in fact, her father was black. Her white mother, unbeknownst to anyone, had an affair with a black man and got pregnant. As a child,  Lacey Schwartz, spent her life looking and feeling different from everyone around her – a fact that was brushed off by her mother and father.  As an adult, she bravely made a documentary about finding herself and her identity. She now identifies as a black woman.

Near the end of the film, Lacey’s father refers to his wife having  a child that wasn’t his as ‘the ultimate betrayal’ and I said out loud, “No. Betrayal of your child is the ultimate betrayal.”  I know. I betrayed my daughter in much the same way. The story isn’t one I’m proud of.

Please note: This is the truth as I experienced it.  Others may remember it differently.  Be kind to my memories, please.

Kingsbury Elementary, Jr. High and High School plus a small Baptist private school were on the same campus.  To boot, kids from other high schools were bussed in to go to the Kingsbury Vo-Tech Training Center.  If there’s a way for a child predator to get closer to his prey than living a half-mile away from that campus, I don’t know what it is.  Eddie was his name – his real name.  I’m not changing it to protect him because he doesn’t deserve protection.  If there’s a person in this world living or dead that I can say I hate it would be him, may he burn in hell.

We all called him Queer Eddie, which in retrospect isn’t a fair shake.  It should have been Molester Eddie. Pedophile Eddie.  Worthless-piece-of-shit-waste-of-oxygen Eddie.  But it was the 80’s and we were teenagers, so the most we had the maturity to process was that he was male and he had sex with males, so that made him queer.  Never mind that the males he had sex with were ten, twelve, fourteen years old.

Eddie owned a plumbing company – or at least he owned a van with the name of a plumbing company painted on the side.  He trolled our blue-collar neighborhood in it, looking for young men who were willing to be “plumber’s helpers” for a few bucks or a nickel bag of weed.  On Friday nights, they’d go in groups to the Mid-South Coliseum to watch the wrestling matches.  For the boys who stuck around, the rewards got larger.  Bicycles. Concert tickets. One boy’s first car – a Cutlass Supreme – was a gift for his 16th birthday.  Everyone knew who worked with Queer Eddie, and I guess we all knew about the sex part.  The destructiveness of it all was lost on us, though. Even the ones who were involved.  Even after Eddie was arrested and charged with Child Endangerment and four of the boys were called to the police station for questioning about their relationship, nothing much changed.

I met Jeffrey at a gang bang when I was 15.  For real.  I was all fucked up about sex from the years when I was traded to the dope man for a Dilaudid.  Jeffrey was all fucked up about sex from working with Eddie since he was 12.  My mother was a junkie and his father was an alcoholic.  My mother’s abuse manifested as her complete denial that I was a human being rather than a game piece that she could use to get her own needs met.  His father’s abuse came by way of violent outbursts at the dinner table about Jeffrey “spreading his ass cheeks for some faggot to fuck him in the ass.”  We each thought the other had it worse.

So, Jeffrey and I ended up stoned and naked in the same place and it was the beginning of my first love affair.   We understood each other, didn’t judge one another.  We both had sex with other people because we had to…every fiber of our being pushed us to.  David worked with Eddie every couple of weeks.  We were perfect for each other in our brokenness.

Almost two years later, I got pregnant.  Jeffrey asked if it was his and I said, “I don’t know.”  By now, I was 16 and he was 18 and we pushed forward.  He was by my side when my daughter was born.  I don’t think either one of us cared whether the biological process that created the baby included his DNA or not. We needed each other too much to consider any alternatives other than staying together.  But his family cared and society cared and time spent together became harder and harder.  He moved in with Queer Eddie. I moved on to another broken relationship.

By a year old, it was obvious that my daughter was black. My white family, like Lacey’s family, found it easier to overlook the fact but there was no denying it. Soon thereafter, a man came to me and asked if she was his. The father I was hoping for had moved on. This man was black and we had sex. I told him yes without thinking much about it.

His family loved and accepted our daughter immediately – taking her on vacations, buying her Easter dress and doing her hair when she visited every other weekend (thank the gods). They supported me emotionally as well as I made my way through figuring life out and often took my side over his when things got sideways between us. My daughter even lived with the man she knew as her father when I was struggling emotionally and financially to get myself together.  All during this time, I knew the truth – I was not sure that the people she knew and loved as her family shared blood with her. There were a few other people in my life who knew this, including my mother and my relationship with her was rough. I lived in fear that she would one day reveal my secret and so, when my daughter was sixteen, I took her to lunch and told her the truth. This led to a conversation with her father, which led to a DNA test which led to a 99.8% chance that he was not, in fact, related to my daughter.

The pain that I caused to people I care about is sometimes unbearable. Though they have maintained their relationship, I know my daughter wants to know who she is. And rightfully so. I hurt people – I hurt my own child – when I lied that day about her paternity.  But I’ll tell you a secret – my daughter had a better life than she would have if I had told the truth.  That lie gave her a Daddy. A family. An identity that she would not have otherwise had. Because of that lie, my grandson has a Grandaddy and a role model and another person on his side in the world. When I look back, it’s hard to say that I regret it.

What about Jeffrey, you ask?

Some time during the 90’s – by then I was married and had my son,, Joshua –Jeffrey stopped by my mother’s house to report that he’d had twins of his own.  In my early 30’s,  I heard that Jeffrey was HIV positive. Just a few years ago, I got word that he had overdosed.

I’ve never stop thinking about this man and how much more he deserved than what he got.  How much he had to teach the world about love and forgiveness.  Sure, we were kids but we we both lived in a very grown-up world long before we should have. His willingness to be vulnerable and broken down made me a better person. His wisdom and his heart changed me. And he deserved more than what he got.

So did my daughter.

We all did, I guess.

~D

What’s in a name?

A couple of months ago, I started writing a story with flashbacks to the Jim Crow South. The flashback scenes were of two children of sharecroppers – one white and one black – and a relationship between them that they re-access later in their lives. When it was pointed out that I had oversimplified the relationship between the children, I paused. I’ve been steeped in race as a white woman raising bi-racial children in the South, had I ever really researched it like I would any other subject I wanted to write about? I put the writing on hold and put a call out to my network: What should I read to understand this era?

The first recommendation I got was the Library of Congress American Folklife Center collection of the voices of slavery.  As an admitted information junkie, I spent a couple of days lost in it! Many of the recordings were hard to understand but there were transcripts! It was amazing and informative.

As I ranted about the glory of my newfound archives on Facebook, a friend reached out. “You have to remember that these were white people sitting in black people’s homes asking them questions about slavery. The people answering those questions knew that over-stepping their bounds could cost them their life. There are things unsaid in those interviews.”

History is written by the winner, right?

So back to my network: Who really gets race right in their writing? That’s how I came to have the stack of books beside me right now: Growing Up Jim Crow by Jennifer Ritterhouse; The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson; Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine by Bebe Moore Campbell; Blues Done Signed My Name by Timothy B. Tyson and on and on.

I started with Growing Up Jim Crow since it’s focused on the era and about children during the era. I find myself reading sections, then re-reading them after they’ve had a chance to sink in. Today, I hit on a couple of things that I want to share (with all two of you who read) that connect to real-life for me.

As is my way, I will start with a story: Twice in my professional life, I’ve been involved in interactions between a white woman and a black woman in the workplace that felt icky. I wasn’t able to unpack them at the time, but I felt like there was something racial going on and that we should take the time to understand it as such. The first situation was when a white woman at a high level in the organization repeatedly shortened the name of the black woman who didn’t work under her but was at a lower level in the professional hierarchy. I noticed that the black woman didn’t introduce herself as such and asked whether she preferred the shortened name and she said, “No. That person is the only person who calls me that.” The next time I heard the white woman use it, I said, “You know, she doesn’t refer to herself that way. You should call her by her full name.” And that was the end of it. My intuition told me there was something powerful behind it that I didn’t understand, and I didn’t explore it further but I wish I had.

Fast-forward a couple of years and a black woman in my department (the only person of color in the department at that time) asks to be referred to as, “Ms. Smith” (not her real name). She introduces herself as such, refers to herself as such on her voicemail, etc. The big boss gets wind of it and tells her to stop, stating that the organizational culture is informal and asking to be referred to with a title puts a wedge between her and her customers. This time, I did say to the boss, “You know, there’s a lot of power behind titles and names in the African-American community. There may be more to this than meets the eye.”

Today, I was reading Growing Up Jim Crow and came across this: about post-emancipation:

“In our part of the State…the death of slavery is recognized, and made a basis of action for everybody,” he (South Carolina slave owner) informed northern journalist Whitelaw Reid. “But we don’t believe that because the nigger is free he ought to be saucy.”  (p. 28)

Rittenhouse goes on to say that one of the most contentious changes after emancipation was that freedmen and freedwomen were demanding to be referred to as Mister and Missus. In some cases, to escape the names they were called during slavery, they took on new names altogether. But if they became “saucy” by becoming angry or daring to not answer when called by their slave name, they risked the violent wrath of white people who may have been following the law of the land, but made it clear that their former slaves were inferior and not worthy of respect.

“It is hard to have layed our loved ones in the grave, to have them fall by the thousands on the battle field, to be stripped of everything. But the hardest of all is nigger equality and I won’t submit to it.” – Savannah white woman, 1865 (p. 28)

The first thing that occurred to me is how “ethnic-sounding names” are often publicly ridiculed by white people. How if you have a name that sounds black, your resumé somehow goes to the bottom of the pile.

Isn’t this a modern-day way of keeping black folks from getting saucy?

This is the level at which we white folk need to check ourselves in the continuing fight for civil rights, I think. Things that seem so small, something as insignificant as calling a person by their preferred name is a small step toward returning power to the people we disempower with our jokes, our misunderstanding and our refusal to take the time to understand a reality outside our own.

~ D

 

A Million Tiny Pieces

The world is perfectly organized to get the results we are getting right now.

Fellow white folks, I have something to say to you about Dylann Roof. It may be different from other messages you’ve heard this week. I don’t care to discuss whether his actions were terrorism or a hate crime – though I think it’s a useful conversation to have. Neither am I interested in discussing whether stricter gun control might have stopped these murders. While I think gun control is relevant, it’s too easy to devolve into a discussion that focuses, in my opinion, on a symptom rather than the cause.

What I’d like to talk to you about today, my people, is how we created Dylann Storm Roof.

Roof is not an island. He is held up by millions of inputs over his twenty-one years that led him to execute a plan to murder innocent black people. Inputs that took hold in the South long before he was born that told him black lives are less valuable than his own, then reinforced that notion over and over, every day of his life.

Indoctrination in to Southern racism is as sneaky as Nazi indoctrination was: it grabs our attention by telling us we are special. Chosen. Then it whispers that “they” are trying to take away our power and POOF, we’re prepared to attack this imaginary enemy to defend our position.

I won’t preach – we’ve all heard those stories and then tucked them safely away as “history.”  Let’s talk about today.

Examples of the inputs that support the belief that black people are less than, apart, different from us. It probably started with his parents passing on the belief system that they had. Then, we supported him and sustained him right up until this moment:

1) Referring to Memphis, Tennessee as “Memphrica” – My home town is majority black. I see this reference daily on Facebook and I bet there are other similar references to cities that are majority black that I haven’t seen;

2) Flying the Confederate Flag – I understand that many Southerners have ancestors who fought in the Civil War and that it’s important to honor them. I understand that many continue to support states’ rights and that, at a high level, that’s what the Civil War was about. But many Americans (black and otherwise) have told us that it is offensive and creates a hostile environment for them, and we’ve told them to fuck off .  We can say it’s about history – and maybe it is for some – but isn’t it at least a little about someone else having the power to tell you what you can and can’t do?

3) Way Down in Africa – America’s first black radio station, AM 1070 WDIA in Memphis is referred to in the white community this way. They are separate from us.

4) City Monuments: Until two years ago, there was a monument in Memphis dedicated to Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first Grand Wizard of the KKK. Two more monuments: Confederate Park and  were renamed along with this one when City Council voted on it in 2013. Notable, three white City Council members abstained from the vote.  Again, fuck off black Memphians. NOTE: These types of monuments remain all over the South – Memphis isn’t special.

Then there are the countless racist jokes we laugh at, pictures on Facebook of our president as a monkey that we scroll past and saying out loud, “I wonder what he stole?” when we see a young black man running down the street.  When we talk more than we listen and don’t stop to consider – at least for a moment – that what the African-American community is telling us about their experience could be true.

White Southerners, we created Dylann Storm Roof by supporting a system in which he could exist. Through our actions and our inactions, we have chosen to think of the African-American community as our enemy.

We loaded the gun.

~D

Being a white civil rights activist

Four things happened recently that led to this post:

1) The week after a teenaged girl in McKinney, Texas was verbally and physically assaulted by a police officer, I did something I had watched others do many time: I lost it on Facebook. The fill-line in my brain was exceeding and I went into the red zone. From the outside, I’m sure it looked like I was losing my mind: sharing of every article I could find on the subject; arguing with people I didn’t even know; serial rants that went on and on. People were worried about me. I was worried about me. I could feel my blood pressure and heart rate respond with every post I made;

2) I took a fictional work-in-progress set in the Jim Crow South to my writer’s group and realized that while I am pretty plugged in to current-day racial issues, my only real study of life in that place in that time came from my Tennessee History class in the late 70’s. If I was going to do a fair job of representing race and racial relationships during this time, I had a lot to learn about African-American history. Considering most of the history available was gathered and interpreted by white folks, I was going to have to dig to find the rest of the story;

3) Then came the Rachel Dolezal story;

4) This morning, I woke up to the story about a massacre at a historical AME church in South Carolina. Back when my Facebook rant happened, I made a promise to myself that I would read and ponder, but wait 72 hours after an incident to write about it so that I could a) provide a more thoughtful response; and b) avoid getting into a bad place in my head and heart.

“You’re failing,” you might be thinking. But I’m not going to write about Emanuel AME Church.

I’m going to write about being a white civil rights activist.

Some of the first Tweets I saw this morning were  messages to the African-American community about self-care:

@_Rickeh:  Many of us are at a job right now surrounded by Whiteness and nonchalance. It’s tough. I’m STRUGGLING this morning.

Over the coming days/weeks some White people IRL/at work will demand you engage over this-Ignore/separate as much as possible.
@FeministaJones: Self-care and Self-preservation may look like me not being nice to YOU
Life >>>> Nice

Sometimes, people lose their way in trying to do good -thankfully most not to the extent that Dolezal did. Just like my Facebook rant last week, I have guilt and rage and I need to do something with it.

But maybe, in order to do good, what I need should be subordinate to what the African-American community needs.  Maybe, I need to look to the community I want to serve about what my role should be.

Let’s walk softly today, white civil rights activists.

Let’s listen more than we talk.

~D

On passing – there’s plenty of work for you, Ms. Dolezal

Did you see this story?  Apparently, the president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, Rachel Dolezal, is white. She’s being accused of presenting herself as black for the past ten years or so.

Like the folks at Jezebel, I have questions. Many of them. And I’m going to listen for understanding as this unfolds. But there’s one point that I think is worth reflecting on. It’s clear that her family of origin was diverse and that she was interested in civil rights issues from early in her life. She teaches African-American studies. There’s no doubt she cares about this issue.

But, why did Dolezal think she needed to be black to do this work?

As a white woman who cares about civil rights, I see an immense amount of work to be done. How do we, as white folks, unpack our thinking about race and examine them? How do we identify the beliefs that we have and where they came from? And how do we draw the line between our thoughts and behaviors and systemic racism that plagues our country? This is work, in my opinion, that belongs to white people. And there’s a metric shit-ton of it to do. We could have used Dolezal to help move the needle in ways that stem from her own experiences rather than her pretending to share the African-American experience.

The white voice is critical to social justice. There are still people that hear the voices of people of color as whiney, too sensitive and “playing the race card.” We can be heard by people whose racial issues are so deep, their brains won’t even allow for the possibility that they are wrong. It’s incumbent upon us, white folks, to use our voices in a way that our people will hear. This is not a black issue – this is an American issue and white people have the biggest role in changing the way we function around race. We created it, we have to fix it.

Ms. Dolezal, whether she intentionally misrepresented herself or not, didn’t correct the misconception that she was black. That was the moment she could have empowered people of color and taken up her responsibility as a white woman in American.

It may be too late now.

 

Like this post? Hate it? Pass it on to get a conversation going!

 

Writing matters to race

When I first moved from the south to the midwest, I found activism to be much more prevalent. Most everyone I met had a thing that they were passionate enough about to spend their time, energy and money fighting for.

“I don’t have a “thing,” I remember saying. No bumper stickers, no buttons, no passion.

That was nine years ago – around the same time I started to notice how different racism was in the midwest from the south. Not better, mind you. Just different. And somewhere along the line, race became my thing. Since my children are biracial, I’ve always been cognizant of race and its complexity. But something changed for me when my environment changed and I saw things as an outsider. I became passionate (rabid?) about calling out racism in all its ways of being and holding myself and others accountable for the damage it causes.

And then, I started writing publicly. And I have to admit, I tried to reign it in.  Knowing that I do aspire to make a living by writing, I didn’t want to offend for fear of driving off potential readers. I bit my tongue. And I’m ashamed of that.

So here’s my public declaration: I am passionately anti-racist. And I will write about it. I’ll write about it because writing is both my way of understanding the world and my way of impacting it. I’ll write about it because writing matters and people who fancy themselves writers have to talk about things that matter.  Writing matters to racism. Art matters to racism.

Some people will go away. And that’s okay. To those people, I bid all the best.  To those who stick around, thanks. Let’s learn something from one another.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Speaking of race, I’m working on a story that flashes back to 1940’s south and a farm that is sharecropped by both white and black sharecroppers.  If you – or anyone you know – has experience in that subject matter, I’d love to hear from you. I’m finding research to be particularly difficult because, well….history is written by the winners. In order to do right by the black folks in the story, I need to better understand the time period.

 

~D

A Southern White Woman’s take on Waco v. Baltimore

There has been some activity on social media about the differences in how the shoot-out coverage in Waco, TX has been different from the how the riots in Baltimore were covered earlier this spring. Observations on why in Texas, motorcycle gang members were sitting, un-cuffed on the curb using their smart phones while police in basic uniform casually strolled through the crowd while coverage of the riots in Baltimore showed police in full riot gear, gas masks and rioters sitting shirtless on the curb with their hands zip-tied behind their backs and others using bottled water to clear pepper spray from their eyes.

Others have brought up the fact that protesters in Baltimore were publicly and immediately labeled as thugs* while the people involved in the Waco shooting are being referred to by their proper club name (Banditos & Cossacks) and the super-cute acronym OMG (as in “ohmygawd, Becky, look at her butt”).

To those who have brought up these issues, I say: I see where you’re coming from. And…

I wonder if we’re examining the issue critically enough. A photograph in public media is subjective to what the photographer thought was relevant to that moment. Words like thug can be buzzwords – someone, somewhere used it and suddenly everyone is using the same word to describe the incident. We are, after all, sheep. Some people are just too sensitive.

I’d like to dive a little deeper (buzzword!) and offer the following on why the coverage of the Baltimore Riots is systematically and inherently racist in ways that we (white folk) don’t even realize.

First, I’d like to offer the definition that I use for racism. It’s based on an academic definition used in multicultural counseling. Others will have different definitions and that’s fine.

Here is my working definition of racism:

Racism is an act that disproportionately damages members of an ethnic or racial group whether intentional or unintentional.

Accepting that definition for the purposes of this post, you can see how the pictures of the Baltimore Riots would damage (though unintentionally) black people by perpetuating them as inherently dangerous people impacting job prospects, the likelihood of interaction with police not to mention the physiological impacts of racism on people of color. Just evaluate positive media images of black people in general media coverage and you’ll see that we haven’t come very far since the early twentieth century portrayed black men in film as minstrels, “happy Negros” or murderers of white men and rapists white women.

But let’s dig even deeper.

In response to the Waco shooting, I’ve heard four separate stories (I heard one story twice) about the history of motorcycle gangs in America this week. If I’ve got the facts right, the very first Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs** (OMGs) started when veterans from World War II came home. The stories I’ve heard suggest that PTSD may have played a role, as well as a need to regain the brotherhood that they had in the service.

Wait.

What?

How many stories did we hear giving an eighty-year history explaining the Baltimore Riots?Many consider the Ferguson and Baltimore Riots symptoms of the unfinished business of racism. Put in the larger context of racism in the US, might we have viewed the riots differently?

And did anyone – politician, media outlet, anyone. – work so hard to differentiate between the people who were exercising their rights to peaceably assemble from the people who were looting? Or include the military and mental health histories of anyone running with a television.

I’d like to introduce a term that I did not coin, but wish I had. White ‘splaining.  Isn’t this coverage just a patronizing pat on the hand to the American public on why we shouldn’t worry too much about biker gangs? They are just misunderstood, war-damaged fellas just looking for a place to fit in.

Those thugs in Baltimore, though…

* Some suggest that thug is the new n-word. Next time you hear the word, make a mental note of the race of the subject.

** OMGs are thought to constitute about 1% of people in motorcycle culture. 

Are white writers getting race right in their characters?

Earlier this week, I got involved in a conversation on social media with other fiction writers about race and fictional characters. The conversation was started by a white woman who had written a screen play about an African American Viet Nam vet in the Jim Crow South. Her play was getting great response from black theatre companies, but one comment she had gotten back stuck in her craw: “Nothing about this man sounds black.”  She had posted it to the group of writers to get their take on it.

Many of the reactions from other writers focused on the speech of the man, which I agree is a huge part of a character. Cadence, intonation, vernacular – all critical to developing the voice of your character regardless of their race. But I wondered whether speech was really what the original commenter meant. I though maybe he said “not sounding black” as meaning something deeper about how the person moved through the world.

So, I poked a little. Like I do.

I started a new thread and asked the group how they went about developing characters that were of a different race/ethnicity. At the writing of this post, most of the answers say something about not seeing race (being color blind). I even got a “some of my best friends are black” or two.  And so, I am rebelling. Emphatically. In fact, this post may smack of a rant.

If you are a writer and you try to be color blind to your characters, you are doing them a disservice.

If I were a male writer and I wanted to write a female character and intended to stay blind to the fact that she was a woman, wouldn’t that character lack the depth that comes with the female experience? And doesn’t that experience shape nearly everything about a woman’s life? I know it does mine.

Us white folks, we don’t think about our race often. But People of Color live their race in every business transaction, every job interview, every walk down the street they take. To ignore that and contend you’ve got a well-developed character is laughable. To use the example above, that writer is writing a male character and naming it Sharon. If you’re not intention about including race as part of your character development, you’ve written a white character, given him a name you think sounds black and probably thrown in some Black Urban Vernacular for good (bad?) measure.

We can do better.

As writers, we have an obligation to be part of contemporary social discourse. One of the ways we can contribute to the national conversation on race is to…well…talk about it. Be radical. Be brave. Consider that there are others who have a drastically different experience than we have and we can’t presume to understand it until we admit we don’t.

~D