Recently, I tried to pick up a book to read by a writer of color. A few pages in, I got sick to my stomach and had to put it down. I found myself being hypercritical, close-minded and angry.
At first, I couldn’t quite figure out why. Then, I realized that as I read this particular piece of work focusing on a particular family of color, I was constantly reminded by a bad experience I had from a person of that community, not too long ago.
Basically, my friend and I were sharing a table with this woman. She had told us that her husband would be back soon. When he appeared, he had a serious problem with me though we didn’t speak a word. (I think he didn’t like my tattoos.) His eyes kept moving all over me as he mumbled in disgust to his wife. Apologetically, she nodded, casting her eyes down, a little embarrassed. None of this was in English, but that’s the charm of POC, right? We have superpowers where we understand body language like no white person can.
What group of people was this? Doesn’t matter. Every person has some experience that was totally unexpected and infuriating in the most surprisingly way.
In the end, I put that book away for months. I couldn’t figure out how to approach it with a fair mind, and, especially, give the author and her work the attention deserved.
Then I thought of all the other writers of colors with their novels and short story collections. I thought about how they have so little support to begin with at all. There are plenty of people who will criticize them for being too white or not white enough; for writing “like an immigrant”; for every reason possible, really, because, no, writers of color and their works cannot always be categorized so neatly as literature has been in the past.
But here’s another idea: with so little support for these writers of color and their works, at the very least, shouldn’t other writers and readers of color be supportive? Shouldn’t we try to be better than the naysayers and the haters? Hell yes.
How do we overcome racist encounters?
Broadcast Interruption: I should preface here and say that my racist encounters are very limited. I hail from a small city of people claiming to be colorblind. Racism here is very subtle and hard to detect (even though it’s there.) Overall, I’ve had a very privileged life. And I know how mild this particular encounter is compared to, let’s say, young African American men living in Oakland.
My point isn’t for pity or calling out anything or anybody. It’s to figure out how to keep these so-called incidents from dissuading us from reading books of color.
So I began to try and map out of my feelings (my favorite thing in the whole world because I am one big bag of emotions.)
Here’s what I found:
- I was angry that this “representative” of another POC group had judged and insulted me.
- The incident affected me more than I thought.
- The incident reshaped my thoughts on that entire POC group.
Not uncommon, right? But what does all that mean? I was being just as close-minded and ignorant as that man who practiced prejudiced against me. Next, I felt hella stupid.
First and most importantly (and obviously), he’s just one person of an entire continent of people. I’m sure there are many people in my race who pissed other people off—that doesn’t mean I’m a bad person.
Second, perhaps he did have a right to be upset with me. Perhaps there was a custom within his culture that I disrespected, and his reaction was rather constrained and mild compared to my infraction.
Third, he didn’t write a book. I’m never going to have to read anything by him ever. The writer of color who wrote the book that I couldn’t read is not the same person. It would be equally unfair of me to treat her as such. In fact, perhaps as a writer, she is working to amend those prejudices against her people. But unless I approach her work with an open-mind and the want to understand, I will never know.
Unless, I decide and choose to learn from her, I will always have a narrow and boxed perception of her entire group of people. And that’s exactly what we wouldn’t want for our own people. So why do it to others?
What is our responsibility as writers of color?
As writers and writers alone, we are charged with the responsibility of writing truth. We hear that all the time from successors. Write what you know, write what resonates, be true. But that becomes all the more complicated when we are writers of color. Suddenly, we also have to be diversity experts, we have to explain ourselves and our culture to people who don’t know, and everything in between.
An essay from Anaphora Literary Arts explores this topic: why do writers of color constantly have to explain diversity? Why can’t they be asked about the craft of writing like anybody else?
The argument here is if a writer of color is constantly asked to explain diversity topics, it discredits his or her mastery of the craft. It shifts the focus to something else.
And yes, this is a very valid point. But perhaps, with where we are right now in the process of POC literature, in the grand scheme of things, diversity does need to be in the forefront and we do have to explain—until it becomes as mainstream as white culture. As a whole, writers of color are relatively new, aren’t we?
In a way, we have to fight for our spot. Write and dispel pride and prejudice that stop people from reading POC.