Last week I wrote a short post with a call to action for everyone to continue talking about race because that’s the only way we’re going to stop feeling weird about talking about race.
The comments floored me. There are only a few, but they totally emphasize the very base of the problem. Our lack of ability to talk about race in any meaningful way.
Let me take you back to the 90s to a 15 year old Sommer. I grew up in what everyone fondly referred to as our “ghetto.” I didn’t really understand that term even though I grew up in the area. I knew most people in my neighborhood were poor, like us. I knew that most of my classmates were not white, but I never actively sat around thinking, “Wow, all of my classmates are black. Isn’t that interesting?” I had black friends, but I had mostly white friends.
So, 15 year old me. I’m sitting at lunch watching a group of black girls at a table near mine. They were very loud and extremely verbose. They seemed thrilled about everything. One of the girls opened her jacket and said, “Check it out! They are finally coming in!” (Hint: She was talking about her boobs.) All her girlfriends applauded and congratulated her.
I, on the other hand, was wearing a sports bra a size too small to make mine disappear. My mom was riding me hard those days that I was getting bigger in that area and that I needed to watch what I was eating and maybe I shouldn’t be in so many sports because it was making me look stocky. I would never have shown off my curvy body to my girlfriends and even if I had, they would have given me looks of sympathy, not high-fives. What I really wanted to do was stop that girl in the hallway and ask her what made it ok for her to have her body but wrong for me to have mine even though they were pretty similar. I had no idea how significant this question actually was, I just knew that I had boobs and was told to get rid of them immediately, and she was made gorgeous by hers.
So why was it so hard for me to talk to this girl? Why couldn’t I sit down and have an honest discussion and learn if there even was a difference with how we were raised that gave this black girl permission to love her boobs, but I was supposed to be ashamed of mine? Did her mom support her? Was it a cultural thing or just two individuals with very different parents? Does it mean something that most of the white models I saw in magazines had the bodies of a 12 year old and the black models looked more like women? Why couldn’t I find the language to have this conversation back then?
And I think that’s the key. We don’t have the language needed to bridge the subject. We’re taught that there’s something negative about drawing attention to the color of a non-white person’s skin like this is something we’re supposed to pretend isn’t real. (Funny enough, we do the same thing to fat girls.) I remember having anxiety over whether I was supposed to refer to someone as “black” or “African American.” If I chose wrong, would that make me racist? Did wondering these things make me racist?!?!?! Would that make me a bad person? Would they hate me and be offended by me?
The color of our skin should not be something we wring our hands over. And yet if we can’t even find the appropriate words to articulate our differences and similarities, how will we ever get down to the task of actually talking about them?
There’s a confusion about being diverse in our novels and a knee jerk reaction to force diversity for the sake of being fair. That’s not what the discussion should be about. Stories have characters and there are no guidelines saying 20% of your characters need to be something other than white. It’s just we need to not revert to our starting position and make a character white just because that’s our baseline. There are lots of different types of people, colors and ethnicities and sexual orientations aside. The world is a diverse place and we do our books a disservice by not exploring these possibilities.
For example, off the top of your head, how many books can you name where the white average (but pretty) main female character of a book dreams of being a writer and frequently has either a Salinger or Austen or Bronte tucked under her arm at some point in the story? Have you ever wondered why there are so many of these female characters flitting about our YA lit? Could it be because this was the teenage life so many authors had? It’s our baseline. We need to challenge ourselves to dream beyond what we already love.
There’s nothing wrong with picking up a book and imagining the main character looks just like us, even if they aren’t. This is not racism, it’s escapism. It doesn’t matter what color hair or eye or skin you pick as the author, the reader generally makes the main character a better version of themselves. I think authors sort of do the same thing. But stopping for a second and exploring the possibilities of a character can offer a complexity to a story you didn’t even know existed. You don’t have to talk race issues in your story just because one of your main characters isn’t white. That’s only their skin color. It’s who they are and what they add to the story that matters. But that’s true no matter what color, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender they happen to be.
- Step away from your baseline, whatever that might be, and open yourself up to all the possibilities that exist in the world.
- It’s ok to ask questions, even if you don’t know what the right language is. Starting the conversation is the most important part.
- If someone asks you a question and they are nervous and don’t have the right language, be patient and talk to them. We’re going to sound stupid and flounder about like social octopuses for a while, but in time we’ll get the hang of it.
- Talk to people on your blog. Ask questions in Twitter. It’s ok to be nervous, we’ve got a lot of years of people telling us not to talk about race to fight through. This is not something that’s going to change overnight, but we have to start somewhere. It’s ok to be a social octopus!!!
- KEEP TALKING. Keep talking. Keep talking. Don’t be afraid. We are all in this together. And also? Have you ever known anyone to ever NOT want to talk about their life and experiences? We’re bloggers. Talking about ourselves is in our blood. I guarantee you ask one question and the first hand accounts of growing up <fill in the blank> will come pouring in.
Do you have any questions you’d like to ask but were afraid to? Be gracious, and ask away. We’ll see what we can do about getting them answered.