“Writing Racist Characters,” a critical essay by Sea Stachura (fiction ’19), published by Ploughshares.
Writing Racist Characters
I believe it’s time that white authors, and I include myself among them, tell the stories of our racism. Increasingly, we have written and dialogued about embedded racism and multicultural dynamics in our fiction. We often serve on panels about the tricky nature of writing from perspectives beyond our own, or featuring tips on cultural sensitivity and expansiveness in our storytelling, and while I appreciate what these conversations have brought about, there are uniquely white stories that all of us know intimately, and that we aren’t telling: stories of white people perpetrating racism.
Sociologist Robin DiAngelo writes in White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism that “white people raised in Western society are conditioned into a white supremacist worldview because it is the bedrock of our society and its institutions.” Additionally, she writes, because white people maintain dominance in our society—operating, for example, all major branches of government and major corporations—we are the only ones who can execute our specific breed of racism. Therefore, the stories of people casually and brutally enacting racism are ours to be familiar with.
Our sensitivity to being called racist or associated with racism is likely what chills any storytelling about it. But Toni Morrison long argued for the importance of this sort of storytelling. In her 1992 book, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, she suggests that authors and literary critics consider “the impact of racism on those who perpetuate it.” The narratives of racism’s victims, including slaves, have proved invaluable, “but equally valuable is a serious intellectual effort to see what racial ideology does to the mind, imagination, and behavior of masters.”
Her call is a daring one, even twenty-seven years later, because telling stories in which a protagonist’s racism is the central tension requires, first, that the white author acknowledge and explore their familiarity with racism. The author is responsible for understanding their character’s motivations and worldview, and if the writer can understand this point-of-view, she can’t declare unfamiliarity with it.
A few writers have already begun to tell these stories, not all of them white. “Where Is the Voice Coming from?” by Eudora Welty and “Boys Go to Jupiter” by Danielle Evans are successful in conveying engaging narratives that reveal the protagonist’s racism while neither damning nor apologizing for it. Welty and Evans give the reader fresh eyes with which to see America’s racism and pique an uncomfortable curiosity about its machinations. This speaks to the deeper purpose of literature and to the motivations of these stories: to reflect facets of our world and thus challenge the reader’s assumptions and prejudices. This is work that more of us should be doing.
[… continue reading “Writing Racist Characters” at Ploughshares.]